May 15, 2011

How Shakespeare Predicted the Tea Party. ~ Harris Mercer

Photo: Adam Kossowski

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Especially in troubled times, the public, the people, the rabble, hoi polloi of any society, can be stirred up and convinced not only of convenient untruths but of intoxicating impossibilities.

In our time, Tea Party leaders like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, Michele Bachmann and Rush Limbaugh, spew a new blend of an old brew, an odd stew of anger and optimism: the twin illusions that, first, those in power are bad, alien people who look down on you; and, second, that your problems will be solved if you just toss them out.

Photo: Fibonacci Blue

The Tea Party is sweeping the nation. It’s an uprising of frustrated citizens inspired by false promises: that if only they overthrow the subjugating élites, wealth and ease can be theirs. The particulars, such as they are, don’t really matter; Tea Partiers believe that their future is in jeopardy because what is theirs is being taken away, and if only they could be freed from the tyrannical yoke of government, rain water would be beer and health care would be cheap.

It’s pretty much that simple. And like most things in life, Shakespeare saw it coming.

In Henry VI Part 2, one of the least-read of all Shakespeare’s plays, a populist uprising led by a charismatic outsider, Jack Cade, a “headstrong Kentishman” (3.1.356) who calls himself merely “a honest plain-dealing man” (4.2.90-1), sweeps into London.

Cade’s uprising is built on working-class anger and his promise is to return to the people all that is theirs.

Cade demonizes the élites. He promises to execute all the literate. When one of his early followers shouts out the dream of every movement of the common people—”The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” (68)—Cade, as any halfway-decent Republican candidate for office today would, sees the logic in this: “Nay, that I mean to do” (69).

His words are appealing; his platform is clear:

There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny. …And I will make it felony to drink small beer. All the realm shall be in common. …There shall be no money. All shall eat and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery that they may agree like brothers. (58-66)

Among his first acts is to order that “the pissing conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign” (4.6.3-4). Sounds good to me. A poor government clerk who doubles as a village schoolmaster, discovered preparing writing exercises for schoolboys, is dragged before him:

CLERK Sir, I thank God I have been so well brought up that I can write my name.
ALL CADE’S FOLLOWERS He hath confessed—away with him! He’s a villain and a traitor.
CADE Away with him, I say, hang him with his pen and inkhorn about his neck. (4.2.92-7)

Two of his supporters engage in a punning exchange about clothes that emphasizes the uselessness of those who rule:

FIRST REBEL I tell thee, Jack Cade the clothier means to dress the commonwealth, and turn it [inside out].
SECOND REBEL So he had need, for ’tis threadbare.The nobility think scorn to go in leather aprons.
FIRST REBEL Nay more, the King’s Council are no good workmen.
SECOND REBEL True; and yet it is said “Labour in thy vocation;” which is as much to say as “Let the magistrates be labouring men;” and therefore should we be magistrates.
FIRST REBEL Thou hast hit it; for there’s no better sign of a brave mind than a hard hand. (4-17)

“And therefore should we be magistrates.” Let’s kill all the lawyers. Throw the bums out. Sound familiar?

Shakespeare captures perfectly the earnest, honest elation of the public, their sense that a few common-sense adjustments in priorities can solve all their problems, their delight in destroying the traditional symbols of the unfair system they loathe. They somehow know that together, they can do the impossible.

But of course, Cade’s promises are absurd. They’re charming, and funny, but also violent and destructive. The play’s squabbling nobles are deeply flawed, but someone needs to run the country; someone needs to say no to those who would follow the Jack Cades of the world.

Photo: Don Jenkins, The Daily News

Many, especially those of us on the left who survey the Republican Party’s ever-increasing madness with amusement and possibly a lorgnette, debate whether the Tea Party constitutes something new or something old in American politics. On the one hand its views seem to be more or less exactly those of the traditional Republican base, albeit perhaps with more emphasis on fiscal than on social and especially foreign policy issues; on the other, maybe this Paultard goldbug libertarian streak really is new, and different. Right-wing movements have challenged the party before — the Christian right in the eighties, Birchers, Buckleyites, and Goldwater supporters in the sixties — but it’s arguable whether they’ve really constituted as much of a threat to the party establishment, the élite machinery that usually runs things, as this new surge of angry old white people in three-cornered hats seemingly hellbent on driving any moderate who might be electable out of the Republican tent.

Photo: American Common Defence Review

Many have also pointed to populist or grassroots movements, many with the same claim to being non-partisan or difficult to nail down ideologically that some in the media identify as part of the Tea Party brand, that have come before, and to their Beck- or Palin-like leaders: Robert Welch, Father Coughlin, Huey Long. Comparisons have even been drawn to the anti-Mason and Know-Nothing parties of the nineteenth century.

But at its core, the Tea Party is a force that’s centuries old, that erupts happens whenever the élite, for one reason or another, lose control or abandon their responsibility to keep the comparatively uneducated mass of the population connected to reality.

When there’s no gate-keeper or arbiter who people will trust to tell them what’s possible and what’s fantasy, they will embrace and follow whoever promises them the most, however impossible those promises are to keep. When leaders encourage this tendency for short-term gain, they play a dangerous game.

You see, in a cruel, typically Shakespearean irony, Cade got his start as a stalking-horse; his is what we’d now call an astroturf movement. The Duke of York is testing the public support for a rebellion, so he urges on a headstrong common soldier he has seen who impressed him. But the movement he cynically created quickly gets away from everyone, and Cade tries to crown himself king.

If Cade and his followers are akin to the Tea Party, then Karl Rove, John Boehner, or the Brothers Koch are like the Duke of York, never wanting to learn what John Kennedy warned: “Remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

We will see if the Republican élites learn this lesson, and escape—politically, at least—their rabble-rousing Shakespearean predecessor’s fate.

When the rebel leader at last sees his followers turned against him—They forsake Cade, the stage direction reads—and he can tell that he is about to be swallowed up by the great beast he has coaxed out of slumber, overcome by the fierce anger he stoked and the demand for fulfillment of the promises he made, he can only watch with amazement, and wonder:

Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude? (4.7.197-8)


Harris Mercer is a new resident of Boulder and a native of New York City. He served as National High School Director with Students for Barack Obama at Obama for America throughout the Democratic presidential primaries in 2007 and 2008. At Bennington College in Bennington, VT he got to study both his obsessions: politics and Shakespeare. He can be reached at harrismercer [at] gmail [dot] com and wants you to go to http://whatthefuckhasobamadonesofar.com.

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