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.


Henry IV explains the prime minister

  1. “the latest skipping king”


    P. Wells is perhaps even better than J. Ivison at the well-placed barb against…we know who…

    And as he owns, time will tell if the admiration of “the longer I’m prime minister” has been well and duly merited.

  2. “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.”

    Not hard to see who PW is taking shots at here. But really Paul, that’s a stretch and a half too far. The problem is that the so called limited exposure to the public is mostly all bad…a la Coyne. Picking pointlessly out of proportion fights with anyone who cares to mix it up; that’s some winning strategy! Like the proverbial Irish[ part of my heritage by the way] he doesn’t know what he wants, but he’s willing to fight any bugger to get it. Or the proverbial Jew who has a quarrel with god and the rational universe itself. What did AC say: like the car chasing pooch who hasn’t the remotest idea any more why he’s chasing the car…just for the sheer joy of the chase and chaos caused i would guess.

  3. maybe if he can get away with it all now, imagine what he can get away with later. Throw a bit of Rob Ford about (and leave no video evidence).

  4. I came to the conclusion two nights ago that Harper is simply messing with the media. He knows the media needs stories to publish, so he gives them “scandals” that the average family just couldn’t care less about. It keeps the media satisfied by keeping them in a tizzy.

    The reason I came to this conclusion was the plethora of “stories” about Harper’s “attack” on the Chief Justice. I found myself sitting there wondering about who actually cares about that story. I tried to imagine some guy coming home after a hard days work, sitting down for dinner with his family, and getting angry about the PM declining an inappropriate call from the CJ of the SCOC. I just can’t see that happening.

    Same thing with the Wright/Duffy affair. It’s quite scandalous to journalists and politics junkies, no doubt. But those people don’t vote for Harper in the first place, it’s the guy at the dining room table who does. And that guy sees a bunch of Ottawa elites going apocalyptic about a story where the so-called “scandal” is that taxpayers money was repaid!

    Ottawa elites are just completely out of touch with what matters to most Canadians. We hear all these stories about what a mean, petty little man Stephen Harper is. But then you meet him, or see him speak, and he’s a completely rational, normal, down to earth person. We have “scandals” breathlessly reported on for literally a year, and then we find out that there was actually nothing to the allegations all along.

    Families worry about paying their bills, and ensuring the kids have a good future. These non-existent scandals are not going to convince Harper’s voters to abandon him as long as he’s making progress with the economy.

    • It took you something like 250 words to say…He’s my guy, he can do no wrong as long as it doesn’t hurt my pocket book? What would it take to change your mind? Would he have to diss her Maj? You aren’t talking about a democracy, merely some kind of autocratic jobs factory.

      • I like contrasting Michael Harris at Ipolitics and Paul. 180 apart.
        But I wonder if there isn’t concern among the Harper sympathizers and apologists that Simpson and Coyne both seem to be starting to see real danger to our democracy as Harper takes control of so many important levers of power.
        What would a regime look like that was moving toward authoritarian government even while keeping some superficial trappings of democracy?

        • Oh, much like this one.

    • Yeah. Me just guy stuffing food in mouth.
      Move rocks for money to pay cable company.
      Stop making brain hurt.
      Where is pepper?

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