Why do I keep reading books about the plays, about the contextual crucibles in which they were cooked up?
Because there’s always something new to learn, or an angle that I hadn’t considered before. And that’s where this week’s QotW comes in.
This is, and isn’t a political blog. Partly because politics is inescapable in the plays, and partly because I’m a political animal – because if we don’t make informed decisions then we have no-one to blame but ourselves when the world goes utterly bonkers. That said, I’ve learned – or actually, failed to learn, repeatedly – that speaking up when something is just plain wrong almost always gets you into trouble. Especially if you are in Winston Smith‘s ‘minority of one’. [a]
Example? The other day, I waded into an online forum where someone was abusing their teachers, when the subtext was that the complainer was an unsuccessful student whose chickens were coming home to roost. I was frank and objective, but defended the teachers against the wilder and more abusive claims. The student mob turned and nibbled at me. Perhaps this post should be subtitled ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again‘ …
It’s not long since I read and quite enjoyed Greenblatt‘s ‘Tyrant‘. Serendipitously, whilst I was reflecting on the recent experience, and mobs in Shakespeare (especially Julius Caesar and Jack Cade’s bunch), I found a reminder of the mob’s power in another play I thought I knew all about.
Brian Walsh tells us that Richard III
works to entice playgoers into thinking of themselves as a community, and about how communities might enable, or possibly resist, tyranny.
‘Who is so gross / That cannot see this palpable device? / Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?’ (3.6.10–12). […] The Scrivener castigates not just the corrupt figures who manufactured Hastings’s fall, but those, himself included, who say nothing in the face of obvious injustice: ‘Bad is the world, and all will come to nought / When such ill dealing must be seen in thought’ (3.6.13–14). The moral neutrality that enables Richard’s rise to power is one of Shakespeare’s key points in Richard III. [b]
Walsh’s essay is fresh and fascinating to my newly-spectacled eyes. I see all around me the equivalents of Shakespeare’s Scrivener, aware of what’s happening to our cherished democracies even as they are reluctant to speak out. Who can blame them? Facts and reasoned debate are unfashionable now – replaced by simply drowning out or abusing your opponents, emotional ruling the visceral decisions people make to the extent that people see a change of opinion as weakness, not strength, and everyone who disagrees as a traitor or enemy.
‘If there is hope,’ Winston Smith famously wrote, ‘it lies with the proles.’ One of the things Walsh does in his essay is talk about the collective power of silence and refusal to cooperate, as we see when Buckingham first tries to persuade the people to crown Richard king. The women in the play are also at their most effective against Richard’s tyranny when they co-operate.
Is there a message in this rambling post? Don’t rely on the big-mouths alone: effecting change or opposition needs weight of numbers. Organize. Resist.
[a] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948)
[b] Brian Walsh, ‘Audience Engagement and the Genres of Richard III’, in Annaliese Connolly (ed.), Richard III: A Critical Reader (Arden Early Modern Drama Guides) (pp. 99-100). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.