Papandreou is going to do a Hamlet

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 7 November 2011 in News
The Greek prime minister's political obituaries have already been written, says Sadie Smith

On Thursday, the Boss strolled into the office and enquired what was the latest with the Greek crisis. Although we had the news switched on, and had been keeping our collective eye on it all day, we had to confess that we had no idea. The referendum on the economic package was definitely off. We thought. The prime minister, George Papandreou, was beginning to be described as “beleaguered” – the media code for the fact that the vultures are beginning to circle on what remains of his political legacy, and the precursor for rocking out the adjectives “disgraced former” before his title, a sure sign that all is lost. Some were reporting that he had stood down, but he was refusing to confirm either way.

A few days later, and nothing is much clearer. Papandreou is still in place, although he’s promising to resign which, as far as I can see, is pretty much like announcing you’re about to get engaged: a pointless statement. You’re either engaged or you aren’t. The opposition is calling for snap elections, and pundits are beginning to eye Italy’s situation with a good deal of trepidation. It’s chaos out there, people. Chaos.

I’m no economist, although from what I can see with respect to this situation, economic prediction is about as useful as being able to read the tealeaves. However, ironically the ancient Greeks and Romans, and latterly the Elizabethan playwrights have a precedent for this sort of political drama: tragedy.

The Greek theory of tragedy operates on what the Elizabethans later would refer to as something going awry in “The Great Chain of Being” and what we understand, thanks to George Lucas, as “a tremor in the Force.” The Great Chain of Being was their hierarchical view of society, with the divinely chosen king at the top, through the Bishops and church men, right down to the proletariat at the bottom. When somebody or something disturbed this pyramid, it wasn’t just the play’s immediate participants that were threatened, it would have a knock-on effect to the structure of society itself.

Back in ancient Greece, Jocasta ignored the oracle’s warning that she would marry her son after he had murdered her husband, and all of Thebes suffered from a plague as a form of divine punishment in Sophocles “Oedipus the King”. In “Romeo and Juliet”, the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets brought all Verona into civil war. In both cases, the natural order was re-established by a blood sacrifice: Jocasta hanged herself when she realised the truth, and Oedipus removed his eyes from their sockets. With the suicide of the “star cross’d lovers”, Montague and Capulet were united in grief, and peace returned once again to Verona.

This is what the ancient Greeks called “catharsis”, where sacrifice and death turns chaos into order. Greek tragedy was important to the ancients’ understanding of their place in the political chain of being, as it both established the dangers of trying to fight against the rules of divinely-imposed structure – such action would bring about chaos and death - and the inevitability that the structure would ultimately triumph.

Personally, I’m of the view that Papandreou is going to do a Hamlet. Papandreou’s mixed messaging, bright ideas with respect to holding referendums, attempts to hold on to his position is somewhat reminiscent of Hamlet pinging all over the Danish court, whingeing about how unfair life is, driving his missus beyond the point of insanity, and basically finding any reason to delay the inevitable.

Hamlet’s final scene, as with all tragedies, had a grim sense of inevitability about it, as well as being a blood-bath of astonishing proportions, even by Shakespeare’s standards. Although established thousands of years ago, the narrative structure of tragedy in politics still runs through our understanding of it: the deaths of Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, and bin Laden tend to raise a collective sigh of relief that things can now go back to “how they should be”, even if this doesn’t immediately – or ever – manifest itself.

Papandreou will not, of course, fall on his sword in the literal sense but like Hamlet, and in the words of Oscar Wilde, he is a man whose tragedy is “to hold a burden he could neither bear nor discharge,” and for whom the end and the political obituaries have already been written.

Tags: Eurozone, George Papandreou, Greek crisis

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