Henry IV explains the prime minister

Paul Wells on the virtues of being 'seldom seen'

As often happens, Michael Den Tandt has one of the day’s most interesting political columns. Michael is more or less constantly preoccupied these days with the thought that Stephen Harper’s worst instincts are destroying his chances of re-election. It’s been a running theme at least since the Nigel Wright/Mike Duffy cheque brouhaha erupted a year ago.

But Den Tandt also notices the PM’s best work, and wonders why we get to see so little of it. His case in point is a speech the PM gave to a partisan crowd recently in London, Ontario. Video of the speech was recorded, and you know, it’s a pretty good speech.

In the speech, the PM outlined no fewer than 10 policy areas, each a potential vote-winner for the Conservatives, that he’ll likely take with him into the 2015 campaign. These include an economy and debt-to-GDP ratio that are the envy of the G7; taxes lowered and about to drop further; a bustling trade agenda…

So, the question for the apparently overwrought, overworked tacticians in the PMO, and Harper himself: Why… make your pitch to Ontario with such little fanfare, while at the same time bellowing your annoyance with the Supreme Court to the rooftops?… It is irrational and self-defeating, almost beyond belief.

To which the best answer I can offer is: Yes, indeed it might be. I mean, one day Harper will lose an election, or knowing defeat awaits, quit to avoid it. But if he has a purpose here — showing his best side only in quiet gatherings of partisans where no video camera was expected — the explanation, of course, comes from Henry IV.

I refer to Shakespeare’s usurping monarch, who takes the crown Richard II has frittered away and spends the next two plays racked with guilt and uncertainty about whether he deserves to be king. His other big problem is his son Prince Henry, known as Hal, who spends most of his time at a tavern with a fat lout named Falstaff.

In Act III, Scene 1 — the crisis moment of the play, one of the most extraordinary scenes in literature — Henry summons Hal to the castle to tell him to smarten up. As part of his general tearing-off-of-a-strip, the older man reminds the younger of the political virtue of limited exposure. It was, indeed, the very key to his own rise, King Henry says.

“By being seldom seen, I could not stir/ But like a comet I was wonder’d at,” he says. Men used to point him out to their children. He “dress’d myself in such humility/ That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts.”  

Thus did I keep my person fresh and new;

My presence, like a robe pontifical,

Ne’er seen but wonder’d at: and so my state,

Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast

And won by rareness such solemnity.

Henry contrasts his own behaviour to that of Richard, a notorious peach-faced sweet talker who grew addicted to his own popularity. He begins with a delicious put-down of Richard’s style:

The skipping king, he ambled up and down

With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,

Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,

Mingled his royalty with capering fools…

Enfeoff’d [that is, enslaved – pw] himself to popularity;

That, being daily swallow’d by men’s eyes,

They surfeited with honey and began

To loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little

More than a little is by much too much.

So when he had occasion to be seen,

He was but as the cuckoo is in June,

Heard, not regarded…

(You can, incidentally, watch this scene here, excerpted from the BBC’s astonishing Hollow Crown series of TV-movie adaptations of four Shakespeare history plays. Jeremy Irons plays Henry, with Tom Hiddleston as Hal. I simply cannot recommend this series highly enough.)

Stephen Harper has had a pretty good track record, over the years, against others who were enfeoff’d to popularity. I offer no prediction how he’ll do against the latest skipping king. Henry’s luck ran out too. Eventually.

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