Frederick II, King of Prussia

Frederick II, King of Prussia

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (1712-1786), was a notable practitioner of what was known as “enlightened despotism” – a philosophy that espoused absolute monarchy combined with a social contract that the ruler was obliged solely to rule in the interests of his people.

I studied this philosophy briefly at university and recall a particular text that I would like to read again, that I have now been fruitlessly seeking for some years. I had thought for a long time that the author was Frederick himself, and that an essay that he had written on the nature of monarchy was the source of the text I had read. It took some time to find the actual name of that essay – An Essay on Form of Government, and on the Duties of Sovereigns –   and then even longer to find the full text, as most references to it contained only short extracts.

Given the difficulty of sourcing this text, which I eventually found in a scan of a 1789 translation of Frederick’s unpublished works uploaded to Google Books, I am rather suspicious of its widespread citation in various student essays!

Sadly for myself, the full 33 page essay does not contain the text that I am looking for, and it seems now likely that it was excerpted from a letter by Voltaire. Before I embark on reading all of Voltaire’s selected letters, however, I have typed up and made An Essay on Forms of Government available to the public in an accessible form.

APA citation: Holcroft, T. (1789). Posthumous Works of Frederic II, King of Prussia. Vol. V. Ireland: G.G.J. and J. Robinson. Pp. 5-33.

The scanned book itself:

Download (PDF, 12.02MB)

 

An Essay on Form of Government, and on the Duties of Sovereigns

 

If we look back into the most remote antiquity, we shall find that the people whose history has descended to us led pastoral lives, and did not form social bodies. What the book of Genesis related of the history of the Patriarchs is sufficient proof. Previous to this small Jewish nations, the Egyptians must in like manner have been dispersed over those countries which the Nile did not submerge; and many ages no doubt paffed away before the vanquished river would permit the people to assemble in small towns. From the Grecian history we learn the names of founder of states, and of those legislators who first assembled the Greeks in bodies. This nation was long in a savage state, as well as all the nations of the globe. Had the annals of the Etruscans and those of the Samnite, Sabine and other tribes, come down to us, we should assuredly have learnt that they lived in distinct families, before they were assembled and united.

 

The Gauls were forming into societies at the time they were conquered by Julius Caesar; but it appears Great Britain has not attained this point of affection, when the conqueror first paffed into that island with his Roman legions. In the age of this great man, the Germans could only be compared to what the Iroquois and Algonquins, or some equally savage people, are at present. They existed by hunting and fishing, and on their milk and herds. A German thought himself debased by cultivating he earth; this was a labour performed by the slaves he had taken in war. The Hercynian forest, at that time, was almost wholly covered the vast extent of country which at present composes the German empire. The nation could not be populous, for want of sufficient food; and this no doubt was the true cause of the prodigious emigrations of the northern people, who hastened southward in search of lands ready cleared, under a less rigorous climate.

 

We are astonished at imaging the human race so long existing in a brutal state, and without forming itself into societies. Reasons are accordingly suggested, such as might induce people like these to unite in bodies. It must have been the violence and pillage which existed among neighbouring hordes, that could have first inspired such savage families with the wish of uniting, that they might secure their possessions by mutual defence. Hence laws took birth, which taught those societies to prefer to the general to individual good. From that time, no person durst seize the effects of another, because of the dread of chastisement. The life, the wife, and the wealth of the neighbour were sacred; and if the whole society were attacked, it was the duty of the whole to assemble for its defence. The grand truth, -“That we should do unto others as they should do unto us” – became the principle of laws, and of the social compact. Hence originated the love of our country, which was regarded as the asylum of happiness.

 

But, as these laws could neither be maintained nor executed, unless some one should incessantly watch for their preservation, magistrates arose, out of this necessity, whom the people elected, and to whom they subjected themselves. Let it be carefully remembered that the preservation of the laws was the sole reason which induced men to allow of, and to elect, a superior; because this is the true origin of sovereign power. The magistrate, thus appointed, was the first servant of the state. When rising states had any thing to fear from their neighbours, the magistrate armed the people, and flew to the defence of the citizens. [click to continue…]

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Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.

One of the things that I try to see more of is puppetry for adults. Not that kind of puppetry (although I have seen that, great show). And so, when I went up to Edinburgh this August to see a friend and take in some shows, I was scrolling through the listings for puppets and found “Puppet Richard II”. I hadn’t had a great experience the last time I saw Richard II and thought, “well, why not go see it again? It’ll be some silly adaptation, no doubt, mainly sock puppets to entertain, let’s have a look”. 

I think there are few things about which I have been so wrong.

Puppet Richard II is one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen.

Gregory Gudgeon is a serious actor with a list of credits that include both the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Globe and decided to do Richard II as a puppet show in order to break up what he considered to be a very dialogue-heavy play, so that people could appreciate it.

“It’s very gestural … it transmits the feeling of what’s going on even if the words are a bit archaic. … The movement of a puppet takes on what you’re doing and speaking the lines becomes secondary to the ballet.”Gregory Gudgeon

And it works. I really works. Using a variety of spoons and other common household objects (The Duke of York is a shoehorn), Gregory imbues these puppets with greater and greater life, manipulating them with life-like gestures until you barely notice his face above or next to them, delivering the lines of the play. As far as you are concerned in that moment, the character *is* a stuffed toy. One reviewer praised “THE most moving John of Gaunt death, played by a glove”.

Award-winning performance of a shoe-horn.

As the play goes on, and Richard loses his throne to Bolingbroke, soon to be Henry IV, the puppets are used to emphasise the shift in power – Richard goes from being played by Gregory in a yellow crown to a soft toy stuck to a chair to becoming a wooden figurine carved to look like Gregory himself, emphasising the continuity of the character. Similarly, Lucas Augustine, who plays Bolingbroke, initially begins just by voicing what looks like a ping-pong bat with a picture of Lucas’ face on it. By the end, he has become the character and sits in the throne at the end of the room.

On that: the room that we were in could sit a maximum of fifteen people who were quite fond of each other. The second half of the play, as it becomes more dramatic, moves from the puppetry set to the middle of the room, where there is no room to store props, so the audience are abruptly handed various puppets to hold while the play unfurls.

I had happened, because we were late arriving, to find myself sitting next to the throne in which Gregory-as-Richard-II sits to deliver his final soliloquays. Less than a foot away from me, delivering a performance fit for any RSC stage. It was intensely marvellous.

Unfortunately, if you’re right next to them, they’re right next to you, and as it happened, my friend that I was visiting had left during the interval, and I was worried that he was waiting for me outside and kept checking my phone, which prompted a rebuke from Richard the bloody II, whoc asked if I had somewhere to be. A mortifying moment. I quickly explained that I was going to send one text to let my friend know what was happening, and he seemed to think I was politely covering up being bored, so I had to say, “No, mate, this is fucking incredible, you keep right at it”, and he smiled and snapped back into character.

As I wrote to another friend, afterwards:

“Honestly, you don’t appreciate what someone can do with puppets to convey emotion when all you have to go on is comedy.

The guy was playing a three inch stuffed cloth tied around the wooden knob at the top of a chair with all the intensity of an RSC performance, it was riveting.”

Richard II, literally clinging to the throne.

There is possibly no greater compliment I can pay a performance than to go and see it again immediately. I went again the next day, so I could see it from the beginning through to the end without interrupting, and it was just as good. I do therefore have to conclude that the first performance I saw at the Sam Wanamaker was just really not that good.

 

Henry Bolingbroke, taking the crown as Henry IV.

Puppetry appears to be one of the rarest performing arts, and if you aren’t around for the London Puppetry festival, it can be difficult to find performances for adults that aren’t weird avant-garde experimental theatre. Gregory and Lucas have produced a play that is funny, tragic, and moving in all the right places. With puppets.


I just wish I could go again. Apparently they do private performances, and I have a thirty birthday to plan…

 

Puppet King Richard II/Edinburgh from Gregory Gudgeon on Vimeo.

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