Department of Missed Tricks: Schama on Me

You’d think I’d have said everything that needed to be said about Simon Schama’s Shakespeare in the 6000 or so words I spent on it. But no. in writing a post for Bloggingshakespeare.com, I realized I left out an important point.

Schama wants to say that Shakespeare created the English national character and that one way he did so was by putting the common people on stage in Henry VI Part 2. Schama is of course referring to the scenes in Act IV depicting Jack Cade’s Rebellion. I could have gone on and on about how Schama glosses over the complexity of Shakespeare’s presentation (and I will do so when we get to the play in due course), but I just want to make one point I overlooked. I’m not alone. It is rarely if ever pointed out that Cade is not an independent actor, but an agent provocateur. He has been hired by Richard, Duke of York, to make trouble, facilitating Richard’s schemes to seize the throne:

And, for a minister of my intent,
I have seduc‘d a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can
(III.i.355-358)

York had announced his intention to take power as far back as Act I. (I highly recommend York’s soliloquies delivered to the audience; he is a fascinating precursor of his more famous son—Richard III.) The rabble, so far from being the proto-proletarians they are in Schama’s world, are but pawns in Richard’s game. (As a sidelight, one would think that if they were proto-proletarians then Marx, who knew his Shakespeare much better than Schama, would have mentioned them as such. As far as I know, he does not.)

Schama might defend himself by claiming that all he actually said is that Shakespeare in Part 1 is one of the first playwrights to present a crowd scene of common people. If that were true, it would be close to acceptable, although not very interesting. But it is not true. Among other things, Schama calls Shakespeare “the first poet of class war,” which requires taking Cade’s Rebellion at face value and justifies my “proto-proletarian” persiflage. Further, Schama has to insinuate that much more is going on than a historical first, because there’s no obvious reason why Shakespeare’s putting a mob on stage helps to constitute the English national character.

Schama’s view impoverishes the complex characterization of Cade and the mob he leads, and divorces them from their context in the play. He’s even more wrong than I thought.

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