Exposed to a lot of politics on both sides of the channel these days, I have noted a distinct drop in quality when it comes delivering a public speech. A year after The King’s Speech won all the film awards it seems that our elected and seeking-to-be-elected leaders are incapable of stirring the public consciousness or appealing to the common imagination through vocable enunciation. Their tepid speeches cause one to pine with a deep sense of nostalgia for the war-time speeches of their equivalents in the 40s, or seek other sources for an example of the power of a great speech. One such example is the great ‘degree’ speech of Shakespeare’s Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida:
And, look, how many Grecian tents do stand
Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions.
When that the general is not like the hive
To whom the foragers shall all repair,
What honey is expected? Degree being vizarded,
The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking.
And this neglection of degree it is
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose
It hath to climb. The general’s disdain’d
By him one step below, he by the next,
That next by him beneath; so every step,
Exampled by the first pace that is sick
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
Of pale and bloodless emulation:
And ’tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot,
Not her own sinews. To end a tale of length,
Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.
At first reading, Ulysses’ “degree” speech is the elevated projection of a noble hero, decrying the breakdown of the “hive” and the bickering of the fractious parties. He portrays the Greeks as “lacking,” neglected, “hollow” – and in need of repair by restoration to the divine order of things. Ulysses presents his notion of degree as a call for uniformity, order, and hierarchy. His argument is a metaphysical one as he abruptly moves from the “hollow factions” to the divine order of the spheres, a state of proportion and regularity that is missing in the wayward Greek camp. Indeed, his “high design” resembles the military rank and file, where each in step must show fealty to his superior and all in turn to the consummate head, in this case – the king. For Elizabethan England, Planet Sol with “noble eminence enthroned and sphered” would represent an uncontestable monarch ruling through divine providence and would also depict with equal force the ultimate ruler as God, arrayed in majesty and heavenly light.
The idea that community must be ruled by design is enforced by Ulysses’ graphic account of what follows when such natural order is subverted; that of devastation and horror. He implies that such order must be grafted and achieved by man, who is capable of “untuning” the string that distorts universal harmony into becoming universal discord. Such harmony for man is not a simple act of supplication to a kingly orbit but rather a precocious balance that must be attained through work. Without degree, the world becomes a topsy-turvy place. Without balance, polar opposites become merged, scientific laws are unhinged, and diffusion sets in. As can be seen with the Greeks, elements of power cannibalize themselves because the balance of power has become subverted. Ulysses uses the powerful image of the all-consuming, rabid wolf turning its lust upon itself. Such is man in a world of chaos, a dumb animal whose territorial instincts and lust for supremacy lead to a pathetic self-destruction.
The notion of “degree” is also posited with its more current meaning as relates to geometric angle. The loss of degree represents a falling motion, which sets off a domino effect. Ulysses argues that such a compounded fall is in motion within the Greek army, set off by its weak king and bickering generals. The dog-eat-dog motif works towards the final destruction of the military beast as it turns its teeth inward upon itself. This subversion of natural hierarchy and discipline constitutes a self-induced sickness, where a small fever spreading infection by degree is now a raging epidemic. Such an implosion “keeps Troy on foot” and indeed Troy stands as a painful monument to Greek weakness and internal disorder.
Although this speech can stand as a microcosm unto itself, knowledge of the unfolding drama lends an alternate voice to Ulysses who, apart from this council, speaks much less rhetorically throughout the rest of the play. In this scene Ulysses imparts his old-world wisdom with clever diplomatic lines and urges unity for the sake of military conquest. He is less concerned with the squabbles over sexual infidelity and rails only against the military insurrection that is the result of it. This speech is the slick-tongued delivery of a sage, attempting to advise the king in unifying his warring factions. In this, Ulysses trespasses upon his own hierarchical rule by breaking rank and subverting order, admonishing the king and advising him of a need for correction. He uses nationalistic fervour and divine order to frame his intent, that of urging the sulking Achilles to lead the fight. Thus, there can be seen a very subtle application of the Machiavellian principle, a passionate sermonizing on sublime order and obedience to authority but deftly pivoted upon personal intent. Though his actions appear to be noble and for the good of Greece, there is something of the cunning statesman embedded in this speech, someone that knows how to shape opinion by degree.
Would that our current leaders could muster but a fraction of this oratory power.