Coriolanus is not my favourite Shakespeare play, nor is the main character a natural politician or even a sympathetic character. From the moment he walks onto the stage, the the Roman elitist flaunts his contempt for the lower orders of society:
His refusal to schmooze the electorate leads not only to his forfeiting their support but to his exile and ultimately his death. The lesson for modern politicians and opinion makers in this is to beware the "wisdom of the crowd." Coriolanus seems to be a vehicle for Shakespeare's own view of the 'many-headed multitude' and I have to say, The Bard's opinion of the sheeple is not far removed from mine.Though the plays tell us little of Shakespeare's politics (wise of him as, in the Elizabethan and Stuart era having an opinion could result in losing one's head) he certainly held the mob in contempt. We might claim him as a radical or a conservative, a nationalist or an internationalist, a Catholic, Christian - protestant or closet Catholic, even an atheist. All these cases have been argued persuasively. And yet we still know little of the man.
As GK Chesterton put it, the most anyone can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way. One thing is certain however. Shakespeare loathed the rabble. His crowds are almost invariably crass, bellicose, fickle, greedy and gullible. Think of those episodes in The Simpsons where the townspeople form themselves into a drooling mob and you have a shadow of the ignorance, stupidity and unthinking irrationality of a Shakespearean
mob. The witch hunt scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail captures the atmosphere well.
Despising the mob is not quite the same as despising the electorate in the way politicians like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and lately Barack Obama have shown is their attitude A mob can take on a collective identity, in which individual qualities of those who join it are temporarily lost. It becomes a rampaging beast, all logic and reason, empathy and values discarded. No wonder the greatest creative mind the British nations have ever spawned had the attitude of a tyrant or worse an international bureaucrat to "the wisdom of crowds".
Shakespeare was not a politician, for him to portray the mob as slack jawed idiots in an adrenaline fuelled frenzy of anger, fear and panic was fine. Nobody in the audience would recognize themselves as a member of such a rabble, most people who are sucked up in the madness think they are behaving perfectly reasonably. It is different for politicians however. When Blair, Brown and Obama talked of voters being too stupid to understand their policies it was not in reference to a gang of rioters or a protest that ran out of control. They spoke of a majority of the electorate. Barack Obama and British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown all described people sceptical of the Anthopogenic Global Warming scare as being insane and said they were prepared to consider making "climate change denial" a crime similar to holocaust denial.
Now denying the Nazi holocaust, the slaughter of European Jews in World War 2 is stupid but since when was stupidity a crime? If it was we would have to bang up anyone who voted for a left wing candidate. Climate Change sceptics however were right to be sceptical.(very few people ever denied the climate was changing - some said any changes were the will of God and we ought not to meddle but that is quite different to what the "deniers" were accued of) The mathematical models on which climate scientists warnings of impending doom turned out to be at best designed by incompetents, at worst fraudulent. According to latest reports from NASA and NOAA, the two leading climate monitoring agencies, the earth's atmosphere his warmed very slightly in the last hundred years and in the most recent two decades has actually shown signs of cooling.
Still the politicians and their advisers have a different agenda to drive forward. They are working towards a global government controlled by a bureaucratic, academic and financial elite, an unelected oligarchy. Which brings us back to Coriolanus. In both pre and post imperial Rome there were two classes, the Patricians and Plebians (aka Plebs), the masses. The patricians (oligarchs) ruled as paternalistically as the collective name they gave themselves suggests.
British actor / director Ralph Fiennes' recently released film adaptation placed in a modern setting, a world trouble spot, the Balkans or the Middle East for example, plays out the intrigues and power plays of the ruling elite against a background of street demonstrations, rolling news and political debates, we get a remarkably fresh view of the 'too absolute' Coriolanus. He represents a rare, possibly endangered species in the technological age, the politician who can honestly say 'I am exactly what it says on the box'.
Of all Shakespeare's plays, Coriolanus is one that most easily and effectively transposes to a modern setting in one of the developed nations. A seventeenth-century theatre-goer, seeing the curtain go up on a Roman scene, would immediately grasp that the ethical context had been changed. 'These ancients don't have the same values as us,' he would think, 'because they are living without Christ's truth'.
Very few modern theatre-goers relate to togas and sandals this way, so producers must get the idea of a society across based on pride and honour across in a way that is instantly understood. Coriolanus is more a politician of our times than Shakespeare's, a man who relies on trust and therefore be seen to be honourable but must at the same time be adept at deception and and manipulation, the skills required to sway the voters.
The scene where Coriolanus is exiled by his ingrate countrymen is played as a television debate, with the angry plebeians as the studio audience. How apt. The general's response to the sentence is as fine a quip as any modern Prime Minister or President departing an office which he (or she, recalling Mrs. Thatcher's bitter farewell speech) while still believing they are the only person capable of doing the job, the only person who truly understands what has to be done could ever hope to direct at the rabid, unthinking rabble:
As reek o' the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air – I banish
It's true that the individuals who make up the rabble all have their individual intellects but the interesting thing about such crowds is the more people are involved the less intelligent the beast becomes. It's a case of the whole being less than the sum of the parts. Successful internet ventures rely on this and of course on the knowledge that rabble are inflamed by a few powerful voices. Once a movement starts to gather momentum a lot of people will want to be part of it and just go along with what the rest are doing. All the manipulators of the mob need to do is make sure they, through their advertising campaigns, are orchestrating the powerful voices that lead the crowd.ass hysteria follows close behind.
It really is a case not so much of The Wisdom Of The Crowd as The Emperor's New Clothes. In the children's story everyone can see The Emperor is naked but because they have been told the new clothes are magic any only wise people can see them nobody is wiling to put up their hand and say, "There are no new clothes". While everybody else is praising the clothes each individual is afraid to risk looking foolish. Hans Christian Andersen taught us a valuable lesson there. Modern public relations techniques it seems have persuaded us to forget it.
An often cited example of the wisdom of the crowd producing a better result than could be achieved by a small group of skilled and experienced people is Wikipedia. But the idea that Wikipedia is generated by "the crowd" is just not true. For one thing, Wikipedia isn't written and edited by the "crowd" at all. In fact, 1% of Wikipedia users are responsible for half of the site's edits. Even Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, has been quoted as saying that the site is really written by a community, "a dedicated group of a few hundred volunteers."
The same happened with the IBM PC when better and cheaper machines with better operating systems were available, it happened with Google when more discriminating search engines were available but the web chatterati were impressed by the fact that google would find them a million results though nobody was ever likely to look further than the top 50, it happened with Apple gadgets although Steve Jobs only talent, if it could be called that, was for the syllogistic rebranding of pre - existing products.
And in other areas it happened with the climate change scare, with both Tony Blair's and Barack Obama's election campaigns both of which mixed a lack of policies with hyperbolic advertizing techniques.
To refer to another fiction set in the Roman era, Monty Python's Life of Brian, a lot of people need Brian to remind them "You are all individuals." Think for yourselves, don't be part of the crowd. (Warning, nudity in the linked clip)
The Mummers: The Controlling system And The Illusion Of Freedom
Creativity Must Triumph Over Conformity
BBC Uses Shakespeare Event To Push Politically Correct Agenda
The Gods Of Copybook Headings
Eurocrats Are The New Bond Villains
Dr. Pangloss Said All Is For The Best
So You Think You're An Anarchist (Anarchy for Beginners - part 2
Anarchy In The UK - and elsewhere.
Getting Started With Existentialism
The War Between Science and Religion
The Flight From Freedom
Liberal? What Does That Mean?
The Wisdom Of Crowds - poem
Pavlov's Cat (poem)
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