Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob


Part I

The kings in Shakespeare looked askance at those of their ilk who played to the mob.  They liked to indulge the fiction that they were appointed by God – and only answerable to God.  The notion that they might be chosen by the people was vulgar –in the purest sense of that word.  So, when it came to dealing with an uppity lord (Bolingbroke), Richard II:

Observed his courtship to the common people

How he did seem to dive in their hearts,

With humble and familiar courtesy…..(1.4 22-26)

He even doffed his hat to an oyster wench.  Showing courtesy to the vulgar was in truth a contradiction in terms.  Chivalry is not for the lower orders.  So, when Bolingbroke becomes king, he lectures his heir who has been a ‘truant to chivalry’ by binding himself to popularity and by being ‘stale and cheap to vulgar company’ (Part 1, 3.2.41, 69 and 5.1.94).

But Shakespeare does dwell on the mob in at least three plays, and in doing so he pictures people who bear a remarkable comparison to those who like to call themselves populists – people  like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.

Henry VI Part II is one Shakespeare’s earliest plays.  The picture he paints of the populist puppeteer Jack Cade is revolting – and revolting to fever pitch as played in the BBC production.  I said elsewhere of this monster:

When Banjo Paterson came to stigmatize mindless youth in the then equivalent of our outer suburbs, he referred to gilded youths who sat along the wall: ‘Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all.’  This is a recurrent nightmare for us now, made worse on our trains and buses by sullen looks coming from vacant spaces between iPod exit points.  It is not that education has failed them  –  they have rejected education. There is nothing going on at all there. What might happen if that lot got into government? The nightmare would be made real.


We see the template for this kind of disaster, and every tinpot dictator since, in Jack Cade. He comes and goes within Act 4 of Part 2 of King Henry VI.  Cade is a demagogue of Kentish soil. He is at first invoked as a pawn by a faction leader in the Wars of the Roses.  Cade appeals to the crowd.  But Jack Cade has ideas of his own. He thinks he can be king. (He is no democrat, but dictators never are.)  Although he says that he is waging a class war, he still wants to be king.  Even Hitler did not want to be Kaiser. But like Hitler, the ascent of Cade is by carrot and stick: give the masses what they want and purify the rest by terror by killing anyone who gets in the way.

What, then, does Cade have to teach us about ‘populists’?

The leader of the mob likes to encourage conjecture about birth – his own or that of someone in the status quo.  He introduces himself as Cade ‘so termed by our supposed father’ (4.2.32) before going on to claim to be a Mortimer – even if that result verges on the miraculous, since a fantastic birth has a most august provenance (4.2.136 – 145)

The leader goes out of his way to identify with the common people and to forego any trappings of the better people.  Cade says he will make it a felony to drink small beer and that they should kill all the lawyers (4.2.66, 75).  Any espousal of learning warrants suspicion.

The ambition of the leader is boundless, but so is his insecurity.  That is why he is so quick to put down anyone deviating from his vision or ambition.  It is also why he harbors a jealous regard for the fame of Henry V – the name that hales the mob ‘to an hundred mischiefs and makes them leave me desolate’ (4.9.58-9)

The leader makes wild promises to people who want to believe him.  These promises may look silly to others but that just shows how little the establishment knows about real life.

The establishment does not understand the power of the forces that will be unleashed when the revolution like that aspired to by Cade finally comes.  That was certainly the case for Louis XVI and his nobility – and for the rest of the world between 1789 and 1815.  There would be a similar explosion in Germany after 1933.  In each case, the new regime came close to defeating all Europe.  The Russians after 1917 focussed on killing each other.  The savage intensity of the Cade rebellion was indeed prophetic.

The leader encourages the mob to make ignorance virtue and knowledge a vice.  A man of the people is an ‘honest plain dealing man’ – a person ‘so well brought up that [he] can write his name’ is not one of the people – indeed, he is a ‘villain and a traitor’ and likely to suffer death (4.2.100 – 106).  That fate awaits anyone who looks down on the people – their sense of grievance, once it is unleashed, is insatiable.

While others may deplore the mob, it is unhelpful to say so.  Vilifying the mob just plays into their hands.  This is especially so if the criticism is rational – since any claim to rationality is suspect.  When a noble calls the mob ‘the filth and scum of Kent’ (4.2.119) and goes on about their humble origin, Cade unloads a zinger: ‘And Adam was a gardener’ (4.2.131)

As for anyone who could speak French: God help the obvious traitor (4.2.165).  When John Kerry ran for President, he thought it prudent not to dwell on his ability to speak French.  (The present president does not course have a second language – he has not mastered the first.)  The man of the people is not one those ‘that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can afford to hear’(4.7.39-42).  Cade fears any form of literacy because deep down he knows that not only is he illiterate, but that he simply cannot compete with people of intelligence or learning.

That is one reason Cade mistrusts logical thinking, but he hints at a kind of truth when he says ‘But then we are in order when we are most out of order’ (4.2.187).  This of course is a flirtation with anarchy – but pure anarchy puts the leader out of a job.  This is the dilemma of all those who take power by force – if we could do that to them, what is to stop others doing the same to us?  In this way every revolution comes pregnant with counter-revolution.

When the people rise up to overthrow the existing order, they want to obliterate it.  It’s as if the raiment of history mocks the nakedness of the new boy on the block.  So, ‘burn all records of the realm: my mouth shall be the parliament of England….And hence forward all things shall be in common.’ (4.7.15-20)

The leader can invoke the usual catch-cries, but his shout for ‘liberty’ (4.2.181) is as fatuous as that of the assassins of Julius Caesar.

And the leader is a well-known comic.  That way he can always say he was joking when he says something palpably silly.  This applies even when he is indulging his favourite past-time – eliminating people, except that he does so with extreme prejudice, although, like Trump, he only does it through agents.  The tough talker is frightened to get blood on his hands.

The leader of course demands personal loyalty over and above loyalty to the people.  For this purpose he is the people.  ‘The proudest peer in the realm shall not era a head on his shoulders unless he pay me tribute.’ (4.7.122-123)  There is a curious symbiosis in the relationship between the mob and their leader.  The mob has a spiteful chip on its shoulder; Cade looks to be at risk of collapsing under the weight of his own ego

The leader can of course do no wrong.  It is a maxim that he may have derived from the kings.  If something does go wrong, it is always the fault of others.  In this way, they mirror those who rose up against kings – decorum dictates that you would not criticise the king in his majesty – rather, you would indict his wicked counsellors who misled the king.  And they would say things like ‘If only the good king knew….’Indeed, Cade himself says that he is the broom [besom] ‘that must sweep the court clean of such filth as thou art’ (4.7.37-38).  The image of the cleansing avenger has been about at least since the 6th century BCE in Greece.  It’s so old you might think people can see through it – but, no, there is, as they say, one born every minute.

So, if the leader appears to falter, the reason will be ‘only my followers’ base and ignominious treasons’ (4.9.65).  (Hitler was content to see Germany wiped out because the Germans had let him down’.)  Cade maintains this line even in death.  It is pathetic.  ‘O, I am slain!  Famine and no other hath slain me: let ten thousand devils come against me, and give me but ten meals I have lost, and I’d defy them all’ (4.10.62-65).  The thing about megalomania is the super human power of the mania.  It can trample anything in its path.  (So, while people in the U S die of a virus, their President warbles unashamedly about his position on Facebook.)

It follows that Cade finds out just how fickle the mob is.  ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?’  (4.8.56).  Cade has no friends – only transient travellers.  When the mob goes to water then, it can be like when the dykes get opened.  All restraint is gone.  The violent victors have murdered order.  What follows after the deluge?  To answer that, look at the history of France for the one hundred years following the overthrow of Robespierre.

In the result, Jack Cade looks doomed to be a fire that will burn out quickly –he would be useless in government in ordinary times or during a crisis.  He likes to be at home in crises of his own making.  Of Cade, it might be said that ‘his rash fire blaze of riot cannot last, For violent fires soon burn out themselves’ (Richard II, 2.1.34-35).

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