David Langwallner: Bard As I Wanna Be


From top: A masked William Shakespeare; David Langwallner

I am reliably informed that the first person to die following the Covid jab in the UK was one William Shakespeare of an unrelated illness. Sympathies to his family, but conscious of his lineage and pedigree, I am fond of quoting Shakespeare in my closing speeches. He says a lot about the human condition that appeals to juries or sometimes judges.

Though the Bard of Avon has never gone out of fashion and expresses the eternal philosophical and ethical quandaries in brief form of the human condition, the question is, as always, that of selecting the content most relevant for our age.

Quotation 1

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
Polonius. Hamlet.

In a world of unaffordable rents and mortgages, who would want to be a borrower in the market of easy exploitation? Which leads to, of course, a consideration of The Merchant of Venice.

Now racism aside. Portia (Bassano’s betrothed) presents herself disguised as a young lawyer and pleads with Shylock to demonstrate some mercy for the enforcement of his bond among those whose affairs have been frothy and, in a famous passage, she argues:

‘The quality of mercy is not strained, it dropped as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed, it blessed him that gives, and him that takes, tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown, His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty, wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings: But mercy is above this sceptred sway, it is enthroned in the heart of kings, it is an attribute to God himself; and earthly power doth then show likes god’s, when mercy seasons justice.’

Though Shylock responds by saying:

‘I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond.’

Portia then shifts ground and argues in a literalist way that Shylock’s bond be enforced, but…

‘…the bond gives thee there no jot of blood – The words expressly are a pound of flesh”: Then take they bond, take thou thy pound of flesh, but in the cutting it, if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are by the laws of Venice confiscate.” … For as thou urge justice, be assured, thou shalt have justice more than thou deserts.’

So, Shylock, unlike our bankers, is punished but even if not is himself morally damaged by the act of lending. The question is posed, who the underserving and criminals are? Well Shakespeare answered through the fool in Kind Lear…

Quotation 2

‘What art mad. A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears see how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear, change places, and handy dandy, what is the justice which is the thief.’

Steal the world and bailout Goldman Sachs and the banks and there are no repercussions. Steal information or whistle-blow and be like Mr Assange, a broken human being, a criminal so deemed by corporate criminals festooned with accolades and speaking engagements

Quotation 3

‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks‘

(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2)

In Stacey Schiff’s book about The Salem Witch Hunt (2015) it is noticeable how a transformation or a sublimation causes the hysteria of persecution and prosecution and, as the book makes clear, this hysteria is easily accomplished by social workers or police officers. We are living in an extreme age of demonisation. An age of witches and witch hunts.

Schiff’s book demonstrates how a conventional puritanical or fundamentalist or orthodox thought leads to a hatred of difference and sorcery. The hatred of difference and exceptionalism. And often the targeting of minorities and the poor and excluded.

Categorisation of someone as a witch or a warlock is also a form of jealousy when they have a gift you do not. Thus, it is often again in Freudian terms, a form of transference for your own perceived inadequacies. It is an age of extremism and the absence of moderation that leads to witch hunts and terror. Persecuting anyone you disagree with and the abandonment of rational debate

Of course, Macbeth is steeped in King James’ preoccupations with witchcraft or demonology and treason or subversion portrayed in the play as a form of witchcraft or demonology.

Thus…Quotation 4

All that glisters is not gold.‘
(The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 7)

The zeitgeist is consumed with the notion of a post-truth universe. Post-truth or truth decay has been coming for a while and its origins need to be traced to Shakespeare.

It is not the only thing he had to say on post-truth

“a scurvy politician seems to see the thing thou does not.’

‘Stuffing the ears of men with false report’

Take those purveyors of nonsense and incomprehensible prose – the structuralists and post modernists – who are united in their rejection of universal values. Thus, they espouse relativism and ditch the enlightenment as an irrelevance.

This leads to the dismissal of evidence, rationality, science, rigour, precision and all the integrative forces that tie society together. Noam Chomsky in this context famously said of them:

‘It is entirely possible that I am simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I am perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made — but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I am missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it’s all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I’m just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I’m perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).

‘Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I am missing, we are left with the second option: I am just incapable of understanding. I am certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I am afraid I will have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I do not understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without difficulty; (2) if I am interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also do not understand, but (1) and (2) do not hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I have not a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I will not spell it out.’

In other words, it is nonsense, but nonsense that has had a degrading effect on our culture. Nonsense with influence and power which should not be underestimated.

Relativistic arguments should have been confined to the left bank of Paris but have been hijacked by extreme populists. including outright climate change deniers, creationists, global neo-liberals or neo-conservatism, who insist on the balanced coverage of their often-ludicrous views.

Relativism leads to a contempt for the truth, for reason and evidence and thus a rejection of scientific values and thus a rejection of order and the rule of law. The appeal of post modernism and structuralism is also an appeal to the half-educated or worse still those who desire to say fashionable things at dinner parties in Hampstead.

The first point to note about the post-modernists nonsense is that it has encouraged a distrust of the truth and an atmosphere of looseness and imprecision where arguments are accorded  and given equal weight even if there has been nothing of substance to say. Since all views are equally valid all views should be aired and taken equally seriously.

Relativistic and structuralist ideas such as the indeterminacy of texts, alternative ways of knowing and the instability of language feed into politicians of all shades and hues now arguing that every word he/she utters should not be taken literally and that just as a text by Derrida contradicts itself so they can say inconsistent things from one moment to the next.

According to Evan Davies in his recent book Post Truth, one aspect of bullshit is the desire to believe something unreasonable to be true. Thus, confirmation bias kicks in with the thought process:

‘Because I want to believe x I have come to persuade myself x is true.’

Pope Francis sagely remarked that there is no such thing as harmless disinformation: trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. So, in a sane rational universe that is how everything should and ought to be decided. Except that is not what confronts us today. We are all as many have suggested creatures. of bounded rationality we can only absorb so much. We must filter.

Quotation 5

To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.’
(Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3)

Speak what we feel not what we ought to say

Quotation 6

‘Indeed, it is as strange, disposed time but men may construe things after their fashion clean from the purpose of things themselves.’

Lies have become intrinsic to commercial and business interaction. Increasingly more and more we have The People Of The Lie, as in the seminal book by Scott Peck, who contends that evil is untruth and that which, he contends, undermines life and liveliness and transforms people into automatons.

Quotation 7

‘Cry “havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war‘

In The film Wag the Dog (1997) a fake war is created. Well, that was Afghanistan and certainly Iraq. But there are other types of fake wars. The War on Drugs, a smokescreen not to deal with the root causes: poverty, housing, environment, and austerity. Or now the war on the virus and an over-inflated and disproportionate reaction to a significant but not overwhelming public health crisis. So, create a panic. Cry fire in the theatre. Get people to panic and thus comply.

Quotation 8

‘Nothing will come of nothing.’

‘I am better than thou art now I am nothing.’

On the great humanist director Ozu‘s grave is simply the Japanese insignia for nothingness. In fact, it is what people would do better to recognise what we do when we are living that defines us. His films focus on people, love, friendship, tolerance, family and community.

Japan, like Germany, created an economic miracle out of the disaster of the second world war. But the long terms effects of Japanese corporatism have been a disaster. Death by overwork has become endemic in Japanese corporate culture. Growth has not been counterbalanced by sustainability or environmental protection and nuclear power nearly led to nuclear meltdown.

The neo-liberal Japanese model is also mirrored in Ireland and perhaps Mr. Varadkar should know that getting up early in the morning is not in itself laudable. Only fools and horse’s work. Moreover, what are you working at and for?

If your work is debt collecting or serving a vulture fund or providing tax relief for a multinational, then that is not productive work or proper work. You are wasting your time and life and doing nothing of value. Doing nothing to reduce people to nothing.

Quotation 9

‘The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.’
(Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)

The problem of evil in our times and let us clarify what it is: extremism, fundamentalism, draconian laws, the destruction of moderation and freedom a culture of greed and the subversion and negation of the rule of law.

Doing good even for charity is often a recipe for disaster and casually forgotten. Satan has won in a secular sense. True innocence and unselfish communal behaviour are not rewarded in the market. Take Coriolanus on the social safety net

‘Cleanse the foul body of the infected world. If they will receive my medicine.’

And what is left? Well, compassion, sincerity, truth, community, and optimism. The only vistas forward. So, the greatest poem in the language, worth quoting in full.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed.
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owls.
Nor shall death brag thou wander in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’s:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Or more simply: Love conquers everything. Or should.

David Langwallner is a barrister specialising in public law, immigration, housing and criminal defence including miscarriages of justice. He is emeritus director of the Irish Innocence Project and was Irish Lawyer of the Year at the 2015 Irish Law Awards. Follow David on Twitter @DLangwallner

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13 thoughts on “David Langwallner: Bard As I Wanna Be

  1. Gabby

    A thoughtful Shakespearean discourse. He had a measured attitude to life. He assumed that monarchs would rule, in his time, but cautioned them to rule with wisdom, pragmatism and justice. Justice was to be a tension between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. What Shakespeare would have thought about 20th century liberal democracy is something we could endlessly speculate about, but get diverted into bewildering rabbit holes.

  2. Darren

    The reference made to witches and so on might be as easily placed in our world as how the term communist is viewed and used.

    …chomsky questioning in semi virtuous manner of the propositional sense of nonsense and the author here laying that up as the back shot which apparently attempts to foretell the ways and means of a political cohort of our times pushes away from the basic truth and verges into an altogether more prescriptive view where sense is defined as a ray of sun shine…splendid in its clarity. Were that true then there would be little room for love in our world and far less sonnets from which to choose. The fact that chomsky could only feign interest in that which he could not intellectually understand and would prefer to efface himself as a luddite than accept that his understanding of any matter was only ever and merely just an expression of him, and not as his pretence sought to veil, a definition of his value as a human being within a capitalist work culture of either contributory acclaim or vallour withdrawn as were it a sword from a writhing corpse.

    Similarly, there is a thread noticable throughout of the content that is determined as that being of value to be known and understood and as such properly applied. What stands out in this is the development over a relatively short space of time of an ever widening resource from which that same sword, or perhaps simply one just like it, is dipped and where so chosen thrust towards certitude not in the belief that it is true but that it can become true by force. The most effective force upon such a body is capital and the condemning notion of truth for it is this dual attack which marks religion as not mythology and capitalism, or the capitalist industrialist for profit nexus of militarism and technology as not only not surreal but in fact all we can confirm is real and as such reality extant. When both are as far as any loving human would wish to go from the basis of their truth it makes sense to me that the author would present their arguement with the reference to Shakespeare’s apparently held belief that he accepted the role of feudalism or kingship or Lords or such hierarchies as those conditions demand. What about love? Do we love those figures or even those titles and social structures or simply indulge the fictions which confer such and such authority?

    The witches want to know what really boils man’s bones.

    1. David Langwallner

      Well love is voluntary and conquers everything and in fairness over rational Chomsky does not deal with emotion and his failure to understand Foucault reflects more on him

      1. Darren

        This is why it was a bridge too far to see the current challenges of media representation and political spin as being founded in the writings of structuraliists etc.. the quote provided of chomsky is extensive enough to read it that you find accuracy in its address of those voices who aimed to convey the dire and sickly condition of a society willing to flatten itself as a means of escaping little more than the certitude of all being as it should be, indeed how it is. The prop which it serves here to underline what is the current state of political discourse and public trust is onerous if it is to be read as such. I would happily ask you to clarify this connection in respect to the contribution of love to a capitalist paradigm. But its a Friday night so no bother if you prefer not to.

      2. Chris

        It’s easier to understand Foucault when he’s judged by his fruit not his words. His trips to Algeria to rape young boys will give you a clue. Sometimes the call for ‘Rights’ is merely a cover for removing repercussions.

  3. Darren

    Let’s just say between us that love conquers all except where it is channeled to sustain a system which cares nothing for such simple and human things.

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