Tuesday 18 June 2024

Why Does Poor Things the Movie Hide the British Bombardment of Alexandria from its Audience?


The City of Alexandria in or shortly after late 1882 is a setting for a key scene in the novel Poor Things (by Alasdair James Gray) and the movie based on it (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, script by Tony McNamara). Yet the novel only refers in passing (and the movie, not at all) to a key event which took place that summer, the British bombardment of the Egyptian Mediterranean port city, or the subsequent military occupation of Egypt by the British Empire, which constitute massive colonial war crimes and crimes against humanity. Why were these whitewashed out of the story, especially given the effect of seeing child destitution has on the main character, Bella?


First, we will cover some accounts of the historical events around the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882.

The British Bombardment of Alexandria 1882-7-11 infographic.
British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882

Secondly, we will see what the novel and movie cover, and what they omit, downplay or change.

Thirdly, because it is relevant to the novel and movie, we will summarise a source on prostitution in Alexandria around the time.

Fourthly, we will briefly cover modern perspectives on a similar case of asymmetric bombardment of a largely civilian urban population.

Finally, we will draw some conclusions and attempt to answer the question, why.

History and literature: what happened, who wrote about it

Wikipedia devotes a page to the Bombardment of Alexandria which seems serviceable, but I believe I first read a historical account in John Newsinger's book The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (now in its second edition), where the author devotes a chapter to The invasion of Egypt, 1882. I later read an account in Priyamvada Gopal's Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, who draws on the writings of British diplomat Wilfred blunt in Chapter 3: The Accidental Anticolonialist: Egypt’s ‘Urabi’ Rebellion and Late Victorian Critiques of Imperialism.

In preparation for this article, I went for a more in-depth history in William Wright's A Tidy Little War: The British Invasion of Egypt 1882 (2009, 2011), and a contemporary literary treatment in GA Henty's The Young Midshipman, a Story of the Bombardment of Alexandria. The Wikipedia page links to a series of photographs documenting the destruction of the built environment of Alexandria, not confined to the coastal defences but reducing domestic, public and commercial buildings to rubble and causing widespread conflagration (though there are claims some rubble came from later safety-related destruction of damaged buildings and some fires were started by agents other than naval shelling).

Colonial Rule, Neocolonial Rule, and Egypt for the Egyptians

In 1882, Egypt was formally under Ottoman rule. The summary in BND says the Egyptian Khedive (client ruler) handed effective rule over to the British and French in exchange for modernisation of his country, but the profits were leached off by European corporations and wealth siphoned off by corrupt banks. Egyptian fellahin peasants were starving and over-taxed with flogging, torture and imprisonment (p96). By 1880 90,000 Europeans in Egypt had vast privileges exempt from tax and law, government salaries to them accounted for 1/20th revenue. However British and French also alienated the Army, which allied itself with Chamber of Notables, Colonel Urabi heading a revolutionary movement which proposed moderate reforms, rejected by French and British in 1882-01.

The focus in IE is British diplomat Wilfred Blunt, who is sent to Colonel Ahmad Urabi to put a false spin on open threat by Britain and France against Egyptian Nationalists, and support for Turkish viceroy; and fails dismally. Blunt is like other initially pro-Empire British liberals whose encounters with reality turned them against British colonialism. Blunt’s efforts to get British to back down failed, who invaded in 1882-07, defeating the honourable Urabi and trying him for mutiny and capital rebellion. British bombardment of Alexandria had changed some minds about legitimacy of actions, though press had depicted Urabi as military despot. Instead of court martial and death, civil trial and exile to Ceylon, a sentence which Blunt’s campaign eventually overturned. Blunt warned against what we would now call 'embedded journalists'.

Influenced by Blunt, some parliamentarians also enquired why Britain’s way of showing regard for the Egyptian people ‘was to go out and shoot them’.

Frederic Harrison’s speech and essay ‘Egypt’ before Alexandria bombardment critically overturns the Liberal narrative, showed what corrupt privileges the European ‘civilisers’ enjoyed in Egypt, in tax, ownership, justice, law and salaries. French and British were far more extractive than Ottomans. Rather than military fanatics, the resistance was a national uprising against oppressive and exploitative classes. Bombardment let to righteous fury, as would similar foreign aggression produce an identical reaction in his readers. Colonisation inevitably polarises and enraged rather than accommodates.

TLW provides more detail but basically agrees with the other histories in key respects, providing a list of key Egyptian nationalist demands for reform:

  • Water rights redistributed
  • Agricultural bank founded
  • Schools for all girls and boys
  • Eradication of slavery
  • Better military defences

British and French attempts to divide the Nationalists were scuppered by their own (Gambetta-drafted) Joint Note of 1882-01-06 which pitched Britain and France as Khedive Tewlik’s backers.

The British Bombardment of Alexandria

According to BND, Gladstone (who personally profited from the war) sent a fleet of Anglo-French warships to Alexandria to intimidate nationalists which failed. Instead, popular street rioters turned on Europeans. The British planned reprisals to deter similar outbreaks. The pretext of Alexandrian coastal fort improvements was used to justify a 10-hour naval bombardment of Alexandria with connivance of new Khedive, causing many civilian casualties. British Cabinet member radical John Bright resigns in protest amid national Jingoism.

TLW claims:

This book is the first attempt to tell the story of that war in any detail since the Official History was published in 1887.

and goes into quite considerable detail from the military perspective, unfortunately for our purposes not so much from the perspective of those calling Alexandria home at the time. British Admiral Seymour was given belligerent and blockading orders, and to gain French naval participation in any bombardment if possible (they would not), issuing Egyptians a 24-hour ultimatum to disarm coastal forts before opening fire. The Egyptian war cabinet decided it was altogether shameful and dishonourable to remove the guns as ordered.

British war correspondents were able to cable news stories back to London in time for evening papers.

The fifteen ships of the attacking fleet, which formed the nucleus of the 43 vessels commanded by Seymour in Egyptian waters during June and July 1882, were as varied as the men who commanded them.

Seymore rejected Egyptian offer of compromise, and launched the bombardment, for the first two hours employing salvo fire which was very inaccurate, despite almost perfect conditions (clear visibility, calm seas, anchored ships), before turning to more accurate single-shot fire. The thick armour of the British ironclads was enough to keep out Egyptian shelling bar the odd dent.

Shells began over-shooting the forts at the rate of about two a minute.


Deaths in the city residential districts from the British cannonade were few.

but in absence of evidence. No systematic British attempt to assess civilian casualties in Alexandria was made, or at least reported on, to my knowledge. It is likely that many fled the city if they could, judging by reports of thronging refugees. There were accounts of plundering and rioting, but conflicting reports of who or what started the fires that engulfed Alexandria.

Several European residents complained afterwards about the loss of property and the 'hysteria' caused by the shelling.

Percy Scott, clearing shells a week later, reported that Alexandria hit worse than forts probably as high as 30 per cent of those fired may have overshot their targets but not all exploded. Arsonists worked independently of the bombardment. Rubble shown in photographs may have been from controlled detonation of damaged buildings. TLW concludes:

Seymour’s shells may not have destroyed Alexandria but his failure to land marines or sailors and restore order most certainly contributed to the city’s destruction.
File:Report of the British naval and military operations in Egypt, 1882 (1883) (14596878798).jpg
By Goodrich, Caspar F. (Caspar Frederick), 1847-1925 - https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14596878798/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/reportofbritishn01good/reportofbritishn01good#page/n418/mode/1up, No restrictions, Link
The Southern Bastion of the Light House Fort. First gun disabled.

USAmerican marines were first to land, finding death and destruction, pillage and wine bargains. A mixed party of Britons explored burning city, discovering mewing cats, burst mains, burning buildings, looted stores, hissing steam, burning trees and ‘mutilated bodies’ (which on closer inspection turned out to be dress-makers’ dummies) in Place Muhammad Ali.

My impression is that William Wright gives a somewhat sanitised account. There is an awkward passage where he coyly describes Europeans visiting the 'fleshpots' of Alexandria without detail. Wright does however say that British General Wolseley (who took Cairo without damaging that city) wrote the Admiral Seymour's bombardment of Alexandria was silly and criminal in a letter to his wife Louisa: glorification for the Navy, injurious to England (sic).

The British Invasion of Egypt, 1882

BND: Gladstone now sent an expeditionary Force while the House of Commons vote massively in favour of invasion. The British massacre Egyptians defeated at battle of Tel-el-Kebir. Queen Victoria and Gladstone (who benefited financially) congratulated themselves. Contemporary critics who called it a bondholders’ war were vindicated by later research, though there was also a strategic interest in the Suez Canal.

But according to TLW, Ferdinand de Lessops said his Canal was quite safe and the biggest danger, in fact, was the threat of foreign intervention.

A literary account

In TYM, which we have to interrogate for artistic licence, Henty writes in Chapter 12: Free, of an eye-witness account:

Half the city appeared to be in flames. A sea of fire extended from the port over the European quarter, including the great square, while in many other parts separate conflagrations were raging.

and in Chapter 13: Among Friends

Presently they came to the edge of the district swept by the fire. The walls for the most part were standing, although in many cases they had fallen across the road. On they went, making their way very cautiously until they reached a wide open space surrounded by ruins.
It was calculated that upwards of five hundred were killed.

Describing the British 'pacification' which included summary execution of 'looters', and impressed locals to carry out British orders, in Ch14 A Set of Rascals, Henty writes that of returning population Many of the lower class of Greeks and Italians plundered and caused trouble.

In most respects, Henty's literary account matches the historians', and although his framing tends to valourise the British and apply some racial prejudice, not all historians are free from these faults either.

Official British version

The official British government account of the 'Egypt War of 1882' and the bombardment of Alexandria is disgraceful almost beyond belief, concluding:

In many ways it is surprising that Britain allowed itself to be drawn into direct intervention in Egypt. The Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was well known for his reluctance to be drawn into imperial adventures. Historians have argued as to whether Admiral Seymour exaggerated the threat from the Egyptian batteries at Alexandria in order to force a reluctant government's hand. Whatever the truth, once the British had successfully attacked the city, a land invasion was their logical next step.

However, it does make the link in 'Aftermath' to another British atrocity, conspiring with the French and Israelis to seize the nationalised Suez Canal once more and blame Egypt for starting another war (although it doesn't say all that, of course). What value system lies behind this criminal 'logic' is unstated in official materials for public consumption, and must be inferred.

Novel and Movie: what they reveal, distort and conceal

In both the novel and movie, Bella and Wedderburn arrive by ship in Alexandria, Egypt, almost certainly in the latter half of 1882 (movie) or perhaps up to 18 months later (novel). During this brief stopover, Bella has a profoundly affecting experience witnessing poor beggar children. In the movie, these even appear to be dwelling in the ruins of a coastal fort, but that is hardly made clear. The British invasion of Egypt is mentioned in passing in the novel (Chapter 15 Odessa to Alexandria: The Missionaries) in this exchange between Dr Hooker, Astley and Bella:

Hooker: Britain has carved up the rest of the planet. Less than two years ago you grabbed Egypt from the French — and from the Egyptians.

Astley: We needed their canal. We paid them for it.

Hooker: You also shelled Alexandria, our next port of call.

Astley: They were arming it against us and we needed their canal.

… Bella: But why are British soldiers fighting Egyptian natives? It makes no sense to me.

—Alasdair Gray, Poor Things

The time period in the movie is ambiguous and fantasy-flavoured. However, the script I've seen explicitly sets the action in 1882. Alexandria appears around 1:16:27. We see what could be ruined coastal fortifications 1:17:02 where Astley says Lot of dead babies. Must be hot. They’ll quite rightly rope us, rob us and rape us. Ruins are more clearly seen as recent 1:18:09 extending from hotel on spur in sea. Bella is upset by the sights she’s seen, gives Wedderburn’s gambling winnings to sailors to give to poor in slum next to hotel. But movie-Bella doesn’t try to understand the Alexandrian poor and suffering children's plight (which is almost certainly caused by the historical factors, European and Ottoman colonialism, European hierarchical racism, indigenous rule, the Mediterranean sex trade, British naval terror (aka gunboat diplomacy) and foreign occupation as described previously).

Furthermore, the movie removes the Dr Hooker character quoted above, and his critique of British imperial exploitation (and specifically of Egypt and shelling Alexandria). Movie-Astley is left to make racist remarks implying Egyptians have too many babies and are incapable of adapting to the heat of their own climate. This is at odds with competing indigenous reforms (Khedival modernisation and Egyptian Nationalist demands) the latter of which would have provided universal education opportunities, water security, eradication of slavery etc.

Prostitution in Alexandria: an academic overview

I found it difficult to find more than a single source here, but at least this chapter-length account by Nefertiti Takla of Manhattan College, New York is well-written, clear and relevant. I will assume for the moment that the account is correct, but obviously corroboration would be helpful. I will summarise it now, using Takla's own headings:

The population of Alexandria grew from around 12,000 in 1820, to 104,000 in 1850, to 320,000 in 1900.

Legal situation and demography

According to contemporary reports, prostitution in Alexandria had reached unprecedented levels by the second half of the 1870s.

The rise and fall of cotton created precarious economics.

More aggressive attempts to abolish slavery in Egypt in the 1870s also brought newly manumitted Ethiopian and Southern Sudanese into Alexandria’s expanding sex economy.

An influx came from Balkans war. Calls for regulation went unmet until British occupation of 1882: yearly licences to adults 18+, mandatory weekly medical inspections with venereal hospital confinement, or punishments (fine, prison): prostitution was professionalised. But Europeans (and some Christians, Jews) were given legal immunity from local courts, tried in consular courts, including sex workers from 1886.

It was not uncommon to find women of three or four nationalities in a single brothel, and policing such a brothel often required the cooperation of multiple consulates, which was both logistically and politically challenging.

There was competition between French, Greek and Italian communities. European sex workers were brought under colonial control by British by imposition of martial law during World War 1.

In the early twentieth century, it was both the exploitative nature of the capitulations as well as the racism embedded in the prostitution regulations that gave Alexandria the reputation of being the largest centre of traffic in women and children.

Causes of Prostitution

The British colonial-military occupation restricted city economy during WW1 and was a major driving force behind the spread of prostitution. British military base of Levant operations was sited in the city, which was also target for refugees and migrants. Secret brothels appeared around military Labour Corps camps, labourers without means to send money to families. That situation, combined with the rise in the cost of living during the war, led married women and underage girls to turn to the commercial sex industry in increasing numbers.

Organization of the trade

For varied reasons married women, underage girls, temporary/transient and military-serving sex workers evaded the licensing regime. Wartime colonial state monopoly on transportation led to decline in the international and domestic trafficking of sex workers in Egypt and rise of street walking particularly among married women, and female brothel owners. Postwar lack of work opportunities. With rise of organised crime, Alexandria rose to prominence as the centre of international and domestic trafficking in Egypt that left sex workers increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and organized crime, and since the racism embedded in the regulation system created a higher incentive for native workers to practise their trade covertly, race became a dominant factor in their exposure to gender violence. An infamous 1920 Alexandria serial murder, known in Egypt as Raya and Sakina case, concerns powerful sister brothel-owners who ordered punitive/competition-eliminating murders of 17 sex workers.

Modern perspectives of child casualties of industrialised warfare

This BBC article references a United Nation designation 'Wounded child, no surviving family': The pain of Gaza’s orphans which could easily apply to survivors of the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882. The British bombardment of Alexandria is ideal for creating what UNICEF calls 'WCNSFs'. That these desperate children just materialise in the movie without mentioning the perpetrators is exactly the cowardly crime of omission that Western journalism is guilty of in present news reporting when it talks circumspectly of humanitarian crises.

See UN reports ‘shocking’ rise in violations against children in conflict in 2023.


The historical events of 1882 are hardly unknown, and found their way into popular literature of the time. As TLW puts it:

The popular newspapers vied in reports of the battles, denunciations of Arabi and a surfeit of bad poetry… perhaps the worst was a fifteen stanza poem from the Scottish bard, William McGonagall

Given the fixation of Poor Things on prostitution, it seems odd to ignore the British colonial impact on prostitution in Alexandria, especially since the opportunity to counter-critique General Blessington, Astley and other presents itself. Why are modern historians like Wright so coy about what these mysterious 'fleshpots' really are?

So, back to the question: Why Does Poor Things Hide the British Bombardment of Alexandria from Readers and Viewers? I am forcefully reminded of the views of Vietnamese-USAmerican author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who says:.

(The Pulitzer Prize-winning author doesn’t want to be a voice for the voiceless, he wants to abolish the conditions of voicelessness)
Now, if you are one of the victors or descended from the victors, you have an investment in selective memory that would justify your existence as a conqueror or the descendant of conquerors. If you are not, let’s say you’re an immigrant or a refugee, the power of the mythology of the country you’ve come to is such that you can internalize that mythology so that you too engage in a selective remembering and forgetting because society is rewarding you for that.

There seems no good reason to include this key scene in Alexandria (instead of child poverty elsewhere) without linking it to British colonialism. Especially given the mini-lectures of Astley. The novel's contrived structure even allows two or three different takes on the main narrative, providing opportunies to reflect differently on the Alexandria episode, which are not taken.

My conclusion is that the director Yorgos Lanthimos and scriptwriter Tony McNamara are complicit in whitewashing the British imperial crimes of bombarding Alexandria, invading Egypt and colonial occupation, with all the moral and legal crimes appertaining to. This is what Establishment-friendly creatives do. The outcome, however small this movie is in the scheme of things, is to encourage similar current and future criminals who see that the British have got away with literal mass murder once again. Author Alasdair Gray made it easy just to remove the relevant lines of dialogue in any movie adaptation, and by various other literary devices (including intellectual dishonesty and fantasising history) undermined his own rather clunky and bolted-on mini-lectures within the text — but at least the 'shelling' and Anglo-Egyptian War are mentioned (even if briefly) in the novel. Whether the depiction of sex work in both novel and movie are also disgraceful, I will let others judge this time.

#PoorThings #BombardmentAlexandria1882 #ChildrenUnderAttack

Wednesday 29 May 2024

Democracy's flaws: Battle of Wills: Democracy 0 – Biocracy 3


One of democracy's fatal flaws is its reducibility to a battle of wills.


Following our reflections on our thought experiment on the Sea-People’s Citizen Assembly Scenario, we see that democracy pits people against each other in a contest of wills. It does not consider Health at any scale. This leads to Militarism (War as a continuation of politics, not a break from it).

Sketch of two people shaking fists and thinking violent thoughts at each other.
The outcome of Will over Health


Another essential flaw in democracy, that as a political system it elevates the expressed views (or will) of humans, or a subgroup of humans, over all other requirements for living together, ignoring Health. This is not a flaw of biocracy, a political system which prioritises Health.

More flaws of democracy will be explored later.

Democracy's flaws: Battle of Wills: Democracy 0 – Biocracy 3 by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Thursday 2 May 2024

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a cautionary tale


Almost everyone we encounter in the play bears some responsibility for the ensuing multi-death tragedy.


Almost everyone in the play contributes to the tragic deaths of young people. A story not so much about love but a call to change a society where your actions, inactions or mistakes can kill you or someone else. Other named characters such as Rosaline are blameless and therefore do not appear.

A warning sign depicting abstract images of Romeo wooing Juliet, in front of walled Verona.
Warning: unauthorised wall-scaling and poetic pickup lines in progress

First, we will run through Romeo and Juliet the play and pick out relevant moments.

Then, we will analyse themes and language.

Finally, we will say what the play is not, before tendering our conclusion.

Notes on language

In this article, 'parents' is used as a shorthand for parents/guardians/primary caregivers and all comparable roles. In the play, the parents of interest are the couples: Montagues and Capulets.

Key Quotations from the Play, with Brief Notes, Scene Summaries and Questions


Here we encounter the ancient grudge that informs the rest of the play.

Act 1

A1s1 Capulet servants Sampson and Gregory exhibit bravado, belligerence and sexualised threats; they pick a fight with servants of Montague with foreknowledge that this quarrel may lead to tyrannous behaviour and harm to innocents. Sampson: Draw, if you be men Benvolio tries to keep peace.

Tybalt: “What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word,
  As I hate hell, all Montagues and thee:
  Have at thee, coward.”

Tybalt especially shows wilful misinterpretation to exaggerate threats to justify violent response. Citizens seek to put down brawl with clubs while Capulet calls for long sword to match Montague. Prince threatens them with torture and death:

Three civil broils, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet and Montague,
Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets;

Far from fray, Romeo tells Benvolio of his groaning unrequited love for a woman who has foresworn love.

A1s2 Paris sues Capulet for his daughter’s hand but Capulet says she is too young:

My child is yet a stranger in the world,
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years;
Let two more summers wither in their pride,
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.

but will see if she will become amenable. Do characters simulate more in verse? Servant cannot read list of party guests: is illiteracy a contributory factor to civil ills? Literate characters may manipulate illiterate ones. Benvolio names Rosaline as Romeo’s love.

A1s3 Nurse reckons Juliet’s age a fortnight and odd days short of 14 years, a similar age to her own dead daughter Susan. Lady Capulet tells Juliet she was married at a similar early age and other ladies are already mothers by 14 so Paris?

Juliet: “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move:
  But no more deep will I endart mine eye,
  Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.”

We discover over time that Juliet is under intense and urgent pressure to conform to her parents’ wishes, which transmit to servants.

Servant: “Madam, the guests are come, supper served up, you called,
  my young lady asked for, the nurse cursed in the pantry, and every thing in extremity.
  I must hence to wait; I beseech you, follow straight.”

A1s4 Romeo prepares to gatecrash his familial enemy’s swanky party, bolstered by banter. Mercutio’s intense and rambling speech seems sign of a disordered mind; perhaps he fears he cannot speak clearly and plainly even to his closest friends.

A1s5 Romeo sees Juliet and mentally dumps Rosaline. Tybalt, overhearing him, storms but is checked by Capulet, who is strangely well-disposed towards Romeo, or at least wants his party to go smoothly. Romeo and Juliet flirt, until Nurse reveals her to be Capulet’s heiress daughter. As Romeo leaves, Juliet learns his identity (stranger in the world, remember).

Act 2

A2s1 Romeo scales Capulet’s garden wall, ditching friends and their possibly restraining advice.

A2s2 Romeo overhears Juliet pining for him, they talk of peril, their families’ enmity, love, oaths, marriage all with unseemly precipitous haste and on very little acquaintance. This unfathomable speed and secrecy is a caution in itself: who knows what young ones are up to? Romeo seeks collaborator in Franciscan Friar Laurence.


Friar Laurence: “Be plain, good son, and homely in thy drift;
  Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift.”
Romeo: “Then plainly know, my heart’s dear love is set
  On the fair daughter of rich Capulet:”

Friar ridicules Romeo’s prior doting on Rosaline, says young men love with eyes not hearts, but because he has another motive (ending the feud) he agrees.

A2s4 Benvolio and Mercutio talk of duels and Tybalt’s fencing prowess. Romeo jests, Nurse arrives from Juliet, they arrange secret wedding for afternoon.

A2s5 Juliet is impatient that Nurse who left at 9 is not back before noon. Nurse arrives, spins out her tale of Romeo arranging wedding at Friar Laurence’s cell. Juliet: Hie to high fortune! — honest nurse, farewell.

Is the Nurse honest if she doesn’t tell her employers she is helping Juliet marry secretly in opposition to their choice?

A2s6 Friar: These violent delights have violent ends, yet marries Romeo and Juliet in secret haste; perhaps also feels they will sin if left alone.

Act 3

A3s1 Mercutio says Benvolio will attack a harmless waiter after two cups of wine and quarrel over anything. Benvolio replies Mercutio is worse. What is the cause of their distemper? Tybalt arrives and it kicks off, Romeo arriving, Benvolio attempting to calm. Mercutio thinks Romeo’s pleasant response to Tybalt’s hate is appeasement. Mercutio, dying, curses both houses. Incensed, Romeo slays Tybalt in revenge, then flees. Benvolio gives accurate account to Prince, who banishes Romeo on pain of death. Prince: Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.

A3s2 Juliet waits impatiently for Romeo, Nurse appears with cord ladder and news that someone (Tybalt) is dead, Romeo banished, while Juliet imagines dying, and that Romeo’s beautiful outside hides an opposite nature. They agree Nurse will bring Romeo.

A3s3 Romeo also takes news from Friar of banishment with melodrama, at length. Nurse arrives and with Friar eventually shame some sense into Romeo: to Juliet, then Mantua to await developments.

A3s4 Capulet still wants to hurry Juliet’s wedding with Paris, who can hardly wait. Fewer guests out of ‘respect’ for Tybalt.

A3s5 Juliet and Romeo, marriage consummated, tarry in her bedchamber. They part thinking on death again. Lady Capulet thinks Juliet cries too much for Tybalt, says she’ll send a poisoner to Mantua to kill Romeo in revenge. Juliet is shocked by the ‘haste’ her parents want to see her wed Paris.

Juliet: “I wonder at this haste; that I must wed
  Ere he, that should be husband, comes to woo,”
Lady Capulet: “I would, the fool were married to her grave!”
Capulet: “Out, you green sickness carrion! out, you baggage!”

Nurse stands up for Juliet:

God in heaven bless her! —
  You are to blame, my lord, to rate her so.
Capulet: “An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
  An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die i’th streets,”

Juliet seeks delay or death; parents leave and she seeks comfort from Nurse… who, likely thinking on her own dead Susan, betrays Juliet by switching to back Paris and an unrealistic living make-do. Juliet pretends to relent, Nurse leaves to tell Capulets good news.

Juliet: “Ancient damnation! … Go, counsellor;
  Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.”

Either the Friar will help, or Juliet considers taking the suicide option.

Act 4


Friar: “You say, you do not know the lady’s mind;
  Uneven is the course, I like it not.”

Paris claims Capulet thinks Juliet’s grief for Tybalt is dangerous, and hasty marriage a cure. Juliet arrives and easily gets the better of Paris, dismissing him and saying Friar better have a solution to Romeo’s banishment, or she’ll kill herself:

I long to die,
If what thou speak’st speak not of remedy.

Friar offers a desperate, daring, dangerous hope. Fake your death, Juliet! Juliet eagerly accepts his offered drug.

A4s2 Juliet feigns obedience to Capulet who accepts her volte-face explanation that Friar taught her obedience in one session.

Juliet: “Henceforth I am ever rul’d by you.”
Capulet: “my heart is wondrous light,
  Since this same wayward girl is so reclaim’d”

A4s3 Juliet wonders if she should call back Nurse and mother, or drink the unknown drug, or kill herself with dagger?

Juliet: “What if it be a poison, which the friar
  Subtly have minister’s to have me dead”

to avoid dishonour for Romeo marriage. What horrors might confront her in the tomb? She drinks.

A4s4 The Capulets and servants are busy with wedding preparations, the external forms of the planned relationship.

Capulet: “Go, waken Juliet, go, and trim her up;
  I’ll go and chat with Paris: — Hie, make haste,”

A4s5 Nurse tries to waken Juliet, fails. She, Capulets, Paris, household bar Friar think she’s dead. Lamentation (and some nasty blame from Paris). Friar: think of it as a promotion.

Act 5

A5s1 In Mantua, Romeo dreams of death, then learning of Juliet’s ‘death’ and burial seeks poison from desperate apothecary:

Such mortal drugs I have; but Mantua’s law
Is death, to any he that utters them.
Romeo: “I pay thy poverty, and not thy will.”
  “There is gold, worse poison to men’s souls,
  Doing more murders in this loathsome world,
  Than these poor compounds that thou may’st not sell:”

(which didn’t put Romeo off the fair daughter of rich Capulet!)

A5s2 Friar learns his letter never reached Romeo in Mantua and hastens tombward.

A5s3 Why exactly does Paris hope to gain by sneaking into Juliet’s tomb? Romeo says he is going to see Juliet’s face…

But, chiefly, to take thence from her dead finger
A precious ring; a ring that I must use
In dear employment

but servant Balthasar has his doubts and hangs about. Paris sees Romeo as Montague who partly caused Juliet’s death by killing Tybalt. They needlessly fight, Paris ignoring Romeo’s plea to leave, Romeo kills Paris, sees, speechifies to and kisses Juliet, then drinks poison and dies. [only seconds too soon…] Friar arrives too late, talks with Balthasar.

[Events appear to be taking on a dreamlike quality] Juliet awakes but Friar fails to rescue her, if secretly stuffing her into a nunnery counts. Poison failing, Juliet stabs herself to death with Romeo’s dagger. Watch apprehend Friar and everybody else turns up for a gawk. Prince holds an impromptu court; Friar and others testify, Romeo’s letter corroborates. Prince lays blame on feuding Capulets and Montagues, who say they’ll patch up quarrels, raise statues and make amends.

Prince: “And I, for winking at your discords too,
  Have lost a brace of kinsmen: — all are punish’d.”

Prince doesn’t yet specify who will be further punished or pardoned, at least implying the form of due process.

Themes and Language

Given this reading as a cautionary tale, it is essential to include language on themes such as suicidal intentions, since these are things that others should be picking up and listening to; and that Juliet’s young age (13 going on 14) be respected (or intervention be too late).

Some other warning signs or contributive factors to the play's tragedies include:

  • Secretive behaviour (both the Nurse and the Friar encourage this, perhaps such encouragement often has comedic results in plays).
  • Sexualised speech (where inappropriate and/or threatening, such as the banter which creates an atmosphere of intimidation or lewdness which is divisive).
  • Unreasonable and excessive haste (a general fault, oft-mentioned word in the play).
  • Quarrelsomeness; aggression.
  • Ulterior motives (civil peace; rich heiress).
  • Displacement, transference, confusion (Nurse’s Susan, see later).
  • Personal pride and ambition.
  • People who think both Romeo and Juliet need to be fixed (I don’t mean neutered).
  • Children who learn to tell parents what they want to hear etc. Juliet lies to father about being ruled by him, but doesn’t bother lying to Paris, instead deftly fooling him. Parents should watch for sudden obedience.
  • Frustrated competition, either banned, unsafe (like duels) or precluded (like courtship).
  • Suppression of other opportunities (to learn, to interact, to show true colours, to escape class or gendered roles).
  • Inconstant counsel (Nurse particularly).
  • Betrayal of trust (Nurse again, though very likely with Juliet's longterm wellbeing in mind).
  • Machiavellian tendencies; meddling (Friar, albeit with perhaps good and sincere intentions).
  • Both young and old can be giddy and serious at the same time — seriousness does not require deep or sustained reflection nor constancy.
  • Sole heirs (especially under dynastic societies, these are typically subject to considerable pressures).
  • Overconfidence; simplification; lack of contingency planning (particularly the Friar).
  • Feuding; grudge-keeping; avenging kin (Capulets particularly, for Tybalt).
  • Deceit.
  • Possibly undue leniency (Prince thinks so).
  • Undeservedly harsh parental treatment (Capulets on Juliet).
  • Emotional blackmail.
  • Religious injunctions on obedience.
  • Autocracy; hierarchy.
  • Lack of empathy.

Is faking your own death ever the answer?

Poverty is not vice but desperation leads people to consider lawbreaking (the Apothecary).

Puberty transforms (Juliet) while parents may sometimes be too slow or too quick to anticipate changes. It is Juliet's linguistic skill, quick wit and pure determination that lets her wrongfoot the adults about her, who all seem to underestimate her (except perhaps Romeo, hence their almost-instant connection).

I won't go through all these aspects in detail, but consider how at any point the play's actions may be changed to avoid the tragedies.

What the Play is Not

Romeo and Juliet is not a love story. Yet one of the first thing Romeo says is that these broils may have as much to do with love as hate (as factionalism and in-out group psychology shows). Without much doubt, the truest love shown in the play appears to be the Nurse's for Juliet, who she treats like a surrogate daughter, always prattling happily on about her and running errands for her. However, even this love is notably imperfect, as the Nurse may be transferring her love for her dead daughter Susan on to Juliet. Indeed, we don't know if the Nurse's anecdotes about Juliet's infancy were not actually (misremembered) incidents from Susan's childhood. And in the crucial pivot of the play, the Nurse breaks faith with Juliet, preferring a 'safer' marriage with Paris and a live surrogate daughter to a Juliet pining over banished Romeo and suicidal ideation.

The play is not a comedy (though it shares some common comedic components, the remaining cast are united in grief not marriage), nor a typical tragedy (yet undoubtedly tragic in key elements). It has action but not of epic scale. It is not the stuff of history plays, yet it could be local history.

Unlike her parents’ choice, Romeo is Juliet’s alone, just as Juliet is Romeo’s alone (call her mine); this possessiveness (a mansion, robes) combines with deathwishes and nightlonging. Capulet attempts minionisation of Juliet. Both Romeo and Juliet seek to avoid traps. At what point in play do caring adults fail to understand Juliet’s inner life? From the very start? Which is mirrored by Romeo’s interiority. Shouldn’t Romeo and Juliet be Goths? Nurse knows what a dead child looks like, as do Capulets. Romeo bespeaks Tybalt and Paris fair but kills both aggressors.

So the story is probably much closer to social realism than the common comedies, tragedies, tragicomedies, epics, histories that Shakespeare's audiences were likely more familiar with. The question is: why?


If Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet as a socially-realistic play, where audience members may have recognised characters like themselves or people they knew, acting in quite believable ways which collectively ended in tragedy, then for what reasons?

I think it is highly plausible that many Shakespeare's plays are intended in main or part to increase empathy and appreciation of the value of human lives. I've already written something about Shakespeare's blood-savers. One could argue (and I would) that many lives may have been saved over the years by plays such as Othello, which should at least make jealous husbands think before murdering their wives (likewise A Winter's Tale, and so on and on).

But in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's focus shifts to children and young people, in the grip of powerful emotions, trapped by circumstance, daring to look death in the eye. I think, quite simply, Shakespeare wants to make us think of them, their worlds, their ambitions, their frailties, their hopes and dreams… and not crush them. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a cautionary tale. For all of us.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a cautionary tale by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Democracy's flaws: Speciesism: Democracy 0 – Biocracy 2


One of democracy's fatal flaws is its speciesism.


As we saw in our thought experiment on the Sea-People’s Citizen Assembly Scenario, democracy can work perfectly well yet still deliver genocide, ecocide and other undesirable ends.

Illustration of sketchy Tree of Life with animal and plant and a fungi emojis lining its branches, with a small groups of humans with emoji faces gnawing its roots.
Humans gnawing on the roots of the Tree of Life


This is due to an essential flaw in democracy, that as a political system it only takes account of the expressed views (or will) of humans, or a subgroup of humans. This is not a flaw of biocracy, a political system which opposes the speciesist orientation.

More flaws of democracy will be explored later.

Democracy's flaws: Speciesism: Democracy 0 – Biocracy 2 by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Will and Health: two factors of governance in Shakespeare's King Lear


How health and will emerge as two interrelated components of governance (self and state) in William Shakespeare's tragic play, King Lear.


As discussed before, from the very opening of the play, Lear's Britain is a state with a projected perilous health, yet the solution (neutralising his two eldest daughters who each plot to gain the crown by bloody civil war) is perhaps too unfatherly/impious/legacy-unfriendly/precedent-setting for Lear, who instead engineers a solution to send beloved youngest daughter to safety while the other sisters (literally) duke it out. By retaining one hundred knights and doddering between them, Lear can even Yojimbo-like take the weaker side until both Albany and Cornwall are exhausted and Cordelia can return with powerful French backing.

Old King Lear in right foreground, looking down from balcony on map of Britain surrounded by his three daughters: Goneril and Regan (with husbands) gesticulating, Cordelia bandaging a dog's paw.
King Lear ruminating on the future health and division of his state

First, we will review an extensive series of quotations from the text (included partly because some are frequently omitted from productions of this very long play), with brief notes.

Then we will consider significant ways Health and Will are represented, and how they relate to Governance (both of self and of state).

Finally, we will try to understand what Shakespeare's play is really saying about the nature of Health and Will in Governance, and whether that leads us to reject some political systems in favour of others.

Key Quotations from the Play, with brief Notes and Scene Summaries

A play which takes from 3 to 3½ hours in theatre, says director Richard Eyre of his television movie of Lear, can be cut down by omitting whole or partial scenes, lose 'complicated plots' and compress dialogue, and so on. The full text is a better guide to the issues under consideration, and I cannot recommend any particular production/performance. However, the BBC's version with Michael Hordern as Lear is worth the watch, though it is not my current interpretation of the play.

Act 1

A1s1 Lear suggests his health is failing and he wants to prevent future strife. Cordelia considers love as riches. Lear speaks of The vines of France, the milk of Burgundy, which indicate the health of the states of Cordelia's two suitors.

Lear’s wilfulness (express our darker purpose) has the effect of granting Cordelia a love match and a safe haven, with Kent banished for future team-up. The sway goes to Cornwall and Albany.

Kent: Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow upon the foul disease.

Lear’s sentence overrides his nature To shield thee from diseases of the world with the kind banishments of Kent and Cordelia with those infirmities she owes.

Regan: ‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he has ever but slenderly known himself. Goneril: the unruly waywardness that infirm and cholerick years bring with them.

A1s2 What is a healthy relationship between parent and child to the Glosters?

Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue?

A1s3 Lear's knights riotous, king upbraiding.

A1s4 Steward’s contest of will with Lear. Fools whipped. Ungrateful cuckoo chick. Lear’s sterility curse on Goneril. A dotard in command of dangerous knights.

A1s5 Lear: O let me not be mad.

Act 2

A2s1 Edmund cuts himself to support his lie. Gloster: my old heart is crack’d. Regan: waste and spoil of his revenues.

A2s2 Kent: anger has a privilege.

A2s3 Edgar mortifies himself as poor Tom.

A2s4 Fool says falling leaders stink. Sickness excuse not to meet Lear.

Lear: “Infirmity doth still neglect all office,
Whereto our health is bound; we are not ourselves,
When nature, bring oppress’d, commands the mind
To suffer with the body: I’ll forbear;
And am fallen out with my more headier will,
To take the indispos’d and sickly fit
For the sound man. Death on my state!”
Regan: “If, sir, perchance,
She have restrain’d the riots of your followers,
‘Tis on such ground, and to such wholesome end,
As clears her from all blame.”

Lear wishes lameness on absent Goneril. Lear imagines Goneril both flesh-and-blood and a disease in his flesh.

Regan: “What need one?”
Lear: “O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm was gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st, which scarcely keeps thee warm — But, for true need,—”

Cornwall: ‘Tis best to give him way; he leads himself. Gloster protests king lacks storm-shelter.

Regan: “O, sir, to wilful men,
The injuries, that they themselves procure,
Must be their schoolmasters: Shut up your doors;”

Act 3

A3s1 Lear reportedly contends with storm while even hungry predators cower.

A3s2 Lear calls on the will of the storm sulphurous and thought-executing fires to punish himself and others, spilling all nature’s seeds:

Lear: “let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man”
Lear: “My wits begin to turn” Fool: “tiny wit… fortunes fit”

A3s3 Gloster and Edmund discuss the savage and unnatural. Excuse of illness. Gloster: “If I die for it, as no less is threatened me, the king my old master must be relieved.” Edmund: “The younger rises, when the old doth fall.”

A3s4 Kent: The tyranny of the open night’s too rough For nature to endure. Lear: When the mind’s free, The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind. You houseless poverty Lear to Fool (another indication that the play originally intended the Fool at this point to be Cordelia in disguise).

Lear: “O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physick, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel;
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.”

That is, redistributing wealth is both healthy and just. Edmund/Poor-Tom is tormented and cold, blamed on vice and the foul fiend?

Gloster: “Go in with me; my duty cannot suffer
To obey in all your daughter’s hard commands:
Though their injunction be to bar my doors,
And let this tyrannous night take hold upon you,
Yet I have ventured to come seek you out,
And bring you where both fire and food is ready.”

Gloster: The grief hath craz’d my wits.

A3s5 Cornwall: I will have my revenge.

A3s6 Lear, apparently losing touch with reality, convenes a trial of absent Goneril and Regan. Friends rally round him.

A3s7 Regan, Goneril and Cornwall mean harm to Gloster, approved by Edmund; loyal knights have taken Lear to Dover.

Cornwall: Though well we may not pass upon his life
Without the form of justice, yet our power
Shall do a courtesy to our wrath, which men
May blame, but not control. Who's there? the traitor?

Gloster: You are my guests: do me no foul play, friends. Unnamed servant of Cornwall intervenes to save Gloster’s remaining eye, fatally wounds Duke in fair combat and is fatally backstabbed by Regan. Cornwall finishes blinding Gloster. Remaining servants are appalled by the wilful acts of their ‘betters’.

It is worth noting Gloster's earlier hypocrisy in calling Cornwall 'fiery' when Edmund has so easily stoked Gloster's wrath towards Edgar.

Act 4

A4s1 Gloster: I stumbled when I saw, and As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for our sport. wanton here is equivalent to wilful. Gloster, humbled, now sees redistribution of wealth as key to health, reducing the diseases of rich and poor alike.

Gloster: “Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens' plagues
Have humbled to all strokes: that I am wretched
Makes thee the happier: heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.”

Gloster asks Poor Tom (son Edgar) to lead him to high Dover cliff (and leave him).

A4s2 Goneril: Conceive, and fare thee well. Edmund: Yours in the ranks of death. Albany upbraids wife for monstrosity even before hearing of Gloster’s blinding, Cornwall’s death-by-servant and Edmund’s treachery. Albany: Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile: Filths savour but themselves.

A4s3 Kent and Gentleman discuss Cordelia’s state on hearing news.

A4s4 Cordelia’s description of Lear suggests latter has been self-medicating with wild herbs. Physician prescribes rest and sedatives. Cordelia fears Lear’s ungovern’d rage dissolve the life That wants the means to lead it.

A4s5 Regan regrets letting Gloster live, as his injuries attract sympathy.

A4s6 Edgar: Why, then your other senses grow imperfect By your eyes’ anguish. (a deception). Edgar: Why I do trifle thus with his despair, Is done to cure it.

Gloster: “Is wretchedness depriv’d that benefit,
To end itself by death? ‘Twas yet some comfort
When misery could beguile the tyrant’s rage,
And frustrate his proud will.”

Lear appears wreathed in flowers. Lear: they told me I was every thing: ‘tis a lie; I am not ague-proof. Lear wants general copulation to provide him with more soldiers. Lear seems to have been energised by partial loss of wits and reconnection with nature away from toxic courts. Steward sees Gloster’s life and death merely means for own advancement.


Cordelia: “O my dear father! Restoration, hang
Thy medicine upon my lips; and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms, that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made!”
Cordelia: “Mine enemy’s dog,
Though he had bit me, should have stood that night
Against my fire;”
Physician: “the great rage,
You see, is cur’d in him”

Dogs are mentioned a great many times with notable inconsistency in King Lear, but this comment links to a previous quip by Cordelia-Fool. In this case, even the health of biting dog of an enemy is valued. Rage here is Will-linked, ungoverned; and pacified Lear is no longer giving commands, but regaining health and sense.

Act 5

A5s1 Goneril: I had rather lose the battle, than that sister, Should loosen him and me. on Edmund, who plots his ruthless upwards path.

A5s2 Edgar tries to raise spirits of depressed father again.

A5s3 Lear tells Cordelia they can be happy enough in prison.

Edmund: “At this time
We sweat and bleed: the friend hath lost friend:
And the best quarrels, in the heat, are curs’d
By those who feel their sharpness”

Goneril poisons love-rival sister Regan. Gloster has reportedly died of joy and grief by Edgar’s nursing revelations. Goneril reportedly dies by her own knife. Edgar kills Edmund in challenge, who has just enough time to warn… Too late, Cordelia has been murdered by hanging in cell, Lear killed her murderer. Lear: And my poor fool is hang’d! Lear faints and dies.

Key Concepts


See also Weather, Tyranny, Gods, Sport, Revenge, Excess, Want (there is a double meaning in Want, which can be Need — ie Health — or Desire — more like Will).

Will is associated with emotions, but which ones in particular does the play foreground? Rage is a common theme; Lear, Cornwall, tyrants and storms rage to inflict their will; Kent claims anger has a privilege. But rage seems an enemy to good governance, and in each case threatens health: Lear's exposure, servant mortally wounds Cornwall, Kent is stocked. Lust, in the competition between Goneril and Regan for Edmund, and Edmund for land, leads to the wilful deaths of all three. Grief can also 'craze wits'. Fear (of growing old, becoming sick or injured, or mad etc) is another, linked partly in the play to aging and loss.

Wills can sometimes change like the weather.


See also Need, Nursing, Beasts, Wholesomeness, Disease, Nature, Justice, Mortification, Bastards.

How does loss of health (physical, mental) in one affect others? Edgar as Poor Tom mortifies his own flesh, copying beggars; Edmund cuts himself to support a lie; and as we have seen, Regan says Gloster's injuries attract sympathy. Yet many of the characters also wilfully injure others, or at least plot their deaths.

How does loss of health in oneself affect how you see others? Lear has apparently been oblivious to his subjects' health until the night of the storm awakens empathy. But it can also turn yourself inwards, narrow your concerns.

Cordelia-Fool also describes the political sickness of a falling leader, something which might harm followers if they stay loyal. Political sickness can be catching.

Edmund, who considers disinherited bastards like himself healthier than legitimate heirs, rails at a perceived injustice imposed by the wills of a dynastic ruling class. Although rational against convenient superstition, Edmund's will is also a source of injustice.

And what of a healthy society or political system? Gloster’s blindness during conflict shows that ill-health or impairment is multiplied by a sick society, but therefore made more comfortable by a healthy society.

Redistribution, Lack and Superfluity

It is Gloster who, when injured and humbled after willingly risking his life for Lear, attributes the cause of harmful poverty to the vices of the rich and the injustices of an inequitable political-social-economic system. This is loaves-and-fishes communism. Lear had argued that without superfluity, human lives would be worth those of beasts, but his mind changes focus during the storm towards alleviating the poverty of his subjects.


Haste can be interpreted as unhealthy or desperate will-driven speed. Gloster makes a hasty misjudgement of Edgar. When speedy action is required at the end of the play, haste is too little too late to save Cordelia.


One supposedly-requisite virtue of rulers, wisdom, is treated in various interesting ways in the play. Albany, dividing the factions and own marriage into good and evil, says wisdom is repugnant to the vile, which as much to say wisdom implies a healthy conscience. Gloster talks of the wisdom of nature in a sense of natural laws (perhaps opaque to the science of the time, more transparent nowadays).

The relation of Health and Will

Lear makes a distinction between sick in mind and sick in body, though when bodily sickness diseases the mind, we are not ourselves. Ill health can sometimes make us despair, or retreat upon ourselves; yet it can also create empathy with the misfortunes of others, and look outwards (as Lear does in the storm, recognising at last his lack of care for his subjects). Sick minds can will ill on self and others.

Health and Will in Political Systems

Hereditary Monarchy

Shakespeare's panoramic critique of hereditary monarchy suggests it may be the sickest of all political systems. Typically the throne attracts psychopaths, and even the subjects of peaceful rulers might live in terror of whimsy, incompetence, neglect, succession struggles, religious and civil wars, toxic court politics, foreign entanglements and so forth. There is no solution to the problem of succession in Lear, nor an enfeebled monarch, or plotting Dukes, or warring princesses. Shakespeare's monarchs tend to impiously disdain nature, for example in Cymbeline. Lear may fear the storm is partly nature's revenge upon his misrule. Without retirement or timely death, the subjects of hereditary monarchy might spend considerable time under gerontocracy (the current condition of many countries).

Lear’s court is full of contriving theatrical stratagem and deception, which he describes in his last speech to Cordelia. We are taken back to the start of the play, in the royal court, where we might see the opening act of Lear's great gamble, a strategm now almost played out with the ending he strove so hard to avoid, Cordelia's death. Nobody is taken in by the love-protestations of Goneril and Regan, and from that, the interpretation of the play must understand the illusory-theatrical, false-deceptive, deadly-toxic, sharp-elbowed, cunning-competitive nature of royal courts: plots and counter-plots.


Shakespeare does not tend to directly represent democracy on stage, but the theatre itself may have been a temporary mini-parliament during his time. Elections are not usually favourably represented; usually townsfolk seem content to elect idiots to official duties they cannot be bothered doing themselves. But as a Will-prioritising political system, democracy is at the mercy of the kinds of flaws of governance in Lear, such as rage and desire, grief and fear. An elderly demographic, the play suggests, may be particularly prone to fears relating to loss, decline, replacement by younger generation, injury, disease, diminishing mental capacity, dementia and death.

An unhealthy society will tend to produce unhealthy policies, regardless of how its democracy conforms to ideals. While a healthier society might be able change and improve its form organically, learning from its old people without bowing to them.


Shakespeare's plays offer some interesting views on natural governance, from the anarchistic idyll of the Tempest's Gonzalo, to Timon of Athens imagining the world better run by beasts, to the gardeners of Richard II, to the horned burgers of the Forest of Arden (As You Like It), to the (some plant-named) fairies of Midsummer-Night’s Dream, all of which have some features of biocracy. The sense is that animals and maybe plants govern themselves on the basis of naturally-defined health rather than will, as indeed in biocracy.


Wills are essentially unresolvable: there is no political solution that pleases everyone. Health is essentially resolvable: there will be a political solution that maximises the health of a population. Wills are often hidden, to better get one over on rivals. Health is usually transparent.

In a theological/hereditary monarchy, or a democracy, Will (whether divine, channeling-the-ancestors or popular) is paramount, so there can be little scope to question a culture of maldevelopment. Only under a Health-based political system like biocracy can social changes be considered maldevelopment as such. Lear eventually realises his realm has been maldeveloped (he takes personal responsibility but it is also the ruthless political system at fault), and reverts to nature, bedecking himself with wildflowers and using animals as models of behaviour.

Will and Health: two factors of governance in Shakespeare's King Lear by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Tuesday 5 March 2024

The Sea-People’s Citizen Assembly Scenario: Democracy 0 – Biocracy 1


A thought experiment to test democracy in a non-human scenario.


Popular fiction often depicts sea-people as ruled by monarchs (Disney, Marvel, DC Comics) but suppose that our fictional sea-people have the very best form of democracy you can imagine. This could involve citizen assemblies, mandatable recallable delegates, anything you consider to be best practice.

Five various sea-people sitting around a conference table among distant other tables in an undersea chamber
The Sea-People's Citizen Assembly, diversity champions, hard at work

Now imagine a scenario whereby, perhaps in retaliation to land-people dumping waste in the sea, the global sea-people community democratically decide to dump some of their waste on land. This leads to friction, leads to war, all with ideal democratic processes followed perfectly by our sea-people, leads to annihilation of land-people civilization and many living species by weapons of mass destruction.

If you consider this a bad outcome, from an ideal form of democracy, what is wrong in this scenario? Is the problem the extension of democracy to non-humans, even if they are in many ways very similar to us? Or are there any flaws in democracy you can identify?

The Sea-People’s Citizen Assembly Scenario: Democracy 0 – Biocracy 1 by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Friday 2 February 2024

Why did the 2023 Doctor Who Specials embrace far-right tropes on immigrants, foreigners and ethnic minorities?


Four special editions of BBC's Doctor Who primetime 'Adventures in Time and Space Drama' broadcast in 2023 exhibit far-right tropes, so what are these, and why?


First we will set the scene regarding the direction the rebooted Doctor Who has been moving in.

Then we will take each of the Specials in turn to pick out specific and common tropes, include some feedback from right-wing press reviewers, present our conclusions and speculate as to motives.

Top jackets of 14th and 15th Doctor Who with Union Jack badge in front of British House of Commons with Big Ben clock tower.
"Doctor Whos, defenders of London, home of the BBC, the Centre of the Universe"

And yes, of necessity there will be spoilers. Before we start, a brief note.

Art develops at scale

Or: more patterns emerge as a body of work grows. Stereotypes or typical traits emerge more clearly over a body of work. Silences, avoidances, distortions, favourites are easier to spot when the opus of a creator (or a country's creative industry) is considered, than in a single work. The forest emerges from the trees. So, we consider that the repetition of consistent themes in four Specials is a much more significant pattern than themes in one or two out of four.

The Direction of Travel

We have already analysed the Doctor Who reboot up until the The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016), which provides us with some starting themes.


Instead of the BBC's own pitch of Adventures in Time and Space, we get larks in London and Cardiff (and Sheffield).


Since the reboot, Modern Who embodies the rightwing Great Man (Occasionally Woman) View of History (reminiscent of the BBC's own star system?) while Classic Who typically tried to avoid it (the Classic Doctor started off as a researcher with a malfunctioning TARDIS, and was not the locus of problem-solving). However, even more extreme valuation of select individuals have arrived with the trend towards ego-dominance politics of Modern Who.


There is a highly regressive feel about Modern Who's preoccupation with superficiality and the perceived outward attractiveness of characters, which leans towards speciesism and a narrowing of focus.

Monsters and Terrorists

Aliens are now typically monsters or terrorists, to be defeated or killed, preferably both.

No Such Thing as Society

In all the broadcast reboot, there is no alien society fairly sketched.

Child endangerment

Red flags, combined with the celebrity-importing and sexualised themes and styles.

The Star Beast

The plot of the Star Beast is essentially Donald Trump's anti-immigrant version of The Snake

claiming that the decision to allow people claiming refugee status to enter the United States would "come back to bite us", as happened to the woman who took in the snake in the song.

Now, appearances-can-be-deceptive is by itself a useful instruction, albeit one the appearance-obsessed Modern Who applies selectively. But because of the show's current Anglocentrism, aliens are mostly shown as visitors, and here an actual asylum-seeker, the Meep, who turns out to be a mass-murdering fugitive from justice.

Donna: “I would burn down the world for you” (09:39). Well, the Doctor previously would have destroyed the Universe for Clara, so perhaps this counts as progress. As in the small-minded focus on Donna’s ‘terrible price’ (she forgets the Doctor and adventures), the rightwing Self-Over-the-Collective trope manifests in various ways throughout these specials.

I was left wondering if a BBC drama about London firefighters tried to make the main characters sympathetic by having them dither over whether to tackle a city-threatening blaze or nip round to see if their own house was OK, what the viewer reaction might be. Nobody seemed all that fussed about some distant civilization or galactic council being obliterated or eaten, and even the Doctor's apology expression of regret for getting the bumbling galactic cops murdered by an entity in his own custody seemed merely for form.

Wild Blue Yonder

Wild Blue Yonder is a war song, but a USAmerican not a British one. Why the distancing?

The aliens use terror to make copying easier. Replacement is one of the far-right’s concerns, but perhaps that is just a coincidence here, and is more like Capgras syndrome, or just identity theft.

No alien/foreign society yet again. Instead a laserlike small-minded focus on characters, yet again, as with celebritising history, here fun-washing the reputation of Isaac Newton, who blew his fortune investing in slavery during the South Sea Bubble, which might have been worth a look (Modern Who similarly fun-washed the reputation of public racist Charles Dickens in a cringeworthy fanboy episode).

The Giggle

John Logie-Baird has a important historical role as a television pioneer, as do many (see Wikipedia), and his mechanical system is not the forerunner of modern electronic screens (that would be a right-wing British-invented-television myth) which the episode requires.

The concept of television is the work of many individuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The unexplained Vlinx (robot, alien, alien-robot?) is the real hero for inventing the Zeedex inhibitor. The Doctor seems to think the Vlinx has an organic brain, since he asks if it is affected by the Giggle-Signal.

The Doctor acts as World Dictator (see 16:22) in authorising the strike against the South Korean satellite. Later (from 38:01) the Doctor peremptorially treats the Vlinx as a servant, slave even. Even it was a robot, so was K9, and the Doctor didn't treat it as a slave. So maybe more of the Modern Doctor's racism/speciesism/bigotry.

The Toymaker’s cod-Euro accents and obsession with rules marks is unmistakably a caricature of European Union bureaucracy, therefore this villain seems designed to please right-wing Brexiteers.

Donna’s lack of empathy for the bereaved Stookie family is characteristic but her violence seems particularly disproportionate to their limited threat, killing the children in front of their mother, who seemed to be a sentient lifeform, presumably capable of at least psychological pain (grief).

At least this episode had the potential to say something interesting about society, but it never materialised, along with other missed opportunities (like to say something interesting about gaming, often a bugbear with the right, despite its own right-wing cadres).

The Church on Ruby Road

One might suppose that JK Rowling's troubles with goblins might have been a lesson worth learning, but here Modern Who goes further, evoking gypsy curses, child abduction, possibly even blood libel territory. A traveller community living among us; a wainscot society whose discovery might be expected to be joyous, even if there are initial conflicts; but no, they must be mass-murdered by way of a Christian church steeple, which suggests they are infidels, pagans, non-Christians or just not High Church enough. Well, it wouldn't be the first time the Doctor was hauled before a court on a genocide charge.

In reality, it is organised religion and particularly hierarchical high churches that pose especial risk to children, something that, as another hierarchical organisation with form, the BBC should be all too aware of. But look, over there! Travelling folk! I mean, Goblins! This follows a standard right-wing pattern of denying actual abuse at home while projecting blame on others (or Others).

Petty human concerns and self-absorption fill this episode, when real humans might have other things on their mind than partying; this is a continual problem in setting Doctor Who in present-day Britain, it must to some extent ignore current affairs and make its characters appear more ignorant as a result.

Another urban setting. No (non-humanoid) animals? It’s actually quite difficult to find a children’s/family Christmas special that doesn’t have animals (often as subjects in their own right), so what’s going on here? The fate of non-human life on Earth is not an apparent concern. Nothing to gladden the heart of an environmentalist or brighten the eye of a budding biologist. Strangely for a Christmas special aimed at children, it is very much Nature-avoidant, and the only tree appears in drag, toppling towards Davina McCall.

Reviews in the right-wing press

If Doctor Who is now supposedly woke, why doesn't it cover the same issues as Al Murray's Why Does Everyone Hate the British Empire? That these areas are off-limits must be very pleasing to the reviewers in newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. Here are a small but representative selection of their views.

Doctor Who review: Power-crazed aliens, cosmic cops... this show is back to its best, writes ROLAND WHITE for the Daily Mail ***** (five stars) for The Star Beast
Doctor Who: Wild Blue Yonder, review: a jaw-dropping injection of sheer Saturday night magic ***** (five stars, Telegraph)
Doctor Who: The Giggle, review: David Tennant hands over to Ncuti Gatwa in unprecedented regeneration **** (four stars, Telegraph)
Doctor Who review: All-swinging, all-dancing, this athletic new five-star Doctor has thankfully left the weary, wokey preaching behind, says Christopher Stevens for the Daily Mail, for The Church on Ruby Road

Further Reflections

Ditzy, clumsy, error-prone, delulu or snarky women

From Donna spilling coffee into the TARDIS console to the succession of clumsy/incompetent women in the Christmas special, Doctor Who seems to have a problem with female characters. The somewhat clunky statement of female competence in the Giggle seems like a conscious attempt at bias correction. So while there were organic misogynistic tropes in the Specials, there were also signs of mechanical editorial correction.


It is pretty clear that Modern Who is especially antagonistic to non-human life, which is curious considering that many science fiction and fantasy shows make use of computer-generated graphics to give life to them, often joyously or poignantly so. But here there is an obvious hierarchy within humankind, with the current population of London being close to the top, while further off in space and time humans dwindle into comparative insignificance, though may at least be occasionally visible/mentioned.


Mere dislike of foreigners would be right-wing, but to repeatedly cast them as terrorists, mass-murderers, vaudeville artistes and baby-eaters and joy in their defeats and destruction pushes the dial firmly to the far-right. This brief analysis has uncovered other patterns of right-wing tropes, also reflecting strict and stable worldview hierarchies. Furthermore, ego-dominance ideologies, the self over the collective, are another repeated pattern.

Additionally, it is the silences, avoidances and exclusions that really seem to be welcomed by the right-wing press. With a fully-functional TARDIS, the Doctor could take companions on research trips through the history of the British Empire (and the rest of topics of interest to the likes of Horrible Histories) so the Modern Who idea of a party-taxi TARDIS seems almost obscene by comparison. Even the fantasy elements of Modern Who seem designed to poison the well of history (although to be fair, Classic Who and Transitional Who also produced their uncomfortable this-changes-everything storylines).

There is a lack of empathy pervading the series. I have previously suggested a fix for this.

Why, then?

Is the BBC trying to placate a wing of the ruling Conservative Party and its right-wing newspaper backers to protect its licence fee? Is this a trade-off so it can also broadcast more Establishment-critical shows (like Vigil)? Is there an element of elitism, Londocentrism and institutional racism in the BBC management? Or is it a case of the personal tastes and biases of a small clique of creatives? Is there a particular kind of groupthink within the BBC given its documented demographic overrepresentations? Who knows.

Why did the 2023 Doctor Who Specials embrace far-right tropes on immigrants, foreigners and ethnic minorities? by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0