Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob – Part II

Part 2

The historical and contemporary comparisons with Cade and the mountebank of Sir Lewis Namier are obvious from these remarks of that most formidable historian.

They thought that because he [Napoleon]  was intellectually their inferior, they would be able to run him or get rid of him; the German conservatives – Junkers, industrialists, generals, Nationalists – thought the same about Hitler.  [And the Italians thought the same about Mussolini.] ….Self-expression, self-glorification and self-commemoration are one motive…..The careers of Napoleon III and Hitler have shown how far even a bare minimum of ideas and resources, when backed by a nation’s reminiscences or passions, can carry a man in the political desert of direct democracy’…..There was in him [Napoleon III] a streak of vulgarity.  He was sensual, dissolute, undiscriminating in his love affairs: his escapades were a form of escapism, a release…He talked high and vague idealism, uncorrelated to his actions.  He had a fixed, superstitious, childish belief in his name and star.  Risen to power, this immature weak man became a public danger.

That is not just a comparison – it is a word perfect portrait.

So, there in that very early play (Henry VI, Part II), we get chapter and verse on the worst kind of populist.  It may look to be shockingly overdone – until we recall those regimes of terror that I have referred to – and, for that matter, if we just look round about us now.  The populist is considered more clinically in later plays.

Everyone is familiar with the speech of Antony when he came to bury Caesar.  And for all of its devilishly sinister appeal, it is pure political duplicity.  Antony expressly repudiates undertakings given to that prince of naivety named Brutus.  It is a wonderful speech.  Brando relished every syllable.  But we get the highest form of political theatre immediately before and after the speech.  When Antony has to confront the murderers he has to walk on eggshells.  The nobles may be politically backward, but they have the power, and it takes peerless judgment on the part of Antony to get the chance to swing people gainst the status quo.  This is theatre at its highest.  As is the scene that immediately follows the big speech.  (It is remarkable that some productions leave on or other out.)

Here, then, is how our playwright shows the reaction of the mob, which is wonderfully played with diverse English accents on the Argo CD.  Act 3, Scene 3, in its entirety is as follows:

Cinna:                     I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar, And things unluckily charge my fantasy. I have no will to wander forth of doors, Yet something leads me forth.

First Plebeian:       What is your name?

Second Plebeian:   Whither are you going?

Third Plebian:        Where do you dwell?

Fourth Plebeian:   Are you a married man or a bachelor?

Second Plebeian:   Answer every man directly.

First Plebeian:       Ay, and briefly.

Fourth Plebeian:   Ay, and wisely.

Third Plebeian:      Ay, and truly, you were best.

Cinna:                     What is my name?  Whither am I going?  Where do I dwell? Am I married man or a bachelor?  Then, to answer every man directly and briefly, wisely and truly: wisely I say, I am a bachelor.

Second Plebeian:   That’s as much as to say, they are fools that marry: you’ll bear

me a bang for that, I fear. Proceed directly.

Cinna:                     Directly, I am going to Caesar’s funeral.

First Plebeian:       As a friend or an enemy?

Cinna:                     As a friend.

Second Plebeian:   That matter is answered directly.

Fourth Plebeian:   For your dwelling, briefly.

Cinna:                     Briefly, I dwell by the Capitol.

Third Plebeian:      Your name, sir, truly.

Cinna:                     Truly, my name is Cinna.

First Plebeian:       Tear him to pieces!  He’s a conspirator.

Cinna:                     I am Cinna the poet!  I am Cinna the poet!

Fourth Plebeian:   Tear him for his bad verses!  Tear him for his bad verses!

Cinna:                     I am not Cinna the conspirator.

Fourth Plebeian:   It is no matter, his name’s Cinna pluck but his name out of his

heart, and turn him going.

Third Plebeian:      Tear him, tear him!  [They attack him.]  Come, brands, ho!

Firebrands!  To Brutus’, to Cassius’! Burn all! Some to Decius’ house, and some to Casca’s; some to Ligarius’! Away, go!

Now you know what a lynch mob looks like.  It is a complete denial of humanity.

In Coriolanus, we are in the middle of the class war that disfigured the republic of Rome for centuries.  The tribunes are the representatives of the people – the lower orders.  The tribunes might for some resemble officials of a punchy trade union.  (Do you wonder what the word ‘militant’ might mean in this context?)  They are a very cold self-preserving cadre of string-pullers and puppeteers.


Doubt not
The commoners, for whom we stand, but they
Upon their ancient malice will forget
With the least cause these his new honours, which
That he will give them make I as little question
As he is proud to do’t…(2.1.232-237.



This, as you say, suggested
At some time when his soaring insolence
Shall touch the people—…..(2.1.259 – 261)

It matters not the ‘soaring insolence’ of Coriolanus is more than matched by that of the tribunes.


What is the city but the people?


The people are the city.(3.1.198-199)

The conflict becomes electric when a plebeian uses a verb in the imperative mood to a noble.  This is too much for Coriolanus who explodes.


It is a mind
That shall remain a poison where it is,
Not poison any further.


Shall remain!
Hear you this Triton of the minnows? mark you
His absolute ‘shall’?  (3.1.88ff)

But this mob is as fickle as that of Cade.  When the tide turns, they compete with each other to see who can turn tail the fastest.

First Citizen

For mine own part,
When I said, banish him, I said ’twas pity.

Second Citizen

And so did I.

Third Citizen

And so did I; and, to say the truth, so did very
many of us: that we did, we did for the best; and
though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet
it was against our will.

When it comes to politics, then, there is truly nothing new under the sun.

2 thoughts on “Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob – Part II

  1. “He had a fixed, superstitious, childish belief in his name and star. Risen to power, this immature weak man became a public danger.”
    Can you advise me on the author/book you are quoting? Thank you.

    • Sir Lewis Namier – one of his books of essays.
      I caught some of an old game between Geelong and Essendon. God kicked 14 and your side won. Hird was on God at the end.

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