If one word of public discourse curdles in the ear it is ‘lie’. It is a lazy word and ironically a dishonest one. It is a word issued out of hatred and without thought. To us ordinary, common folk we know what it means, but in political discourse it has come to mean “an argument which we do not want to be said” or “anything said by someone we do not like”.
There should be a subtlety to disagreement. Shakespeare explained it in As You Like It, in which Touchstone enumerates the ‘degrees of the lie’. In this context ‘lie’ is another meaning of the word: ‘to give the lie to’ something is to contradict it, but contradicting a man plainly is fighting talk. Therefore there are degrees of the lie, for which Touchstone’s example began:
‘I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier’s beard: he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well’:
1. The Retort Courteous. he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was.
2.. The Quip Modest: he would send me word, he cut it to please himself;
3. The Reply Churlish: he disabled my judgment;
4. The Reproof Valiant: he would answer, I spake not true;
5. The Counter-cheque Quarrelsome: he would say I lied;
6. The Lie Circumstantial (also ‘the Lie with Circumstance’);
7. The Lie Direct.
I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial, nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct; and so we measured swords and parted.
All these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too, with an If. I knew when seven justices could not take up a quarrel, but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an If, as, “If you said so, then I said so;” and they shook hands and swore brothers. Your If is the only peacemaker; much virtue in If.
This is wit and with is wisdom from over three hundred years ago. Cannot our political commentators learn from it and temper their anger with art?
- As You Like it
- William Shakespeare: The Complete Works
- Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius by Boris Johnson
- Preface to Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson
- Works Politickal, perchance:
- Shakespeare between Machiavelli and Hobbes by Andrew Moore
- Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics (Andrew Hadfield ed.: Arden Critical Companions)
- Shakespeare’s Politics: A Contextual Introduction by Robin Headlam Wells
- Shakespeare’s Anti-Politics: Sovereign Power and the Life of the Flesh by D Gill
- Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt