Hamlet, Act I, Part V
“So the whole ear of Denmark
Is, by a forgèd process of my death,
Throughout her long reign, the late Queen Elizabeth II was heralded as a symbol of continuity, permanence, stoicism and unity. After all, what is the point of a British monarch if not to be an ambulatory synecdoche? And if this synecdoche remained enigmatic and silent, all the better for her to serve as a vessel filled with whatever her people chose.
In her death, a most curious thing can be observed: the collective ritual of grief has had a curious personal tone, as echoed in the King’s Speech. People recall their own parents’ and grandparents’ death in her passing, their own dear mamas and papas suddenly reeling out of the woodwork to both stain and balm the vessel’s demise. We unite as families, swelling in a tide of remembrance. Or do we?
What is this family, this Britain, and how is it represented in her death? With all the magical pomp from its diseased undertakers, the fierce slapping on of cloying thick layers of pageantry truss up the already rotting bird. People were still apt to be bedazzled by the ancient ways, as if it were ever thus and ever more. But what lies behind all of this rigmarole, this malarkey, this dysentery of lamentation?
There is a part of Britain that sees its rightful unity in the appropriate display of grief, its black vestments, its sombre messaging, the stern unbending silence. The utter propriety of laying down hundreds of wreaths at metal gates, the leaving of marmalade sandwiches in the rain in a metropolis that grows ever hungrier even as the rats grow fat – these are the correct and true actions of a society that believes in the richness of its display as superseding the poverty of its constituents.
If the monarchy was serious – and we must be serious for this is a serious moment, so we are told and reminded, constantly – if it were serious about its people, it would recognise that the millions of dollars spent on flowers, travel, the paying of respects, the time taken off, the sandwiches (sandwiches! The fucking sandwiches!), the toys and the tchotchkes are a national shame. After we throw off our mourning blacks, we will wake up to the same things as before: a massive cost of living crisis, with the imminent prospect of families starving and freezing to death in the coming months.
If the monarchy has any legitimacy (choking on my own words!), it is in obligation, in service, to its people. This service cannot be as empty figureheads, but as examples of good, of the ideals we want Britain to be. What would it have cost them to say: instead of leaving flowers, consider donating to charity. Instead of buying things to be chucked out after a week, invest in material support and welfare? How hard would it have been to say: ‘Please, consider giving to those who have less.’ How hard would it have been to say: ’If you cared for her, care for your friends, your neighbours, and your community.’
The ghost of it all will come back to haunt us. By the forgery of this grief, what is left of Britain is abused. This will be the winter of our discontent. And perhaps finally the hungry will see that we have little need for symbols, little need for costume, when we gnaw at empty air.
Featured image CC BY 2.0 Matt Brown
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