According to Sidney, one of the main justifications of fiction is that it can offer clearer examples of morality than history. Consider this proposition in the light of a text that uses history.
Sidney’s preoccupation with the need to ‘correct’ history with morality has been echoed throughout the ages through various methods, however I would like to consider his reasoning by seeing if it applies to our modern world. David Hare’s Stuff Happens (2004) is a play that deals with the Bush Administration and its role in the Iraq War. It juxtaposes verbatim speeches from the real, involved politicians with imagined discussions and action that features behind closed doors. This dialogue between what is real and what is imagined, which doesn’t write morality into the mix but invites judgement, in my opinion makes this a suitable modern text to evaluate Sidney’s proposition.
Sidney asserted that ‘history’ is ‘captive to the truth of a foolish world’. By ‘truth’ I take him to mean ‘reality’, and its belonging to a ‘foolish world’ suggests that reality is morally circumspect, so history is contaminated by its role in what is morally wrong or questionable. But history is already subject to the narrative of time and society’s values which are in a state of constant change, therefore history, as well as fiction, is that much maligned ‘lie’ that Sidney’s contemporaries were so wary of. A history play that doesn’t assert its own moral values is surely more ethical, because it allows for audiences at various points in time to judge the situation against their current beliefs. Sidney’s desire for prescribed morality hardly fits into the political decisions of the real world that fiction relates to. In Hare’s play as it is clear that at no point is Hare asserting his own values into the piece; he has no personal mouthpiece with which to talk and there is no narrator to the piece – the characters on stage fill that gap, but it is by no means morally deficient. Instead of morals being put upon the audience, they are invited to review facts through public speeches and statistics from the war’s inquiries, and place their own judgement – and so their own morals – onto the play. The lack of moral input doesn’t mean that the play wasn’t emotionally engaging: Donald Rumsfeld’s iconic moment of excusing the looting of Baghdad as ‘stuff happens’ was received as being infuriatingly callous and ignorant, not because of the condemning phrase was invented by Hare as a writer, but because Rumsfeld’s character had to stand in front of the theatre audience and deliver the line straight to an audience of people with their own opinions on the matter. Therefore the moral influence did not come from the play itself, but from the watching audience, and surely that was a better method of teaching morality than prescribing beliefs to an assumed, thoughtless viewership.
Sidney’s desire to rewrite history is still problematic even if one perceives history as a fictional narrative. For a start it asserts that there is a ‘right’ way for history to be made, and secondly that it can only be seen in black and white. ’Stuff Happens’ certainly deals with one of the most morally dubious events in recent years, but Hare carefully differentiates between the personal and public. In theory the public personas of the politicians are ‘real’, as in they are factually verifiable, and the personal personas, being imagined, are fictional, because Hare has made educated guess at conversations and emotional states based on interviews and his research. And yet neither can possibly be conceived to be ‘right’. The public faces are carefully cultivated and disguise the truth of what the politicians believe, and the personal is possibly closer to the truth of what the politicians believe but there is no way to prove this. The only thing that is certain is that both faces are morally circumspect. The ambiguity between what was real and what was possible means that his play was not seen as a ‘lie’. In fact it gained integrity from the honesty with which the difference, and the dubiety, was acknowledged. Thus Hare managed to entwine both reality and fiction, without colouring one with the other, and without prescribing ideas of right and wrong.
The audience is another issue with Sidney’s proposition. According to Sidney, the audience must be morally educated through literature, but his morality is primarily based on Catholicism, and his insistence on their teaching is patronising to say the least. In today’s post World-War world, people are generally very suspicious of being told what to believe, something reflected in the distrust in the media coverage and protests against he government. Similarly, when evaluating international political decisions spanning countries whose people follow different religions, and even when performing to an audience of whom not everyone will be Christian, is imposing one’s own morality even appropriate? Percy Shelley believed that great works transcend their time because they don’t include their writer’s own morals, thus allowing them to be read and interpreted differently by people of all types, in all places, regardless of what time they live in. It is impossible to say now whether Hare’s play will become a great work, but it is certainly already an influential one, and it is largely because he presented the audience with facts and theories, and trusted them to put the pieces together accordingly.
Sidney’s work has had a massive impact on our literature, and raises issues that still concern us, such as whether an author is responsibility to educate their audience and how they should respond to the world we live in. However I adamantly believe that David Hare has proved that the time for spoon-feeding an audience is well past, especially in diverse and independently thinking societies who have the right to their own beliefs and values. In Sidney’s time the ideal history may have seemed like a responsible and moral idea, but today such notions are too close to censorship and the erasure of people’s voices.
Hare, David. Stuff Happens. London: Faber and Faber, 2004. Print.
Sidney, Philip. ‘The Defence of Poesy’ The Poetry Foundation: 1583. 19 November. Web.