ATG Quirkies: The Comical, Ominous Power of a Shakespearean Mob

by | Aug 31, 2021 | 0 comments

The Comical, Ominous Power of a Shakespearean Mob is by Robert McCrum, an associate editor of the Observer and author of six novels and a number non-fiction titles. It appears on the LITERARY HUB website.

“Shakespeare’s world connects with our world through commensurate emotions. The young Shakespeare may have been fascinated by kings and their courts, but he also began to address popular politics. It was here, exploring the “mind” of the common people, that he began to become Shakespearean, testing another kind of modern hazard: popular passions, and the power of the mob.

“As an Elizabethan, he was familiar with the fragility of the state, and its vulnerability to external threat or internal dissension. His contemporaries feared the Wars of the Roses as much as the Armada. In 1589–91 (the dates are disputed), soon after his arrival in London, a metropolis buzzing with obstreperous, polyglot energy, he began to address “the nature of the times deceased” from the commoners’ point of view. His first history play, Henry VI, seethes with the transgressive thrill of popular revolt, as well as the Machiavellian, psychopathic frenzy of Richard Gloucester:

“I that have neither pity, love, nor fear.
Indeed, ’tis true that Henry told me of . . .
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word, ‘love’, which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me – I am myself alone

–3 Henry VI, 5.5.69-84

“The threat of Richard’s demonic ambition is one thing. The frenzy of the mob is something else, but Shakespeare treats it with a mix of laughter and dread. The grammar-school boy from Stratford is nervous of popular disorder among the illiterate classes, and uneasy about street protest, but he seasons his account of Jack Cade’s uprising with flourishes of demotic humor…”

“In 2 Henry VI, his rebels are Anglo-Saxon yahoos to their marrow. They want to trash metropolitan society and terrorize the toffs (scrap learning, liberate the gaols, burn books, and let the city conduits “run nothing but wine”). “The first thing we do,” declares an anonymous butcher, in a famous line, “let’s kill all the lawyers [4.2.78].”

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