“And you that love the commons, follow me”: Shakespeare and the Demagogue

Salon put out an article last weekend decrying the commandeering of Shakespeare by conservative think-tankers who believe that “Shakespeare offers future CEOs and business leaders the models they need to achieve ruthless success behind the veneer of ethical behavior.” While we at the ASC certainly believe that Shakespeare offers some lessons for leaders, the subjects of the article seem to have missed the mark and learned the wrong lessons. The article’s author, Chris MacDonald, does an excellent job analyzing where Shakespeare’s plays send messages that are conservative, liberal, or a little bit of both, pointing towards the concept that it’s not so easy to put him in one box, particularly since he does such a good job showcasing the vast spectrum of human experience. It got me thinking, though, about one element in Shakespeare’s plays that is resonating particularly loudly in this election year.

If Shakespeare has any consistent political message, it seems to be this: Beware the demagogue. Beware the one who tells you only what you want to hear. Beware someone who drives you towards chaos rather than towards construction. In a political climate where success seems to depend on little more than out-shouting one’s opponents, that’s a lesson we could all benefit from revisiting.

Visitors to the Playhouse this fall will have the opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s finest examples of populism gone horrible wrong in The Rise of Queen Margaret (Henry VI, Part 2), in the figure of Jack Cade. Though he claims he has noble heritage that entitles him to the crown, he appeals to the masses with promises that are so extravagant as to be ludicrous — but the crowd heartily cheers them:

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The cast of 2010’s 2 Henry VI; photo by Tommy Thompson

CADE
There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common… There shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score…
I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign.

This would all be laughable if not for the fact that Cade’s followers take him seriously. His promises are ludicrous, and he has no plan for their implementation — he just assumes that, once he’s in power, he can do as he likes. Unfortunately, Cade’s influence shows what can happen when this fervor spins out of control. His supporters quickly turn violent, with the famous and almost-always-removed-from-context cry to “Kill all the lawyers.” Cade’s response is alarming because it uses the sort of logical fallacy that modern politicians also employ when they hope to make something absurd, offensive, or dangerous seem rational:

CADE
That I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.

This turn demonstrates the anti-intellectualism that also permeates much modern political discourse — the sense that, somehow, intelligence and education aren’t things we should want in our leaders. Cade and his followers express distrust of learned men, they claim that men who can read and write must be villains and that those who speak French are traitors, and they hang a clerk for confessing his literacy. From there, the violence blooms outward to encompass pretty much anyone that the crowd doesn’t like or that Cade thinks hasn’t shown him enough respect — “The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute” — leading to the gruesome beheadings in Act Four, scene seven.

Eventually Clifford turns the fickleness of the crowd against Cade, invoking the name of the popular hero Henry V. Realizing he’s been out-maneuvered, Cade states, “The name of Henry the Fifth hales them to an hundred mischiefs, and makes them leave me desolate.” Clifford proves ruthless, however; after promising the rebellious citizens amnesty and glory, he has them prepared to be hanged. King Henry VI pardons them, earning their loyalty — and making the audience wonder if Clifford intended that, making them all unconscious actors in a play staged to bolster support for the king. If so, it’s a psychologically cruel ploy, but an extremely effective one, and one that demonstrates the inherent danger of a populace too willing to hand over power to a speaker who flatters them and makes empty promises.

Shakespeare shows us another drama meant to manipulate the populace in Richard III, when Richard and the Duke of Buckingham stage a scene to win support for his usurpation of his nephew. Richard appears with two churchmen, feigning pious study and claiming he has no desire to the throne, whereupon Buckingham, surrounded by the Lord Mayor of London and various citizens, has to “convince” him both by praising his supposed virtues and by threatening to set someone else up in his place:

RICHARD
Alas, why would you heap these cares on me?
I am unfit for state and majesty;
I do beseech you, take it not amiss;
I cannot nor I will not yield to you.

BUCKINGHAM
If you refuse it,—as, in love and zeal,
Loath to depose the child, Your brother’s son;
As well we know your tenderness of heart
And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse,
Which we have noted in you to your kin,
And regally indeed to all estates,—
Yet whether you accept our suit or no,
Your brother’s son shall never reign our king;
But we will plant some other in the throne,
To the disgrace and downfall of your house:
And in this resolution here we leave you.—
Come, citizens: ‘zounds! I’ll entreat no more.

The Lord Mayor ends up begging Buckingham and the citizens to come back and entreat Richard once again, and he begs Richard to accept. Richard knew how to play against their expectations, gaining the crown by pretending he did not want it.
Even some of Shakespeare’s finest rhetorical speeches can be seen as examples of a leader using clever language and popular appeal to ignoble ends. Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech is perhaps as fine an example of persuasive wordcraft as one can find in the English language — you can see Dr. Ralph’s mark-up here — but it’s persuading men to die for a cause that (as other characters in the play point out) is not necessarily just. Mark Antony eloquently whips the Roman plebeians into a fervor in Julius Caesar, skillfully manipulating them to turn against Brutus, the man they had lauded only moments before. Both Henry and Antony feign modesty of some kind — Henry says he does not care for gold, or clothes, or “who doth feed upon my cost”, and Antony claims “I am no orator, as Brutus is” — but both are playing their own attributes down in an attempt to align themselves with the common interest.

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Patrick Poole in rehearsal as Antony; photo by Jay McClure

Antony’s speech is more effective than Brutus’s partly because while Brutus makes an argument designed on logic (even if it’s often false logic), meant to appeal to the listener’s head, Antony goes straight for the heart. He appeals to emotions, and he receives an emotional response. He also offers the commons a more concrete reward than Brutus does, however. While Brutus says that the benefit of Caesar’s death will be the somewhat nebulous “place in the commonwealth” for every citizen, Antony pulls out Caesar’s will and promises them their inheritance — 75 drachmas to each man, as well as access to public parks, given to the populace in perpetuity. By the end of his speech, the citizens of Rome set off to burn houses and murder anyone they connect with Caesar’s death, including the hapless Cinna the Poet. Antony openly admits — to the audience, at least — that his purpose was manipulation: “Now, mischief, thou art afoot; take thou what course thou wilt.”

So, what political message can we truly consider Shakespeare’s legacy? Conservative, liberal, or moderate, Shakespeare’s message seems to be to think. Listen carefully and critically. Don’t accept what any potential leader says at face value, even or perhaps especially if they’re promising you something you want — because they want something, too.

–Cass Morris
ASC Academic Resources Manager

Shakespeare’s England: A Land of Lords – Preview #5

AttractionsThe northward leg of our journey will take us to Northumberland, land of the Percys. The family’s most famous son is also the Percy who features most heavily in Shakespeare’s works: the fierce and bellicose Hotspur, one of the chief antagonists of Henry IV, Part 1. Shakespeare places him in opposition to Prince Hal, the future Henry V, going so far as to have Henry IV lament:

Henry IV: Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
But let him from my thoughts.

The Percy family is one of England’s most enduring, and Alnwick Castle (pictured in a 1750 painting, below) has been their seat of power since they were mere barons in the early 14th century. They were raised to the earldom by Henry IV, whom they later rebelled against, but found royal favor again during the Wars of the Roses, where they first supported the Lancastrian cause of Henry VI. The second earl (Hotspur’s son) died at the Battle of St. Alban’s, and the third earl died in the Battle of Towton. Shakespeare dramatizes both of these battles: Henry VI, Part 2 ends with St. Alban’s, and Act 3 of Henry VI, Part 3, featuring the famous scene where a father kills his son and a son his father. After Towton, the family briefly lost their title, but the fourth earl got it back by pledging fealty to Edward IV. From then, the Percys became Yorkists, fighting for Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Though taken prisoner after that battle, the fourth earl evidently won Henry VII’s regard, as the king released him and entrusted him with several prominent government posts during his life.

1024px-Canaletto_Alnwick

The family fared less well under later Tudors. The sixth earl was briefly engaged to Anne Boleyn, until Cardinal Wolsey scolded him into jilting her — perhaps because Henry VIII had already expressed interest in Anne. His brother Thomas took part in the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising against Henry VIII, was convicted of treason, hanged, drawn, and quartered — though considered a Catholic martyr. The seventh earl led the Rising of the North, an attempt to replace Queen Elizabeth I with her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. When the plot failed, he fled to Scotland, was captured, and beheaded at York. The Percys’ apparent inability to pick a winner continued into the 17th century. The ninth earl took part in the Gunpowder Plot against King James I, and the family supported first the royalists, then the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War.

After what could be regarded as two centuries of bad decisions, the Percys settled down, with the family raised to the dukedom in the 1700s. The Percy name has twice fallen extinct in the male line, but been revived when husbands of Percy daughters chose to take the surname — a testament to the family’s enduring legacy. They also have a few interesting American connections — one Percy was an early governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the illegitimate son of the first duke was James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian Institute.

Downton AbbeyBecause the Percys’ Alnwick Castle is in better condition than many castles from the same period, it has enjoyed fame through film and television, appearing in Becket, Black Adder, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. More recently — and perhaps more notably — its exterior played the part of Hogwarts Castle in several of the Harry Potter movies, and fans of Downton Abbey may recognize it as Brancaster Castle, site of the 2014 and 2015 Christmas specials.

Next time on the NKSC Preview: Hadrian’s Wall and a castle by the sea.

We  do still have a few slots on the trip open, so if you find these previews enticing and have been sitting on the fence, register now to join us in July!

Shakespeare’s England: A Land of Lords — Preview #4

Before I begin today’s itinerant interlude, a note: We do still have a few slots open, so if you’re enticed by what you’ve been reading on the blog, register now to join us in England in July!

Cambridge University is the second-oldest university in England, founded in 1209 by scholars who fled Oxford University in the wake of a dispute with the townsfolk there. Until the 1820s, Cambridge and Oxford were the only universities in England — unusual for a Western European country. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the universities featured prominently (along with the printing press in London) in the development of humanism and the classical revival. Education was conducted in Latin and focused on the seven classical liberal arts — grammar, logic, rhetoric, math, music, astronomy, and geometry — along with history, philosophy, ethics, and poetry. While Shakespeare never attended university, many of his contemporaries did — including Christopher Marlowe, an alumnus of Christ’s College at Cambridge.

Playmaking had its place at the university, too, as Shakespeare mentions in Hamlet.

Hamlet. No, nor mine now. My lord, you play’d once i’ th’ university, you say?
Polonius. That did I, my lord, and was accounted a good actor.
Hamlet. What did you enact?
Polonius. I did enact Julius Caesar; I was kill’d i’ th’ Capitol; Brutus kill’d me.
Hamlet. It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there. Be the players ready.
Much of our information about early modern theatre comes not from the public playhouses but from the universities, as they were often better at preserving documents, including scripts and actors’ parts.

We’ll begin our scholastic sojourn at King’s College, founded by King Henry VI — subject of three of Shakespeare’s plays — in 1441. Famous alumni of King’s include Robert Walpole (the first British Prime Minister), Alan Turing, John Maynard Keynes, George Santayana, and many famous writers, including Salman Rushdie, E. M. Forster, and Zadie Smith.

2016-03-31With its enormous fan vault, stained-glass windows, and elaborate wooden chancel screen, the King’s College Chapel is one of the finest examples of English Gothic architecture. King Henry VI began work on the chapel in 1446. Construction was slowed, however, and eventually halted by the Wars of the Roses. When King Henry was deposed in 1461, the walls were only half-finished. King Richard III resumed construction during his short reign, stating that “the building should go on with all possible despatch.” Henry VII took up the job in 1508. Each time construction restarted, builders had to use stone from a different source, resulting in a visible line between the older, lighter stone and the newer, darker stone (much like that we Americans are familiar with on the Washington Monument).

The interior of the chapel was finally completed under King Henry VIII, who added the wooden screen in celebration of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. To put their own stamp — quite literally — on a project begun by a deposed predecessor, Henrys VII and VIII added Tudor rose embellishments throughout the chapel. Be sure to look for these during our visit!

Our collegiate tour continues at the Wren Library of Trinity College. Though founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII, Trinity’s importance stretches for centuries both before and after. Henry VIII actually formed Trinity out of two older schools: King’s Hall, founded by Edward II, and Michaelhouse, a smaller and less wealthy school. Today, at over 1000 undergraduates, grad students, and fellows, Trinity is the largest college at either Oxford or Cambridge. Alumni include Francis Bacon (once a popular focus of Shakespeare authorship conspiracies), Isaac Newton, John Dryden, Lord Byron, several Prime Ministers, a host of Nobel Prize winners, and HRH The Prince of Wales. Much of the famous architecture dates to the late 17th-century, including that of the Wren Library, designed by Christopher Wren. Those of you who were with us in 2013 saw St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, also designed by Wren (and Virginians may be familiar with his work here in America, as the oldest building at the College of William and Mary is also his design).

The Wren Library boasts over 1250 medieval manuscripts and over 70,000 books printed before 1800, including an eighth-century manuscript of the Epistles of St. Paul, a 14th-century manuscript of The Vision of Piers Plowman, Isaac Newton’s 1659-1661 notebook and a first edition of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, where he set out his laws of motion and gravity, and the Capell collection of early Shakespeare quartos.

Newton Apple Tree

Speaking of Isaac Newton: not only was he an alumnus of Trinity College, but a tree on its grounds is said to be the one which inspired his theory of gravity (or a grafted descendant of the original arboreal muse). Unfortunately, the story is apocryphal, as Newton was likely not living in Cambridge, but in Lincolnshire at the time of his inspiration — but, as Shakespeare knew, sometimes true history needs a little legendary embellishment! The tree is located beneath the window where Newton lived and studied while he was at Trinity.

University life wasn’t, however, all work and no play. Students had a less-than-glorious reputation in the early modern era. Various plays of the period portray university students as profligate spendthrifts, always writing home for money, and as drunken debauchers, enjoying a life of little restriction, far from their homes. Shakespeare tells us as much through Vincentio in The Taming of the Shrew, who laments:

“While I play the good husband at home, my son and my servant spend all at the university.”

Some early modern writers also noted the pompous airs that university students put on, as in Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, where Tim, recently returned from Cambridge, disdainfully insists his mother call him ‘Timotheus’. He gets comeuppance for his snobbery when he speaks in Latin to his intended wife, the Welsh Gentlewoman (actually a knight’s cast-off mistress), who, thinking he cannot speak English, tries speaking back to him in Welsh, and whereupon he takes her for “a good scholar.”

DSC07031-1We’ll have a taste of traditional Cambridge entertainment when we go punting on the Cam. If you were with us in 2013, you’ll remember our adventure on the Isis at Oxford (picture at left). From what I gather, the River Cam is wider, shallower, and boasts far fewer obstacles in the way of overhanging trees and snarled underwater thickets.

Cambridge will be the last stop of our trip, and we’ll cap the day off with a fine feast of which any starving undergraduate would be envious.

Next time on the NKSC Preview: Northumberland, home of Hotspur and Hadrian’s Wall.

And remember — you can still register to join us!