Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Defending Established Institutions in Changing Times: How not to do it.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Defending Established Institutions in Changing Times:

How not to do it.

 Burton Weltman

 “Come writers and critics, who prophesize with your pen.”

The Times They Are A-changing.  Bob Dylan.

Prologue: Friends, Nobles and Englishmen, Lend Me Your Ears.

“You say you want a revolution?”  Revolution. The Beatles.

Shakespeare did not want a revolution.  He wanted, instead, to give peace a chance.  Most of his plays reflect a nervous man living in a nerve-wracking time.  And although they often portray his dissatisfaction with much that went on around him, they also reflect caution in what he thought could safely be done to make things better.  Political and religious revolutions had wracked England for most of the sixteenth century. Julius Caesar, written in 1599, reflects Shakespeare’s fear of more of that.

Shakespeare could be described politically as what we might today call a pragmatist and a reformer rather than a revolutionary.  He could be considered liberal in the original sense of that term, that is, as someone who is generous, because he often portrayed the poor, the downtrodden, women, servants, and outcasts in sympathetic ways and their oppressors in harsh terms.  But he could also be considered conservative in the original sense of that term as someone who wanted to preserve established institutions rather than replace them.  Shakespeare’s overriding concern seemed to be that the unintended consequences of a well-intentioned revolution could end up making things worse rather than better.  Julius Caesar exemplifies that concern.  

Every period of history can probably be described as a time of turmoil and change, when old ways were failing and new ways were struggling into existence.  When people describe their own time, they are especially prone to describing things in this way.  And they almost always think of their own time as particularly perilous in comparison with past times that they retrospectively view as tranquil and settled.[1]  Shakespeare was like most people in thinking his own era perilous and, in fact, he lived at a particularly tumultuous time in English history.  But, unlike most people, Shakespeare did not portray his era as uniquely the worst of all possible worlds.  He seemed, instead, interested in finding parallels to his own time in past ages and then portraying those past times as exemplary lessons for his own.  His Julius Caesar is an example.

Julius Caesar is a psychological-political thriller.  A group of Roman patricians hope to save their republican form of government by conspiring to kill Julius Caesar, who seemingly aspires to be king.  Caesar is a very popular and victorious general, and although the conspirators admit he has hitherto been a reasonable man, they fear what ambition may lead him to become.  Brutus, their leader, rationalizes that they must “think him [Caesar] as a serpent’s egg, which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous, and kill him in the shell.” Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 33-36.  The conspirators envision their action as a preemptive revolution against a potential tyrant.  But Brutus isn’t sure, and the many halting breaks in his speech – all those commas – reflect his ambivalence and his need to reassure himself as to what they are doing.

Although their goal is to save the Republic, the conspirators ignore the established republican institutions for dealing with political problems – the Consuls and Patrician Senate, the Tribunes and Citizen Assembly – and resort instead to assassination.  They think they will be hailed as “The men that gave their country liberty.” Act 3, Scene 1, Line 133.  But Caesar’s murder triggers a civil war between the friends and foes of the dead man.  The partisans “let slip the dogs of war,” as each party tries militarily to impose its will on the other, both relying on what are essentially private armies.  Act 3, Scene 1, Line 299.  There is nothing republican about that.

The play ends with the civil war still ongoing but Shakespeare’s audience knew and we today know from history that the outcome was a Roman government dominated by an emperor, the very sort of evil that the conspirators had hoped to avoid.  In short, an attempted preemptive revolution to restore Rome’s republican roots turns against itself and becomes a counterrevolution that uproots the Republic and implants an imperial dictator.

Julius Caesar is a powerful psychological drama.  The emotional twists and turns of the main characters, their reasonings and rationalizations, accusations and defensiveness, are riveting.  The play has been criticized as too full of speechifying and it can, in fact, be performed as a series of boring declamations.[2]  But the speeches can also be emotionally and intellectually compelling, and the play can be a vehicle for great acting.  Mark Antony’s famous funeral oration for Caesar – “Friends, Romans and Countrymen, lend me your ears”– is only one among a dozen examples of speeches that can make for brilliant theater. Act 3, Scene 2, Line 82 et seq.

Likewise, the political maneuvering of the conspirators is riveting.  The ways and means with which they convince each other that what they are doing is right, and then convince others to join them, constitute a first-rate lesson in high-stakes politicking, political manipulation, and powerful demagoguery.  Many of these speeches, especially those of Brutus’ co-conspirator Cassius and Caesar’s ally Mark Antony, are diabolically clever. The devious Cassius has most of the best lines in the play, including the famous line “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings” when he is trying to manipulate Brutus into joining the conspiracy to kill Caesar.  A great line for a vile purpose.  Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 145-146.

The action in the play is mainly moved by poseurs trying to manipulate each other and the citizenry.  Caesar pretends he does not want to be king when he really does.  Cassius pretends he is most interested in saving the Republic when his primary interests seem to be pecuniary.  Antony pretends to respect Brutus in his funeral speech for Caesar and his funereal speech after Brutus’ death, in both of which he praises Brutus as an honorable man while actually seeking Brutus’ death in the former speech and celebrating Brutus’ death in the latter.  Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 74-81.

The play is full of drama, melodrama, riveting lines, and complex personalities.  As a political thriller it gets our attention.  As a psychodrama, it triggers our empathy and antipathy for various characters.  Most interpreters focus on the psychological turmoil of Brutus, which is excruciating – Caesar and he had been close friends – and many see the play as a melodrama about friendship and betrayal.[3]   Other critics debate whether the play is or is not a tragedy, and whether Brutus is a fool or a tragic hero.[4]  Many interpreters see the play as reflecting anxiety that England might descend into civil war when the childless Queen Elizabeth died without an heir.[5]  But they describe the politics in the play and in Shakespeare’s England in terms of personal power trips, and not in institutional terms.[6]  While I think all of these interpretations have merit, I think Shakespeare’s concerns run further.

I think the play has an institutional underpinning that is often unrecognized and underplayed.  Although personalities and personal conflicts take center stage, the backdrop of the play is the failure of established institutions and the failure of the parties to support them.  The underlying message of the play spoke to institutional concerns of Shakespeare’s audience that went beyond personalities and power trips.  The speeches and actions of the main characters reflect important debates about governmental institutions and social norms that had taken place in ancient Rome but that were also taking place in Shakespeare’s England.

Shakespeare intended, I believe, to illustrate what he saw as the disastrous consequences of neglecting established institutions and ignoring established social norms in attempting to cope with social problems in changing times.  And the moral of Julius Caesar is that attempted revolutions, whatever the merits of their motives, and whether they are from what we would call the political left or the right, often promote the evils they were intended to forestall.  It was a warning to Shakespeare’s contemporaries that still resonates with us today.

Changing Times: Shakespeare Does the Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic.

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship.”  George Orwell.

Shakespeare had a recurring interest in the history of the Roman Republic. He wrote one play about the rise of the Republic, Coriolanus, and two plays about its fall, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra.  In each of these plays, he focused on the precariousness of Rome’s republican institutions and their susceptibility to demagogues who threatened to establish autocratic dictatorships.  In so doing, he was not demonstrating a bias against republics.  In fact, Shakespeare wrote many plays that emphasize the susceptibility of not only republics but also monarchical regimes to becoming tyrannies, including Hamlet, Macbeth and most of his English history plays.  He also authored several plays that take place in relatively stable Italian republics.

A key difference between the stable and unstable regimes in Shakespeare’s plays seems to be whether they are primarily commercial societies, like the medieval Italian city-states, or primarily military regimes.  The Roman Republic lived in large part on the spoils of wars of conquest and on tribute from conquered territories, making it particularly susceptible to potential military takeovers — the subject of Coriolanus which takes place at the beginning of the Republic and Julius Caesar at the end.  Shakespeare seemed to be sending a message that peaceful commercial development would be better for England than military conquest.

Julius Caesar is set in the mid-first century BCE in the midst of an extreme institutional crisis of the Roman Republic.  The Republic had been established in the sixth century BCE when the last of the Roman kings was overthrown in a revolt led by a distant ancestor of Brutus.  At that time, the Senate, which had been merely an advisory body of aristocrats to the king, became a focal point of the new government.  Instead of a king, the executive powers of the government were placed in the hands of two Consuls who were chosen by the Senate with the assent of a general assembly of Roman citizens.  Each Consul could veto the actions of the other, thereby avoiding the possibility of a dictatorship.  The Senate also generally proposed legislation, but it had to be approved by the citizen assembly.  In turn, the assembly elected two Tribunes who represented the interests of ordinary citizens in negotiations with the Consuls and the Senate.  It was a mixed government that ostensibly balanced the interests of all Roman citizens.

The Republic was a government of Rome’s citizens but it must be noted that most of Rome’s residents were not citizens.  Roman society was based on the institution of slavery.  Slaves made up some thirty to forty percent of the Roman populace, and slaves did almost all of the agricultural, industrial and other menial work.  Subtracting the slaves and the substantial number of resident foreigners from the total population, citizens made up less than half the populace of Rome.  Citizens were, in turn, divided between wealthy aristocratic patricians who were represented in the Senate and lower-class plebeians represented by the Tribunes.

Plebeians were sometimes hard-up and needed government welfare support, but it must be emphasized that the plebeian assembly was made up of independent citizens and not menial slaves or serfs.  I think this could be a reason Shakespeare sometimes portrays crowds of citizens in Ancient Rome with some respect as compared with the disrespect he generally shows to mobs of landless peasants and menial workers in his plays about medieval England.

Julius Caesar portrays a major turning point in Roman history and the history of the Western World.  The Republic, which had functioned for some five hundred years, was tottering.  The previous hundred years had been punctuated by conflicts, sometimes very violent, between the patricians and the plebeians.  Concerns with instability and public corruption were widespread.

In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar returned to Rome as a conquering military hero who had significantly expanded the sway of Rome in Europe and added to Rome’s coffers.  He represented the sort of strong leader who might restore Rome to law and order, and he seemed to aspire to turn the clock back to times before the Republic by becoming the King of Rome.  At a mass meeting of citizens, Caesar is playfully offered a pretend crown by his ally Mark Antony.  This game between them appears to be a trial balloon to see if citizens might approve the real thing.  But their balloon is deflated when Caesar, to his dismay, is applauded by the crowd when he declines to put on the fake crown. Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 225-275.

But the game is not over, and Brutus and other patricians fear that Caesar may eventually accept a real crown with the approval of the citizen assembly. Instigated by Cassius, a corrupt associate of Brutus, Brutus organizes a conspiracy to murder Caesar in the hope of saving the Republic.  The conspirators do not consult with the Consuls, the Senate or the Tribunes.  And they do not follow up on what appears to be the rejection of a kingship by the plebeian citizens when they applauded Caesar’s refusal of the fake crown

This essentially describes the history out of which Shakespeare constructed his play and with which he assumed his audience was familiar.  Roman history was standard fare in the educational system of his time, and much of his audience would have been familiar with the politics of Ancient Rome.  That is why Shakespeare was able to place several of his plays in ancient Rome – Anthony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, and Coriolanus in addition to Julius Caesar.  He set the actions of his protagonists in Julius Caesar within an institutional context which he expected his audience to understand.

Given this context, a key to Shakespeare’s message in the play is that the conspirators do not work through established republican institutions – the Consuls, the Senate, the Tribunes – and fail to adhere to longstanding republican norms in their effort to save the Republic.  I think Shakespeare expected his audience to notice this, and to understand that the conspirators’ failure to respect established institutions and norms contributed significantly to their failure.  Acting on their own noble initiative, with Cassius spurring Brutus on by repeatedly referring to the heroic actions of Brutus’ sixth-century ancestor, the conspirators chose means to save the Republic that only precipitated the very result they had hoped to avoid.  In killing Caesar, they essentially murdered the Republic and made way for a dictatorial emperor to take power.

Changing Times: Shakespeare and the Transition from Medieval to Modern Society.

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.”  Mao Zedong.

Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in the late seventeenth century in the midst of significant institutional crises in England.  Shakespeare lived at a time recognized by him his contemporaries to be full of major social turmoil and institutional changes, changes that historians today characterize as the transition from the traditional society of the Middle Ages to a more dynamic modern society.  Feudalism was in its last throes, capitalism was in its thriving infancy.  A relatively cohesive society based on personal relations and local norms was being replaced by a more chaotic society based on competitive relations and impersonal contracts.  Money was increasingly becoming the measure of all things. There was greater freedom but less communality and seemingly more cold calculation.

Shakespeare lived through a period of relative calm in between the storms of the first half of the sixteenth century and the last half of the seventeenth.  When he wrote Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth I had been on the throne for some forty years.  But Shakespeare was a child of the turmoil of previous generations. In the twenty years prior to Elizabeth’s ascension in 1558, three monarchs had been overthrown, one of whom had been beheaded.  In the forty years before Elizabeth’s ascension, England had been forcefully converted and reconverted from Catholicism to Protestantism, back to Catholicism and then back to Protestantism, with much violence and many executions in the process.  Religious animosity between Catholics and Protestants in England, and wars between Protestant England and Catholic countries, was continuous throughout Elizabeth’s reign and Shakespeare’s life, and religious animosity figures in many of his plays.  If you see a Catholic priest in a Shakespeare play, you can predict he is up to no good.

Queen Elizabeth’s rule was also fraught with many plots against her by would-be strong-armed leaders, including two attempts to overthrow her by Mary Queen of Scots and Mary’s various male allies; two attempts by the Spanish King and his armadas; four plots to overthrow her by Robert Ridolfi, Francis Throckmorton, Anthony Babington, and Roderigo Lopez; and, the Essex Rebellion against her led by Robert Devereux.  During her reign, Elizabeth also battled with Parliament, which had been not much more than a rubber stamp of the Kings’ actions before her time, but became increasingly assertive against Elizabeth and insisted on concessions in exchange for voting her the funds she needed to govern.

Meanwhile, during Elizabeth’s reign, English landowners were increasingly displacing peasant farmers from their land in favor of raising sheep for wool.  This Enclosure Movement was causing havoc in the countryside, with homeless peasants wandering about looking for work, begging for food, and committing crimes to survive.  Medieval serfdom had tied the peasants to the land so that they were not free to leave, but it also prohibited the lords of the lands from displacing them.  With the end of feudalism and serfdom with it, peasants were free to leave the land and landlords were free to push them off.  This was the mob that Shakespeare feared.

Elizabeth’s reign was, thus, full of plots, subplots, and perils.  And Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Julius Caesar, were reactions against this institutional instability.  Shakespeare seems to fear that what happened to Rome could happen to England, and he does not want that.

Shakespeare on Social Change: Respect and Reconciliation over Revenge and Revolution.

“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”  Won’t Get Fooled Again.  The Who.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays reflect an ambivalence about the dramatic social changes that were taking place in England, and a concern with the problems that arise when established institutions and norms fail.  His plays focus on institutional turmoil, and many have either unhappy endings or only superficially happy endings.  He repeatedly wrote about decent rulers being deposed by usurpers who then wreak havoc.  While part of Shakespeare’s motive in writing so much about turmoil may be that turmoil is more interesting in a play than peace and tranquility, the plays also seem to reflect deep concerns of Shakespeare and his audience.

These concerns are particularly evident in Shakespeare’s history plays that cover roughly the period in English history from the early 1200’s to the mid 1500’s, that is, from what we can date as the beginnings of the end of feudalism to the beginnings of the rise of modern capitalism. These plays focus on the tumultuous rising and falling of kings, and the failure of established feudal and religious institutions and norms to prevent violence and ensure social stability.

Henry IV, for example, deals with the consequences of Henry’s usurpation of the English throne from Richard II.  Likewise, Richard III deals with Richard’s usurpation of the throne from his brother’s rightful heirs.  Both plays devolve into civil wars and death all around.  They are not happy tales of English history.  Coup after coup, violent revolt after violent revolt, English history as portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays was a hellish mess.  These same concerns are evident in most of his other plays.

In Macbeth, for example, the problem is that Macbeth not only violates his feudal oath and duties to his king, he also violates the Sixth Commandment against murder when he kills the king, and violates the even more ancient and universal rules of hospitality: Thou shalt not kill your guests.  The play resounds with the breakdown of moral and political norms and institutions.  This breakdown is seemingly the witches’ satanic goal, to create a lawless situation of each against each and all against all, a hell on earth.  And they succeed.  The ability of satanic characters to wreak havoc concerned Shakespeare in Macbeth and other plays.

In Hamlet, younger brother Claudius kills his older brother and usurps the Danish throne over his brother’s rightful heir, Hamlet.  Hamlet is goaded into revenge by what I interpret as a satanic ghost.  Revenge does not generally turn out well in Shakespeare’s plays and usually redounds onto the perpetrator.  The result in Hamlet is death all around and the conquest of Denmark by the Norwegians, not a happy outcome for the country.[7]

Even Shakespeare’s comedies reflect concerns about legitimate rulers being overthrown and institutional norms being flouted, for example, in As You Like It, which was written at about the same time as Julius Caesar, and in Shakespeare’s last major play The Tempest.  In As You Like It, younger brother Frederick usurps the throne of his older brother Duke Senior, who escapes with his retinue to live in a forest.  In The Tempest, younger brother Antonio usurps the throne of Milan from older brother Prospero, who escapes to a deserted island with his daughter.

In both plays the usurpers come to see the errors of their ways, everyone is reconciled, and the older brothers are restored to their rightful places through implausible plot contrivances. These plays have happy endings, and a happy ending is one of the things that generally distinguishes a comedy from a tragedy.  But the plays are still troubling when you contrast the realism of the usurpations with the unreality of the restorations.  And I think we are expected to realize this.

Shakespeare was clearly worried.  Most of his plays, both the fictional and the ostensibly factual, focus on the disorder and death that arise from a disrespect of established institutions and institutional norms, especially as to the succession of rulers.  Julius Caesar highlights the problems that worried Shakespeare since both sides of the dispute in that play – Caesar and his heirs Antony and Octavius on the one hand, and Brutus and his allies on the other – eschew established institutions and orderly procedure for violence and war.  Both Caesar’s portended revolution and Brutus’ preemptive counterrevolution violate republican norms and procedures, as does the civil war that follows.  The cure is, in this case, at least as bad as the disease.

The Tendency for Revolutionaries to go too far, and for Revolutions to go not far enough.

“Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny; they have only shifted it to another shoulder.”  George Bernard Shaw.

Shakespeare was not a troglodyte.  Conservative in his respect for established institutions and the Establishment, he was liberal in his compassion toward the downtrodden and was generally opposed to war.  In As You Like It, for example, he favors women’s rights.[8]  In Twelfth Night, he opposes the mistreatment of servants.[9]  In Coriolanus, he is sympathetic to the plight of the lower classes.[10]  In The Merchant of Venice, he opposes antisemitism.[11]  In Henry V, he unfavorably portrays the causes and effects of war.  Shakespeare has more bad rulers in his plays than good.  But he repeatedly favors due process and reconciliation over revolution or revenge.  So, Shakespeare could be considered a reformer who wants a better world, but also wants to protect established institutions for fear of the chaos and violence that attends revolution.  And this is what we see in Julius Caesar.

Shakespeare gives us an indication of the way he might recommend handling someone like Caesar in the opening of the play.  The play opens with the two Roman Tribunes chastising a group of citizens for not being at work and for flocking to support Caesar when they had previously adored a general named Pompey.  The Tribunes fear that the citizens are fickle, supporting whoever is the latest military hero, and they are concerned that the Citizens Assembly might support an attempt by Caesar to seize power.  The Tribunes determine to clip the wings of Caesar, “Who else would soar above the view of men and keep us all in servile fearfulness.”  Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 79-80.  They try to stir up public opinion against Caesar’s seizing power, and their efforts seem to have had success when the citizens subsequently applaud Caesar’s refusal of the crown offered by Antony.  The problem is that Brutus and his allies, instead of building on this popular success and institutional foundation, decide to eschew institutional processes for unilateral assassination.

Julius Caesar is a play about preemptive actions and overreactions.  The Tribunes open the play with an emotional reaction to the adoration of Caesar by a group of citizens.  The Tribunes fear the masses will support Caesar’s apparent ambition to be king.  But Tribunes take action to diminish Caesar’s popular appeal, and the citizens don’t support his taking the crown.  Brutus also fears Caesar’s ambition and worries about Caesar’s popularity, but Brutus overreacts in thinking that assassination is the only way to stop Caesar.  Instead of relying on institutional mechanisms, he bypasses them and undermines his own goal.  Later in the play, Brutus and Cassius overreact and almost come to blows when each criticizes the other about who is to blame for their perilous situation.  Cassius then overreacts and commits suicide when he thinks his comrade Messala has been captured by enemy troops, which he hasn’t.  Finally, Brutus kills himself when he thinks all is lost, but it really isn’t.

Julius Caesar is also a play about revolutionaries going both too far and not far enough.  Brutus goes too far in eschewing established institutions in an effort to save them but he goes not far enough when he refuses Cassius’ advice to kill Antony along with Caesar.  Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 170-195.  Brutus’ soft-heartedness is his downfall since it is Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar that turns the citizenry against Brutus and the other assassins, and that provokes the civil war that ends with an imperial regime.

Caesar’s avengers Octavius and Antony are not so soft-hearted and they kill all who oppose them, including friends and family members.  Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 1-4.  They also take extreme actions against the Republic that Caesar would likely never have done, decimating the Senate and “put[ting] to death an hundred senators.” Act 4, Scene 3, Line 201.  We know today and Shakespeare’s audience also knew that no sooner have Octavius and Antony dispatched Brutus’ allies than they turn on each other and fight for power.  We also know that Antony will commit suicide after his army is defeated by that of Octavius, and that Octavius will become the first Roman emperor, renaming himself Augustus to match his august position.  Finally, we know that while the institutions of the Republic were formally retained by Augustus (Octavius), they were hollow shells that existed only to support his rule.  In sum, the actions of the revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries in Julius Caesar were a bloody mess that wrecked the Republic.

I don’t think that these institutional causes and consequences are sufficiently played in most productions of Julius Caesar.  As a means of emphasizing the underlying institutional concerns of Shakespeare in this play and the consequences of the characters’ actions, I would suggest staging the play with groups of people congregating upstage who represent the two Consuls, the two Tribunes, the Senators, and the Citizens.  The actors representing these republican institutions could step downstage as they appear as characters in the play, and then return to their institutional places when their scenes are over.  The actors could also pantomime reactions to events as the action affects their respective institutions.  Brutus’ allies and the various Senators killed by Octavius and Antony could also be seen being murdered.

As the play ends, Antony says nice things about the dead Brutus, beginning with “This was the noblest Roman of them all” and ending with a claim that Brutus’ virtues were so great that “nature might stand up and say to all the world ‘This was a man.’” Octavius concurs and finishes the play with “let’s away to part the glories of this happy day.”  Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 74-81, 87-88.  These lines are generally played as though Antony and Octavius are sincerely mourning Brutus.  I suggest that, to the contrary, Antony’s tone when saying these things be haughty and insincere, and likewise with Octavius who is more interested in starting to party than in mourning Brutus.  Also, as soon as Antony and Octavius have finished speaking, each should give the other an evil look, as though they are sizing each other up for the next round of battling.

Finally, I suggest that Octavius, who will soon be Emperor Augustus, assert himself to the front of the stage as he leaves, and then turn to look imperiously downstage at the players representing the republican institutions.  I would then have those players bow and bend their knees to him, as if to say so ends Julius Caesar and also the Roman Republic.

BW 11/18/18

[1] Stephen J. Gould. “Losing the Edge” in The Flamingo’s Smile. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1985. pp.216-217.

[2] Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Book, 1939. p.153.

[3] John Simon. “Will in the Middle.” Review of Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by Garry Wills.  New York Times Sunday Book Review. 11/25/11

[4] It’s a tragedy: Harold Goddard.  The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952. p.307.

It’s not a tragedy: Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Book, 1939. pp.157-158.

[5] Maria Wyke. Cited in “Julius Caesar (Play).” Wikipedia. 11/9/18.

[6] Coppelia Kahn. “Julius Caesar: A Modern Perspective.”  Postscript to Julius Caesar. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. pp.215-217.

[7] This is discussed in my blog post “Better Dead than Red:  Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England.”

[8]  This is discussed in my blog post “The Taming of a Schlemozzle: As You Like It as you like it.”

[9]  This is discussed in my blog post “Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or As You Will.  A Masquerade of Fools, Fooling and Con(wo)men.”

[10]  This is discussed in my blog post “From Phallus to Phalanx. Is Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Coriolanus actually a Comedy? The End of a Heroic Age.”

[11]  This is discussed in my blog post “Shakespeare, Shylock and The Merchant of Venice: Protestants, Catholics and the Jewish Question in Elizabethan England”


The Golden Rule. Life, the Universe and Everything in Four Relatively Simple Sentences.

The Golden Rule.

Life, the Universe and Everything in Four Relatively Simple Sentences.

Burton Weltman

Thesis: The Golden Rule maxim “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not merely an ethical goal, it is a statement of fact.  We, in fact, love our neighbors as we love ourselves and we love ourselves as we love our neighbors.  The problem is not merely that we do not love our neighbors and ourselves as much as we should, but that we can’t.  How we deal with that fact, both individually and collectively, is what makes the world go around, or not.

Explanation: The Golden Rule can be found in some form in virtually every human culture.  It is well-nigh a universal ethical rule.  But it is also a psychological and sociological rule, despite the pervasiveness in our society of social science theories that are intellectually based on Descartes’ individualistic Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am) and ideologically based on our individualistic economic system (the so-called Economic Man).

Mainstream social, economic and psychological theories almost always start with an isolated self-centered individual and then work toward social relations.  It is the conventional wisdom in our society.  However, as many of the best psychologists, sociologists, economists, and other social scientists have repeatedly demonstrated, that is not the way things actually work.

The maxim “I think, therefore I am” is literally nonsense. You cannot have any sense of yourself, cannot meaningfully utter the word “I,” without first having some sense of others.  It is through interacting with others that we get a sense of ourselves, so that the Cogito should really be “I think, therefore we are.”[1]  Once you grasp the facticity of this revised Cogito, the maxim “Love your neighbor as yourself” logically and psychologically follows.  What you think of others reflects what you think of yourself.  The better you treat others, the better you think of yourself.

There are, however, inherent contradictions and conflicts in our relations with others, starting with even the most loving of parents, so that we inevitably fall short in our best efforts to fulfill the ethical injunction of the Golden Rule.  And that is the problem.  But it is a problem that can be pragmatically resolved if we face it and do not regress to copout theories of individualism and rationalizations of Economic Man that are nonsense at best and inhumane at worst.

BW 11/17/18

[1] I have written a series of short essays on this subject which can be found on this website:  Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito: “I think, therefore we are (not I am).”  Part I: Resolving the Popeye Perplex.  Part II:  The World According to Calvin and Hobbes. Part III: A Cross of Gold and the Golden Rule.

A Note on Voter Suppression: Voting as a Privilege vs. Voting as a Right and a Duty. Republicans vs. Democrats; Conservatives vs. Liberals; Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Views of Society, Culture, and Economics.

A Note on Voter Suppression:

Voting as a Privilege vs. Voting as a Right and a Duty.

Republicans vs. Democrats; Conservatives vs. Liberals;

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Views of Society, Culture, and Economics.


Burton Weltman


The title of this little essay pretty much says it all about the ideological differences that divide the United States today.  At least, that is my contention.  I am writing this on Tuesday, October 30, 2018, a week before a very important mid-term election in this country.  Democrats are busy trying to get out the vote.  Republicans are busy trying to keep down the vote.  What is that about?

(1) Voter Suppression as a Civic Duty: Who are the People?

How can it be that voter suppression is to many Republicans a civic duty, while encouraging all and sundry to vote is a goal of most Democrats?  The difference largely stems from their differing answers to the questions of who gets to be considered part of “the people” – as in “We the People” who constitute the country – and, in turn, what role do “the people” get to play in the affairs of the country.

Alexander Hamilton enunciated what has essentially been the conservative answer to these questions to the present day when he claimed that those who owned the country should get to run it.  “All communities,” he said, “divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well-born.  The other, the mass of people… The people are turbulent and changing.  They seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government.”  The role of the people is to defer to the wisest and richest among them.

In this view, the country is essentially like a joint-stock company in which the rich who own most of the stock should get the major say in running things, the middling classes who own some small shares of the stock should get some minor say, and the lower classes who own no stock at all should get no say at all.  By dint of their wealth, the richest have shown they are the wisest.  By dint of their poverty, the masses have demonstrated their incompetence.

This conservative view of the people applies to politics, economics, customs and culture.  In politics, conservatives generally consider voting to be a privilege that needs to be earned, whereas liberals consider voting as the right and duty of every adult citizen.  When the country was founded, property qualifications to vote were widespread.  Consistent with Hamilton’s view of things, people literally had to earn the privilege of voting by accumulating wealth.  This practice did not last long, however.  By the first quarter of the nineteenth century, public pressure by the lower classes, who had the greater numbers albeit not the greater wealth, forced the elimination of these restrictions and made voting a democratic right, at least for white men.

So, conservatives turned to other methods of limiting the political power of the general public and increasing the influence of wealth.  In this effort, they have repeatedly battled liberals who favored greater democracy and championed the interests of people over those of property.  The tide in these matters has ebbed and flowed ever since.

In recent years, property has been winning.  Conservatives have scored notable successes in rulings by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court that money spent on political campaigns is speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, and that corporations are “persons” with the rights of citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment.  These ruling are legal nonsense but they are consistent with the view that the rich should have the major say-so in American politics.

Conservative ideology justifies the suppression of lower class and minority voters on the grounds that they don’t have sufficient stake in the country to vote responsibly, and that they will only use their votes to gain governmental benefits for themselves, such as welfare, medical care and so forth.  To conservatives, the lower classes are parasites on the body politic and the economy, and conservatives generally condemn subsidies to the poor favored by liberals as corrupt efforts by liberals to buy the votes of the poor.

Of course, conservatives, at the same time, laud tariffs and subsidies given to rich corporations that give big campaign contributions to conservative politicians as public-spirited efforts to bolster the country’s economy.  In the same vein, conservatives promote the organization of capital into big corporations but, at the same time, oppose the organization of workers into labor unions.  It’s one thing, and not a good thing, for workers to conglomerate for better wages; it’s another for the wealthy to conglomerate for better profits.

The underlying economic difference between conservatives and liberals is largely over the question of whether the country’s prosperity is primarily the result of increasing supply or increasing demand.  That is, should economic policy primarily favor the accumulation of wealth by the rich who will ostensibly invest it in new enterprises that will create jobs and goods for everyone?  Or should policy favor increasing the demand for goods by ordinary people which will stimulate investment and the creation of jobs in order to meet that demand?  In present-day political terms, should there be tax cuts for the rich or for the middle class?

In cultural terms, this conservative view idealizes what supposedly were the values and customs of the white, European Christians who ostensibly founded the country and made it great.  This view, in turn, denigrates the cultures of other peoples who live in the United States and even demonizes those people as undermining the American Way.  Immigrants have repeatedly been attacked in this way throughout American history, albeit with different groups bearing the brunt at different times.

Historically, the role of alien destroyer of the American Way was assigned to German immigrants in the eighteenth century, Irish immigrants during the nineteenth century, Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century.  Each of these ethnic groups was subsequently incorporated into the category of white, European Christians that defines the genuine American for most conservatives. Meanwhile, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Jews have for the most part been categorized as “Other” and have been more or less denigrated and scapegoated, a practice which continues to the present day.

(2) The Irony of Demagoguery: You can make fools of a lot of the people a lot of the time.

Ever since property qualifications for voting were abolished, conservatives have struggled with the necessity of gaining enough people to back their policies so that they can control the government.  Since their policies are geared to favor a small number of the wealthiest people, they have largely practiced a demagogic politics of fear-mongering against ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, and other groups that can be safely scapegoated, safely scapegoated because they are, in fact, not a threat.

Southern plantation owners cultivated a fear of blacks and a feeling of superiority toward the slaves among the small white farmers who were being undermined by the slave system.  Northern capitalists imported Eastern and Southern European immigrants to undercut the wages of American-born workers, then denigrated the immigrants for political purposes as dangerous to American ways.  The method is to cultivate a sense of superiority among white, European Christians and a fear of Others who are different, even as conservatives enact policies that hurt their very supporters.

We see that method at work today as the Trumps, Mellons, Mercers, Kochs, and other right-wing billionaires stir up fears of immigrants and minorities, while encouraging a sense of superiority among white, European Christians toward these peoples.  The goal is to energize right-wing supporters to vote for conservative politicians while denigrating and denying the vote to people who do not support conservative policies.  The irony is that the Trumps, Mellons, Mercers et al. feel the same contempt toward their right-wing followers as their followers feel toward their designated enemies.  And the right-wing policies of the conservatives hurt their supporters as much or even more than their opponents.

Malleable, manipulatable and mainly middle-aged or older, most of the supporters of Trump and right-wing policies are only making fools of themselves while making the world worse for us all.  I suppose we can take some solace in Abraham Lincoln’s conclusion that you can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.  Let’s hope this is that last time.

B.W.    10/30/18


Three Simple Reasons Why The “Constitutional Originalism” of Brett Kavanaugh is a Judicial Fraud and a Pseudo-Legal Cover for Radical Right-Wing Politics

Three Simple Reasons Why  the “Constitutional Originalism”

of Brett Kavanaugh is a Judicial Fraud and

a Pseudo-Legal Cover for Radical Right-Wing Politics

Burton Weltman

Prologue: I am writing this essay on September 25, 2018. Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are currently in the midst of a furious effort to push through the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.  Kavanaugh is a self-proclaimed “Constitutional Originalist” which, in his case, means that he thinks the United States Constitution should be interpreted according to the meaning of the words in the Constitution as they were understood at the time of its drafting and ratification.  Kavanaugh is currently a federal judge, having been appointed by George W. Bush, but he also has a long history before that as a radical right-wing Republican Party operative.  He claims to be an Originalist but he brings a radical right-wing ideology to his judicial work.

The theory of Constitutional Originalism is a recent development in American history, dating only from the 1970’s.  Its development coincided with the emergence during that same period of the present-day radical right-wing of American politics, the people who brought us the Tea Party and more recently Donald Trump.  Radical right-wingers generally entertain a Social Darwinian approach to society, a libertarian approach to government, and a laissez-faire approach to the economy.  They believe in a dog-eat-dog world in which the rich should rule and the role of the government is to protect the successful rich from the envious poor.  They think of themselves as protectors of freedom against communistic liberals, proponents of excellence against the mediocrity of the masses, and saviors of Western Civilization against the immigrant hordes.

Although right-wingers are often lumped together with conservatives and both are electorally represented by the Republican Party, their ideas and goals are not conservative.  Conservatives tend to support the status quo and accept most of the progressive reforms of the twentieth century.  Right-wingers are radicals who reject the reforms of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society, and want to incite a counterrevolution that would essentially hurl American society back to the nineteenth century.[1]

Constitutional Originalists represent the judicial side of this radical right-wing movement.  The late Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have been radical right-wing proponents of Originalism on the Supreme Court.  Kavanaugh would ostensibly follow in Scalia’s footsteps.  The purpose of this essay to demonstrate that despite its exposition by supposedly learned members of the high court, Constitutional Originalism is patently nonsense and merely a pseudo-legal cover for the radical right-wing political views of these men.  There are many reasons the Originalist theory is false and even fraudulent.  I will outline three simple reasons that I think are sufficiently conclusive.

Reason #1: There were no American dictionaries in 1780’s and there is no other way of determining the definitive meaning for the Founders of the words in the Constitution.

This is really simple.  Originalists say that we should interpret the language of the Constitution exactly as the Founders who wrote it would have interpreted it.  The problem is that there is no way of knowing exactly what the founders meant by the words they used.  There were no American dictionaries at the time and there is no other way of finding out.  But linguistics and etymology are not the real concerns of the Originalists.

Originalists are more concerned with legal results than with linguistics.  Originalism arose in opposition to the “living document” theory of Constitutional interpretation that has long been held by the majority of judges and legal scholars.  According to the “living document” theory, the provisions and words of the Constitution should be interpreted in conformance with the changing circumstances of American society.  As social institutions and norms change, interpretations should change.  On that basis, the Supreme Court found, for example, a right to privacy in the Constitution during the 1960’s and 1970’s that had not previously been declared and used that right as the basis for finding a Constitutional right to contraception and abortion.  Originalism has largely been motivated by opposition to the Court’s finding that the Constitution guarantees rights to privacy and abortion, as has been the right-wing movement generally.

Originalists object to the “living document” theory on the grounds that it undermines the rationale for having a written Constitution and gives judges the power to change the Constitution at will.  They claim it condemns us to a government of fickle men rather than fixed laws.  In this regard, Originalists argue that the “living document” theory destroys the principle of stare decisis, the principle that once something is decided, you should not revisit and revise the decision.  Stare decisis ensures continuity and peace in the law, and it is one of the key principles of the English Common Law from which American common law and constitutional law has evolved.  Without stare decisis, the law becomes a free-for-all struggle in which might makes right.

In claiming that the “living document” theory abjures stare decisis, Originalists are complaining  that it leaves constitutional principles uncertain and subject to partisan changes every time membership on the Supreme Court changes.  This is the reasoning that Originalists use when, for example, they argue that the death penalty should not be condemned under the “cruel and unusual” punishment clause of the Constitution.  If hanging was good enough for the Founders when they composed that clause, it should be good enough for us today.

There are many flaws in the Originalist argument.  To take an obvious one, the way in which we generally determine the meaning of words is through consulting a dictionary.  Dictionaries were invented as a means of standardizing the meanings and spellings of words so that we can have a reasonable idea of what each person is saying when we communicate with each other.  When Noah Webster issued the first comprehensive dictionary of American words in the early 1800’s, his goal was to eliminate the chaos of meanings and spellings that existed in the country.  There was no American dictionary in the country when the Constitution was drafted and ratified, and the fact is that residents of the various states had closer communications and cultural ties with England than with each other.  So, colonists from different states did not necessarily mean the same things with the same words.

The fact that the Founders were able to agree to use the words that are in the Constitution does not mean they held the same views of those words.  And there is no way of finding out because the Founders did not attach an explanatory statement to the Constitution, as most Legislatures do with the laws they enact today.  The Founders seemingly left it to their descendants to decide what the words were going to mean to them.  In this view, words are approached as symbols that need to be reinterpreted as the situations to which they refer change.  Language as well as the law is viewed as living.

With respect to stare decisis, this principle has never been considered absolute and has always been qualified by the facts of changing circumstances.  If the circumstances under which a decision has been made substantially change, then the basis for the original decision may no longer exist, and even the language in which the decision was couched may have changed meanings.  As a result, the decision may need to be revisited and possibly revised, and a new consensus may need to be reached as to the meaning of the words in which the decision is articulated.  The necessity of reinterpreting the law in light of changing circumstances, and the idea that the law is a living and evolving thing, is a basic principle of the common law and of statutory and constitutional interpretation.

And the Founders were fully aware of this principle of changing circumstances when they made the Constitution.  The Revolution had stemmed from the fact that constitutional arrangements between England and the colonies that had been mutually acceptable in prior years were no longer working because the circumstances of both England and the colonies had substantially changed.  And the dispute between England and the colonies focused on the different meanings they were giving to words — words such as “representation,” “taxation,” “domestic trade,” and “foreign trade” — about which they had previously agreed, but did so no longer.

Both the American colonists and the English were citing the same statutes and constitutional principles but using the words in ways that were different from each other and were different from how people had used them in the past.  Meanings had changed with changing circumstances.  Appeals to stare decisis satisfied neither side and did not resolve their differences.  As a consequence, new decisions and new arrangements had to be made.

The Founders knew that meanings change as circumstances change.  As a result, pretending to know what the Founders definitively meant by the words in the Constitution is not only impossible, and essentially a fraud, but runs counter to the Founders’ own intent.  This conclusion leads to Reason #2.

Reason #2: Many of the key phrases and provisions in the Constitution are couched in relativistic terms for which there can be no definitive meaning.

This is simply obvious.  The Constitution is couched in open-ended terms that do not lend themselves to definitive meanings, let alone the definitive meanings of the Founders.  The Founders were not fools, and so they must have known that the Constitution would be subject to competing and changing interpretations.

The Constitution is a remarkably short document, which is probably one of the reasons for its longevity.  It is full of abstract and flexible terms that have to be interpreted and that acquire new meanings as circumstances change.  Many of the most important provisions can have no fixed meaning.  Phrases such as “due process,” “equal protection,” “cruel and unusual punishment,” “establishment of religion,” and “speedy trial,” among many others, can only be defined pragmatically to fit the times, places, and circumstances in which they are applied.  And the Ninth Amendment, which provides that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the People,” is an open invitation for future generations to discover new Constitutionally protected rights as circumstances change.

The meaning of “due process,” for example, depends upon what process people think is due in a particular time, place, and circumstance.  The flexibility of the term is not, however, infinite.  There is a long history in Anglo-American law as to what sort of process is due in various situations.  Based on the principle of stare decisis and on the importance of precedents generally in American law, any determination as to what is due process in a situation must start with past determinations. Then, any deviation from those past determinations must be justified by facts and reasons as to how changing circumstances require the new interpretation.  The meaning of the phrase “due process” should not, in this way, be subject merely to the whims of fickle men or partisan politics.

In the “living document” approach, the words used by the Founders set the parameters for Constitutional interpretation.  As such, you should not be able to use Orwellian double-speak to contradict the Founders’ words.  “Equal” in the Constitution’s equal protection clauses, for instance, should not be construed to mean unequal.  At the same time, the word “equal” does not necessarily mean “the same,” so there is room within the concept of equal protection to come to different and changing interpretations of the phrase, albeit not infinite room.

In Anglo-American law, interpretation has historically been guided and limited by the “reasonable person” standard.  Since we are all products of our times, places and circumstances, and our judgments will be affected thereby, perfect objectivity is impossible and some subjectivity is inevitable.  At the same time, unfettered subjectivity is unacceptable as it would result in the fickleness and partisanship about which the Constitutional Originalists claim to be concerned.  So, the golden mean of interpretation is the reasonable person.  An interpretation is acceptable if it conforms with what a reasonable person in that time, place and circumstance would conclude.  “Reasonable person” is a consensus benchmark, albeit one that is constantly being challenged and revised.  And as consensus on the idea and ideal of the reasonable person evolves, interpretations of the Constitution and other laws can legitimately evolve.

We have historically seen this evolution in cases dealing with public school segregation.  In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decided in 1896 that equality under the law did not require integrated schools, and permitted segregated schools so long as they provided reasonably equal opportunities for education.  In the highly charged racial circumstances of that time, in which many white people, especially in the South, did not want to provide any public education at all for blacks, the Court deemed “separate but equal” a reasonable compromise.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court in 1954 decided that segregated schools had not proven to provide equal educational opportunities and, thereby, violated the requirement of equal protection under the law.  The Court also concluded that segregation was by its nature unequal and unreasonable.  Changing circumstances had led reasonable people to a changed interpretation.  The “reasonable person” in 1954 was effectively more knowledgeable and less racist than in 1896.

Along with stare decisis, the idea of a living law, and the reasonable person standard of interpretation, another basic principle of American law has been the presumption that people intend the natural consequences of their actions.  The Founders created a Constitution that requires interpretation and that for the last two hundred thirty years has been treated as a living document subject to changing interpretation as circumstances have changed.  Given the way the Constitution was drafted and filled with abstract and flexible clauses, the Founders seemingly got what they intended, a living and evolving document.  The attempt by Originalists to radically regress Constitutional interpretation back to the 1780’s is at best a hopeless attempt to put the genie back in the bottle, and more likely a fraud in which they themselves don’t really believe.  This conclusion leads to Reason #3.

Reason #3:  Judges claiming to be Originalists regularly violate their supposed Originalism to uphold radical right-wing rulings.  And that’s what definitively makes it a fraud.

This is simply embarrassing.  Justices Scalia and Thomas and would-be Justice Kavanaugh can wax eloquent about Originalism when they are using it as a pretext to strike down some progressive interpretation of the Constitution or some progressive legislation, but they are complete hypocrites when it comes to upholding right-wing interpretations and laws.  I will cite only three well-known examples.

The first is the idea that money is speech under the First Amendment, and that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech permits a person to spend as much money as the person wants on political campaigns and political contributions.  This interpretation makes any serious campaign finance regulations almost impossible and leaves American politics a plaything for the rich.  It is consistent with the Social Darwinian principles of the radical right-wing in America which hold that the rich should rule and those who own the country should run it.

Although the Founders were themselves elitists, the idea that money would be considered the equivalent of speech and that the Constitution would promote unlimited spending in politics was unthinkable to them. When the Founders drafted the Constitution, they hoped to keep political campaigning out of America altogether.  The historical record is clear that they hoped the country would naturally choose the best and brightest to hold political office, without political parties or partisan campaigning.  The Electoral College, for example, was originally supposed to be a colloquium of the best people who would choose the President and Vice President based on who they thought would be best for the country.[2]

Moreover, to the Founders speech was people speaking, not money talking.  There is nothing either in the Constitution or in anything the Founders have left us to reach the conclusion that spending money was considered by them to be protected First Amendment speech.  Such a conclusion is not merely faulty Constitutional interpretation and bad public policy, it is a gross departure from any Originalist interpretation.  Self-styled Originalists, such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, have, however, consistently supported such an interpretation.

The second example, which follows from the first, is the idea that corporations are “persons” under the Constitution, that they deserve the civil rights protections of persons, and that, in particular, they have the First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.  This idea is literally nonsense on its face and completely contrary to any intention of the Founders.

It is nonsense because it is universally acknowledged that private corporations are merely legal fictions that are created under state laws and that have no right or reason to exist unless allowed by state laws.  There is nothing in the concept of a corporation that resembles the human beings who are protected as persons in the Constitution.  There is also nothing in the Constitution about corporations and there are no private federal corporations.  When the Constitution was drafted, some states didn’t even allow private corporations.  Those states that allowed them kept them under strict control as to what they could do, how big they could become, and how long they could exist.  Nothing could be farther from the concept of a “person” in the Constitution.

Corporation law developed during the mid-nineteenth century, and the regulations governing them became looser over time.  Today, however, each state still has its own corporate law, so that there are fifty different definitions of a corporation, and a corporation can exist only if a state allows for it.  That is not a person.  That’s a thing or a mechanism.

In any case, the Founders had a deep distrust of corporations and hoped they would be used only for public projects that no individual or group of individuals could otherwise undertake.  The historical record is absolutely clear on this.[3]  As a result, the idea of giving corporations the rights of human persons under the Constitution would have been anathema to the Founders.  Nonetheless, self-proclaimed Originalists such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh consistently support this interpretation of the Constitution, a misinterpretation that is consistent with their radical right-wing political views.

The third example is the idea that the Second Amendment provides individuals the right to own and keep handguns and rifles in their homes for personal self-protection, and to own and carry handguns and assault weapons in public.  This is nonsense on its face and would have been inconceivable to the Founders.  Among the many reasons, I will cite four simple ones.[4]

The first reason is that guns in those days were muzzle-loading, which meant that you had to pour gunpowder down the gun’s barrel for each shot you took.  This, in turn, meant you had to have a bag of gunpowder handy in order to shoot your gun.  The problem is that gunpowder in those days was extremely volatile.  It might explode with the slightest change in the humidity or barometric pressure.  It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that additives were discovered that made gunpowder safe to store.  As a result, few people during the 1780’s were foolish or foolhardy enough to want to keep a bag of gunpowder in their home.  In turn, few people would have had any reason to keep guns in their home.  So, the Founders would not have conceived the Second Amendment as protecting the right to keep a gun in one’s home since almost no one did.

The second reason is that guns in those days were a very inefficient means of self-protection.   Guns had to be reloaded after every shot, and reloading took several minutes – which would be very inconvenient if you missed your attacker with your first shot.  In addition, most guns were smooth-bored muskets that were extremely inaccurate.   To shoot them, lead balls were shoved down the barrel with some gunpowder.  When the gunpowder was ignited with a match, the ball would rattle down the barrel and wobble into the air.  It was almost impossible for even the most practiced gunman to hit anything at which he was aiming if it was more that a few feet away.

Muskets were effective weapons when shot en masse simultaneously by one bunch of people in a line at another bunch of people.  What was in effect a wall of lead would emerge from the group of shooters and would mow down the other group.  It did not matter that no one hit the person at whom he was aiming because as part of the wall of lead, each person’s ball would likely hit someone.  That is why most military attacks in those days consisted of lines of musketeers shooting at each other.  Muskets were good only if you were in a group, such as a militia, not if you were shooting by yourself.

As a result of the inefficiency of guns for personal self-defense, few people, and very few townspeople, owned guns.  They relied, instead, on spears and hatchets for self-defense.  Militias stored guns and gunpowder in armories that were generally a safe distance away from the populace of a town.  That is why British soldiers were marching to Lexington and Concord when the shot that was supposedly heard around the world and that ostensibly signaled the beginning of the American Revolution was fired at them.  The British were aiming to confiscate guns and gunpowder of the local militias that were stored in armories in those towns.

That first shot probably missed its target, as did most of the subsequent shots fired by colonists hiding behind trees as the British marched eighteen miles down the road.  Some four thousand colonists fired almost continuously all day long at around fifteen hundred British soldiers who were in the open and at relatively close range.  As a result, seventy-three soldiers were killed and 174 were wounded.  There could not be a better illustration of the inefficiency of guns in those days, and why people did not carry guns around with them or keep them in their homes.  It is insulting to think that the Founders would have promoted a Constitutional amendment to protect gun rights that nobody wanted.

The third reason, which follows from the first two, is that the wording of the Second Amendment clearly applies the right to bear arms to militias and not to individual persons.  That wording and that meaning clearly follow from the historical facts recited above about guns and gun ownership, facts that any Originalist smart enough to be on the Supreme Court should know.

The fourth reason is that the Founders could have had no idea of the weapons of mass destruction and the mass production of those weapons that exist today and that the Supreme Court has proclaimed to be protected by the Second Amendment.  The Founders could not have anticipated assault weapons.  So, according to an Originalist interpretation, the Constitution could not conceivably protect the right to own them.

Nonetheless, despite the obviousness of these reasons, so-called Originalists such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, in a manner that is inconsistent with their Originalism but consistent with their radical right-wing political agendas, support gun ownership rights that the Founders could not have intended and that the words of the Second Amendment could not mean.

Conclusion.  Fraud at the highest levels is the highest level of fraud.  Originalism is just such a fraud.  It is so obviously lame that it would be pathetic if it weren’t so harmful.

[1] I have written a blog post on this website that discusses the development of the differences between conservatives and right-wingers.  It is “Do unto others before they do unto you: The Devolution of Conservatism from Burke to Trump And the Evolution of Pragmatic Liberalism from Madison to Obama.”

[2]I have written a chapter on this in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake (Authorhouse, 2013). It is “Choice #5:Perfecting a Government for an Imperfect Society in the 1780’s-1790’s:Was the Constitution a Mistake?”

[3] I have written a chapter on this in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake (Authorhouse, 2013). It is “Choice #8: General Incorporation Laws, 1830’s-1880’s: Was the Corporate Revolution Necessary and Proper?”

[4] I have written a blog post on this issue which is posted on this website.  It is “History as Choice and the Second Amendment: Would you want to keep a musket in your house?”

Seurat’s La Grande Jatte: An Anarchist Meditation.

Seurat’s La Grande Jatte:

An Anarchist Meditation.

 Burton Weltman

 “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

John Lennon

Propaganda, Popularity, and Painting: George Orwell and Georges Seurat’s La Grande Jatte.

What makes a painting popular?  Georges Seurat’s painting “Un dimanche apres-midi a l’ile de la Grande Jatte,” which translates into English as “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” hereafter referred to as “La Grande Jatte,” is a very popular painting.  Completed in 1886, it was a sensation when it was first shown in Paris and has been prominently exhibited at the Art Institute in Chicago since 1926, where it regularly draws larger crowds of viewers than almost any other painting.  The picture is so popular that it is the subject of a popular musical “Sunday in the Park with George” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.  First performed in 1984, the musical was awarded a Pulitzer Prize among other honors, and has been repeatedly performed ever since.

What makes a painting popular, and is a popular painting necessarily a great painting?  In turn, what makes a painting great, and is a great painting necessarily popular?  There are connoisseurs and experts who evaluate works of art and make judgments based on highly cultivated tastes and esoteric technical criteria.  But that is not the case with most of us who appreciate art but are neither artists nor experts.  Experts’ opinions of the aesthetic values of a painting will get a picture into an art museum, but that doesn’t guarantee a painting’s popularity.  There are a lot of paintings that are highly regarded by experts and connoisseurs but only some of them are popular among the general public.  What makes La Grande Jatte popular?

The musical “Sunday in the Park with George” dramatizes the painting of La Grande Jatte.  It focuses on Seurat’s unusual pointillist painting technique and his supposedly strained personal relations.  The drama of Seurat’s personal relations is fiction, but the painting technique is actual.  Revolutionary in its time, Seurat’s pointillism was based on theories of color and perception that were newly developed in the late nineteenth century.  In pointillism, dots of pure color are placed together in groups that when seen at a distance are synthesized by the eye into blended colors and shapes.  Different combinations of color dots will be seen as different blended colors and shapes.  When you get up close to a pointillist picture, it dissolves into a myriad of seemingly unrelated little points of color.  Painting La Grande Jatte must have required very intense concentration, and Seurat’s personal relations could conceivably have been in fact strained by the obsessive devotion to his work that pointillism required.  In any case, although pointillism never caught on as a major artistic technique, and has essentially faded into history, La Grande Jatte has, nonetheless, became an almost revered work.

Possibly in an attempt to explain the popularity of La Grande Jatte, the “Sunday in the Park with George” musical includes something of a tutorial in art appreciation.  Seurat is made to frequently repeat an aesthetic mantra in the course of painting the picture: “Design. Composition. Tension. Balance. Light. Harmony.”  Inserting this mantra into the play seems to be a way for Sondheim and Lapine to give the audience an idea of how to evaluate a painting such as La Grande Jatte.  These are fairly simple criteria and they probably represent the sorts of things that most of us in the lay public apply, even if subconsciously, when we are looking at a picture. For most of us, trying to apply simple criteria such as these is pretty much the most we can do in aesthetically evaluating a painting.  It is not all that an expert might do, but it is something.  In any case, it probably does not explain why one picture is popular with us while another isn’t.

George Orwell famously claimed that the popularity of a work of art is based on its resonance as a piece of propaganda.  He said that “every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message,’ whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of the artist’s work are influenced by it.  All art is propaganda.”[1]  That is, whether or not people consciously realize it, and even whether the artist realizes it, every work of art embodies moral and political views and propagates them to the public.  It is the message, Orwell claimed, that determines the popularity of a work of art, and that includes paintings.  If a painting’s message resonates with the viewing public, it will be popular, which says as much about the viewers as it does about the painting.

Popularity, Orwell claimed in turn, is a criterion of greatness.  While not all popular art is great, great art is by definition popular.  A great work of art – whether a novel, poem, play, painting, piece of music, or whatever – has been defined as one that you can read, listen to, or look at repeatedly and get something more each time.[2]  A great work may please you but it also provokes you. You can look at a great painting repeatedly and see, feel, or think something more and different each time.  A work can be popular without being great if it merely pleases without provoking.  A great painting is popular because it provokes viewers to think about it and to come back for more.  That is the difference between a hotel room landscape that pacifies guests and a Van Gogh landscape that provokes viewers to ask “What is going on here?”

Applying Orwell’s criteria to La Grande Jatte, it would seem to be both a popular and a great painting.  It is a big picture that occupies a whole wall by itself in a big room at the Art Institute.  It is flanked on three sides by Impressionist landscapes by Monet.  While Monet’s landscapes are great pictures and get a lot of attention, La Grande Jatte gets the most.  That may partly be because of its large size, and partly because of its notoriety.  But there seems to be more to it.  Standing in bunches in front of the painting — alternately at a distance where a viewer can see the objects in the picture and up close where it dissolves into dots — most people spend more time looking at La Grande Jatte than at the other paintings.  Why?

The musical “Sunday in the Park with George” focuses on the technical aspects of Seurat’s pointillism and, thereby, portrays what is essentially the conventional view of La Grande Jatte as an amazing and amazingly interesting technical feat.  I think, however, that this view is only half right because there is nothing in it about Seurat’s politics and that, I think, is the other half of the point about La Grande Jatte.  Seurat was a dedicated anarchist who intended his paintings to convey political messages.[3]  If Orwell is right about what makes a work of art popular, then Seurat’s anarchist political beliefs could be a key to the painting’s popularity, and it may be that the anarchist philosophy that underlies the messages of the painting have subliminal appeal to a largely unwitting public.  Exploring that idea is the main theme of this essay.

Seurat’s La Grande Jatte: Anarchism as an Anti-ism-ism.

Webster’s Dictionary defines anarchism as: “A political theory…advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups.”

If you attach “ism” to the end of a word, you have made an ideology out of whatever the word denotes.  John Lennon once complained that “Everybody is talking ‘bout Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m.”[4]  That is, people were taking their own particular ideas or interests and making whole philosophies out of them, essentially making fetishes of them, and then using their ideologies to divide and try to conquer each other.  Ideologies, Lennon intoned, make a mess of the world because they divide people between “us,” i.e. those who agree with someone’s whole program, and “them,” those who don’t.

The problem is that when ideologies and ideologues disagree, there is no room for compromise.  People who have different ideas about something can negotiate their differences but people with different ideologies have non-negotiable differences.  They can only fight them out.  Anarchism, Seurat’s political credo, is, however, a philosophy that endeavors to eliminate ideological barriers.  It is an anti-ism-ism that seeks to give peace the chance John Lennon called for.

In order to explore the anarchist philosophy Seurat hoped to convey in La Grande Jatte, we have to first distinguish anarchism from libertarianism because the two are often confused with each other.  Although both philosophies eschew strong centralized government, they do so in very different ways and for very different reasons.

Anarchism is a form of socialism without a strong central government.  It is based on anarchists’ belief in the inherently cooperative nature of most people.  Anarchists believe that if artificial obstacles to cooperation are removed, people will naturally live together on an all-for-one, one-for-all basis.  Ideologies that are invented to promote and protect oppressive power and excessive property are an example of the obstacles that block pragmatic cooperation among people.  In turn, coercive central governments operate as instruments of the powerful and their ideologies.

Anarchists contend that if we eliminate economic inequality and the coercive governments that protect that inequality, we would eliminate the power struggles and class conflicts that roil society, and the Golden Rule would rule.[5]  Anarchism is, thereby, an anti-ism-ism because it stresses the ability of people to pragmatically resolve their differences and practically solve their problems without ideological barriers getting in the way.  It is the vision expressed in John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”

Libertarianism is an ideology that promotes capitalism without a strong central government.  It is based on libertarians’ belief in the inherently self-centered and aggressive nature of people.  They claim that dog-eat-dog conflict is the natural state of humankind.  The universe, in their view, is as a zero-sum competition in which one person’s gain is invariably another person’s loss and vice versa.  The goal is to inflict losses on others so as to make gains for oneself.

Libertarians believe that might makes right and might signifies the righteous. Theirs is an individualistic and essentially anti-social philosophy. They reject government as an instrument of the inferior weak against the superior strong which restricts free competition, while coming down against the deserving winners and in favor of the undeserving losers.  Despite the mutual rejection by anarchists and libertarians of strong central government, libertarianism is the moral and political opposite of anarchism.  Seurat was an anarchist, not a libertarian.

And Seurat was a pacifist anarchist which we must distinguish from militant anarchism. Although the pacifist form of anarchism has historically had, and currently has, by far the most adherents, the militant form has gotten all the publicity and is often conflated with anarchism as a whole.[6]  The goal of both forms of anarchism is to raise the public’s political consciousness so that people will reject authoritarian capitalism and adopt participatory democratic socialism, but they do so in very different ways with very different moral and political implications.

Anarchists assume that people are unhappy with the existing society but that most people don’t think they can do anything about it.  Anarchists believe, therefore, that people need to be convinced they have the ability to get rid of the established order.  Militant anarchists think the public can be convinced of this through exemplary acts of violence – so-called propaganda by deed – that demonstrate the political weakness and physical vulnerability of the ruling classes. Bakunin and Johann Most were well known nineteenth century advocates of militant anarchism.

In the late nineteenth century, militant anarchists assassinated politicians and set off bombs in public places, hoping thereby to provoke a spontaneous mass uprising that would violently overthrow the established order.  In recent years, self-styled militant anarchists have turned peaceful political demonstrations into riots and have damaged public property with seemingly the same goal in mind.[7]

Pacifist anarchists believe in moving public opinion through education.  Tolstoy and Kropotkin were well-known nineteenth century exemplars.  Their method emphasizes exemplary acts of thinking and creating – works of art and science — that demonstrate the cultural weakness and intellectual paucity of the ruling classes. Their method also includes setting up small-scale cooperative communities and industries which, by demonstrating anarchism’s efficacy, could become the cells of a new society.

Nineteenth century anarchists organized communes with the goal of undermining and overwhelming the established order by drawing more and more people into an alternative anarchist way of life that would eventually become the predominant society.  Twentieth and twenty-first century anarchists have established communes with similar hopes.[8]

Seurat was part of a late nineteenth century group of French anarchist artists, mostly Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, led by the painter Camille Pissarro.  Unlike the bomb-throwing anarchists of that period, Pissarro and his comrades were peaceful anarchists who hoped to educate the masses into socialism.  Most of them painted idyllic rural scenes and hardy yeoman peasants as uplifting examples of the utopian way things could be.  They also painted satirical pictures of stuffy bourgeois as negative examples of the way things currently were.

Seurat was a “highly recognized member of the anarchist Neo-Impressionist movement” and it is generally acknowledged that La Grande Jatte, with its pompous bourgeois figures, was intended to satirize bourgeois mores.[9]  Although I agree that Seurat’s intent was partly satirical, I contend further that the pointillism of the picture was intended to be seen as an anarchistic method of painting and that the subject matter was intended to be understood as a meditation on anarchism.

Setting the Scene for a Meditation on Anarchism in La Grande Jatte.

La Grande Jatte seems an unusual picture to be so widely popular, especially compared with the paintings around it at the Art Institute.  Although you can Google a copy of the picture, I will describe what I see as the key elements in it.  The scene is mundane: a bunch of ordinary people in a park abutting a body of water.  The park is not at all scenic.  No pretty flowers.  This is in sharp contrast with the beautiful landscapes by Monet that share the room with La Grande Jatte.

Likewise, while Monet’s landscapes and the Impressionist paintings in the rooms adjacent to La Grande Jatte are fluid and their human subjects are generally portrayed as relaxed, almost all of Seurat’s figures are stiff, almost stilted.  In turn, where most of the subjects in the other paintings are interesting in and of themselves, the subjects in Seurat’s painting are of no inherent interest.  And where the subjects of the other paintings complement their surroundings, Seurat’s figures clash with their environment and some are too small and out-of-proportion to their surroundings.

La Grande Jatte looks at first glance to be a mere clutter of figures and objects.  There are some thirty or more people, at least two dogs, and a monkey scattered on the park’s grass in various poses, some sitting, others standing, a few walking.  There are a number of boats of various kinds in the water.  There does not seem at first glance to be any coherence to the picture.

The impression fostered by the picture is of a hot day.  With the exception of a little girl who looks directly out at us and is in the sunshine, the people are keeping to the shade of umbrellas and leafy trees and are looking away from us.  There is one man in loose-fitting, comfortable working-class clothes. The other people are well-dressed, in fact overdressed for a park in hot weather, and are seemingly of the middle classes.

The foreground of the picture is dominated by three figures: a formally dressed bourgeois man and woman who are standing stiff and haughty with their monkey on a leash on the right side of the painting and the working-class man who is reclining in a leisurely manner on the grass, leaning back on his arm on the left side of the picture. All three seem to be looking out at the body of water, the bourgeois couple glaring, the worker relaxed and smoking a pipe. The bourgeois couple look uncomfortable and tense.  The working man radiates comfort and calm.

The background of the picture is filled with a disparate assortment of people and things in and out of the water.  There are about six boats in the water, including two steamboats, at least two sailboats, and a sculling boat being rowed by four men and coxswained seemingly by a woman.  Among the people, there are two soldiers standing at attention, two girls with fishing poles, a man being shaved by a woman, and two women sitting under a tree.

There is a superficial calmness and quietude to the scene.  A painting, after all, is silent.  And the people in the foreground of the picture are stationary and silently looking out at the water.  None of them is moving or talking.  But much more is taking place behind them.

On the land, there is a man blowing away on what looks like a French horn. There is a yipping little dog just about to pounce on a larger dog, possibly the prelude to a dog fight. In the water at the back of the picture, one of the steamboats seems to be sinking.  A short distance in front of it, another steamboat seems about to run into the sculling boat. The rowers have their backs to the steamboat, seemingly unaware of their peril, and the coxswain’s line of vision is seemingly impaired by her parasol.  So much for the peace and quiet of a Sunday afternoon in the park.

So, how does the setting of this scene relate to anarchism, pointillism, meditation and the ongoing popularity of La Grande Jatte?

Pointillism: Anarchism in the Method of La Grande Jatte.

Most conventional commentaries on La Grande Jatte miss or bypass any connection between pointillism and anarchism.  They focus on pointillism as an interesting semi-scientific technique of making color.  This is the focus in the musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” and is the explanation of pointillism found in Wikipedia and on the Art Institute web site.[10]  There is nothing in these commentaries about how Seurat’s politics might relate to his pointillist method of painting.  I think that is a mistake.

Other commentators who connect pointillism with Seurat’s anarchism do so by characterizing the method as mechanistic and even robotic, with Seurat supposedly dabbing his dots rotely on the canvas to make a picture.  In their view, pointillism is a mechanical method of painting that was intended by Seurat as a critique of the mechanistic nature of modern society.  They contend that the mechanical application and combination of color dots to produce mechanical-looking stiff figures was Seurat’s way of subverting the artistic conventions of bourgeois society.  In this view, Seurat developed pointillism as an anti-humanist method to mirror the anti-humanist society in which he lived.[11]  I don’t agree with this view.

Seurat reportedly developed pointillism as a contrast and counter to the Impressionists’ methods.  Having been trained in Impressionism, he came to reject the method as too impressionistic and thereby, in his opinion, too superficial.  Impressionist paintings are composed of quick strokes of paint.  Impressionists often completed pictures in one open-air session and the pictures comprised an impression of a scene.  As with pointillism, Impressionist pictures are best viewed from a distance of fifteen feet or more, at which distance the paint strokes come together as objects in the viewer’s eyes.  Get close to an Impressionist painting and it usually falls apart into a bunch of paint strokes just as a pointillist painting dissolves into dots.

But Seurat’s dots are not quickly and impressionistically applied.  They are carefully and scientifically placed.  As a so-called Neo-Impressionist, Seurat wanted a method that would reflect more than mere impressions of things and would get at the underlying meaning of a scene.  He spent long periods of time sketching his subjects in the open air and then spent even longer periods of time in his studio – some two years to produce La Grande Jatte – working obsessively on getting his work just right.[12]

Given the effort he put into his work, I don’t think it is likely that Seurat would have seen pointillism as an anti-humanist method that exemplified what he rejected in society.  To the contrary, I think it is more likely that he saw pointillism as a humanistic method and an example of anarchism in action.

The key to pointillism seems to be to follow the color dots.  It is the collaboration of the dots with each other that makes the colors and the objects in the painting.  In effect, the color dots direct the painting of the picture for the artist and determine what we see.  Once the artist has chosen a subject to be represented in a picture, the artist must work with the color dots so that they can come together in configurations to make the picture. In turn, our eyes must collaborate with the dots to see those configurations.

Although it may seem fanciful to speak about color dots collaborating with each other and with humans, pointillism has been compared with the atomism of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus who said similar things about atoms.[13]  Democritus was one of the inventors of atomic theory.  He believed the universe was composed of an infinite variety of atoms of all sorts of shapes that came together on their own to form things.  He seemed to ascribe a certain willfulness to atoms, even though he thought they were essentially inanimate.  His atomism seemed, therefore, to operate similarly to Seurat’s pointillism which is based on dots coming together to make colors and shapes.

As Democritus’ name would seem to imply, he was also one of the first advocates of democracy.  Democritus seemed to think that humans operated on a principle similar to atoms, with an infinite variety of different people voluntarily coming together to create a society.  He is said to have opined that “Equality is everywhere noble,” although like most ancient Greek democrats he did not seem to include women and slaves in this formulation.  He also claimed that “Poverty in a democracy is better than prosperity under tyrants.”[14]  Democritus could, thus, be seen as something of a precursor of both Seurat’s anarchistic pointillist method and his anarchist political philosophy.

The goal of anarchists such as Seurat was expressed in the formulation of “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”[15]  Pointillism reflects this goal in that it requires a good deal of patience and self-control on the part of the artist.  The artist cannot do anything he/she wants, and cannot merely follow his/her feeling in how to apply the paint.  The artist must work with the dots.  There is no room for egoism or arbitrary self-expression.  The artist is not an almighty god imposing his/her will on the canvas but merely a collaborator with the dots.  Pointillism is, thereby, seemingly an example of self-control and cooperation as a way of art and a way of life.  This is the essence of Seurat’s anarchism.

Meditation: Anarchism in the Subject Matter of La Grande Jatte.         

Webster’s Dictionary defines meditation as “A discourse intended to express an author’s reflections or to guide others in contemplation.”

Like many painters throughout history, Pissarro’s coterie of anarchist painters wanted to give viewers something to think about in the subject matter of their pictures.  They intended their works to be meditations on society and hoped that people would meditate on the social messages conveyed in their works.  Most in Pissarro’s group hoped their paintings would inspire people to reject bourgeois capitalist society and embrace anarchistic socialism.  That included Seurat.

Despite Seurat’s avowed political aims, some interpretations of La Grande Jatte, including Wikipedia for example, seem to miss the fact that Seurat was trying to make political points in the picture. These commentators say the picture merely portrays a pleasant day in park.  All is well in the picture according to this view.  Nothing about a French horn blaring, boats sinking, dogs yipping.  There is nothing in these appreciations of the picture about political or social messages.  I think that is a mistake.

Other interpretations of the painting that do make a connection with Seurat’s politics generally focus on the stiffness and stuffiness of the overdressed bourgeois figures and see the picture as essentially a critique of bourgeois society. The Art Institute’s website, for example, says that the picture is a “commentary on the posturing and artificiality of modern Parisian society.”[16]  In a similar vein, other critics see the picture as “an anti-utopian allegory,” and they cite the laid-back worker as representing a healthy contrast to the uptight bourgeois.[17]  I agree with these interpretations but I would go further in interpreting the significance of the worker in the front of the picture and the chaos in the back.  In this regard, I suggest that the painting operates as a meditation on anarchism, and does so on at least two levels.

First, I think that viewers instinctively identify with the worker who is sitting quietly and calmly on the edge of the chaos in the picture.  He is seemingly contemplating the idiocy of the bourgeois around him, who are so formally and warmly dressed on a hot day in a park.  He is also calmly enduring the disorder in the park, in which things are generally falling apart.  The worker is at ease, as though, I think, he is waiting for the idiotic bourgeois capitalist system to collapse so that he and his comrades can then pick up the pieces and put them together again in a better way.  He is witnessing anarchy as possibly a prelude to anarchism.

Sitting immediately next to the worker are two demure bourgeois figures, a man and a woman, who have seemingly joined him in calmly looking out at the water and contemplating the state of things.  They are disproportionately small compared to him, perhaps symbolic of their status in the anarchists’ world view.  But their little group of three contrasts with most of the other groups and individuals in the picture whose actions and attitudes seem to clash with each other.  There seems to be a sort of comradeship among the three of them, maybe a portent of things to come.  And I think we viewers instinctively join them in their meditation.

Second, we make eye contact with the little girl who implicitly challenges us to meditate on the scene, and we do.  We are neither impressed by the façade of order represented by the haughty bourgeois couple in the foreground nor distressed by the chaos in the back.  We look back at the little girl and see a picture of capitalist things falling apart, but we also see them coming together for Seurat as he composes the picture, for the dots as they comprise the picture, and for our eyes in they contemplate the picture. We see anarchist order coming from anarchic disorder, and the process constitutes a meditation on anarchism.

At the Intersection of Propaganda, Popularity and Great Art.

George Orwell is, I think, right in claiming that all art is propaganda in the sense that a world view inevitably lies behind any work of art.  But there is a difference between propaganda that tries to induce you to ask certain questions and propaganda that tries to force you to accept certain answers.  In painting, it is the difference between Pissarro’s pictures of hardworking peasants and the Soviet Realists’ heroic workers.  La Grande Jatte is of the former sort.

La Grande Jatte is a painting that tries to get us to think about ourselves and our position in the world.  Are we like the contemplative worker and the contemplative couple sitting next to him or are we like the pompous couple standing behind the worker?  If we really look at the painting rather than merely glance at it as we pass through the Art Institute’s galleries, then maybe we are more like the former than the latter.

Does the picture promote anarchism as Seurat intended, even if only through its subliminal influence?  Maybe.  I think that even the most casual glance at the foreground of the painting will lead you to identify positively with the worker and react negatively to the bourgeois couple, and that is a start toward Seurat’s message.  If you then look deeper into the painting, I think it is hard not to see that things are in disorder. The façade of normality represented by the bourgeois couple has been shattered.  This leads you further toward Seurat’s message.  If you then think about what you are seeing, you may arrive at Seurat’s desired conclusions, or at least come back to look at the picture again.

If Orwell is right about art being propaganda, and if my interpretation of the painting has any merit, then the popularity of La Grande Jatte may denote some appeal of anarchist ideas to those of us in the art-viewing public.  And this may say as much about us as it does about the picture.

[1] George Orwell.  All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays.  “Charles Dickens.” New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. p.65

[2] Mortimer Adler.  How to Read a Book.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1940.

[3] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.” 12/2014.

[4] John Lennon. “Give Peace a Chance.” Plastic Ono Band, 1969.

[5] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.13, 22.

[6] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. p.16.

[7] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.430-431.

[8] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.15, 21.

[9] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.”  12/2014.

[10] “Georges Seurat.” Wikipedia.  Accessed 8/24/18.  “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Art Institute.

[11] “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Accessed 8/24/18.

[12] “Georges Seurat.” The Art Story: Modern Art & Insight. 8/1/18.

[13] Tom Bradley. “Atomic Models.” 11/20/12.  Prezi:atomicmodels

[14] “Democritus (460-370 BCE).”  International Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Accessed 9/3/18.

[15] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. p.21.

[16] “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Art Institute.  Accessed 8/24/18.

[17] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.” pissaropolitics.wordpress Accessed 8/24/18.

Don’t let the bastards get you down. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. A Medieval Mystery with a Metaphysical Moral for our Time.

Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

A Medieval Mystery with a Metaphysical Moral for our Time.

Burton Weltman

“[Humanity] has unquestionably one really effective weapon, laughter.

Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution…

Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

Mark Twain.

The Calamitous Fourteenth Century: A Distant Mirror?

“Often the step between ecstatic vision and sinful frenzy is very brief.”                                    William of Baskerville.  The Name of the Rose.

The past is prologue according to Antonio in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Fourteenth century Europe was a tempestuous prologue to modern history according to Barbara Tuchman in her seminal book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.[1] Calamity abounded, as what we call the Middle Ages ended and the Modern Era began, with most people suffering from “plague, war, taxes, brigandage, bad government, and schism in the Church.”[2]  Politics in the fourteenth century were dominated by two arrogant and grasping powers, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, each claiming global hegemony over men’s minds as well as their lands.[3]  Each sought dictatorial and even totalitarian control over the peoples of Europe.  Cold wars and hot wars were fought between them, and each employed institutionalized corruption to get their ways.[4]

Partisans of the Church and the Empire were divided by rigid ideology and theological frenzy. Both sides persecuted and executed opponents for their beliefs.  The Pope’s Inquisition routinely charged nonconformists with heresy and burned them at the stake.  The Emperor similarly enforced his will.  Both sides stoked fears of witchcraft on the part of the other and charging opponents with witchcraft “became a common means to bring down an enemy.” Accusation was tantamount to condemnation because denial was deemed to be proof of guilt, since that is what a witch would do, and because both the temporal and religious authorities “achieved proof by confession rather than evidence, and confession was routinely gained by torture.”  Fear of being denounced by the authorities or even one’s neighbors was pervasive and socially destructive.[5]

In Tuchman’s rendering, fourteenth century Europe was not a happy time and place.  But does the situation sound familiar?  Substitute the Soviet Union and the United States for the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, and you seem to have something of a mirror of the last half of the twentieth century when the Cold War raged around the world, anti-Communist witch hunts turned citizens against each other in the United States, and stoking fear and hatred brought demagogues to power.  That was Tuchman’s point.  Published in 1978, Tuchman’s book was intended as a warning about what happens when society is pervaded with demagoguery and dominated by fear.

In 1980, Umberto Eco published The Name of the Rose, a novel about politics and religion during the early fourteenth century.[6]  It is a mystery story wrapped in theological, political and philosophical debates, and it is effectively a fictionalization of themes discussed in Tuchman’s history.  Like Tuchman’s book, it is also a warning about what happens when society is dominated by ideological rigidity, theological zealotry, public corruption, demagoguery and fear.

The warnings of Tuchman and Eco are still relevant today.  Substitute President Putin and President Trump for the Emperor and the Pope, substitute Russia and the United States for the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, and both books contain a warning about what might be happening to us today.  Eco might, however, also be trying in his novel to point us to a way of combating the pretensions of the Trumps, Putins and other would-be despots, and of helping to restore sanity and civility to what has been an increasingly insane and uncivil world.  And that way is through the universal propensity of people to laugh coupled with a pragmatic common sensibleness of which people seem capable no matter their cultural differences.  The purpose of this essay is to explain that interpretation of the book.

The Story: Irony and Agony in a Benedictine Monastery.

The Name of the Rose has been an international best-selling novel since its first publication in 1980 – over fifty million copies sold and counting.  It is widely considered an unusual novel to have become a best-seller.[7]  It is a hefty book, some five hundred pages long.  It is also an intellectually heavy book.  The story takes place in a fictional Benedictine monastery during the 1320’s and almost all of the characters are monks.  It is filled with abstruse theological discourse on issues that were of interest to fourteenth century Roman Catholic clergymen. There is a small amount of sex in the book, but very little, only just enough to highlight some of the theological arguments.  This does not seem to be the stuff of which best-selling novels are generally made.

The Name of the Rose is, nonetheless, a compelling book and I think that is because of the unstinting and unswerving reasonableness and good humor of the main character, William of Baskerville.  William is a Franciscan Friar who is a sleuth, scientist and philosopher rolled into one.  He is a pragmatist caught in the midst of extremists who push their ideas and actions to the point of absurdity, and beyond to disaster.  He is a rational man among zealots, and we identify with him and root for him as he lobs witticisms at the fanatics and tries to make sense of the mess around him, just as most of us hope to do in our own lives.

It is an extremely erudite and dense book.  It sets us down in an alien world full of ideas and things of which we have never heard, with people arguing passionately over obscure points equivalent to the question of how many angels can dance on the end of a pin.[8]  As a result, the novel is commonly seen as a sort of doomsday book and a postmodern portrayal of the futility of finding common ground with other people and engaging in meaningful communication with them. [9]  But, I disagree.  I think the book is actually a paean to pragmatism and good humor and, through William, it has an optimistic message, albeit wrapped in disorder, death and destruction.

The story is in the form of a long-lost manuscript purportedly written by a medieval monk named Adso which has been found, translated and published by an unnamed fictional editor.  Adso was ostensibly William of Baskerville’s sidekick and amanuensis during a trip they made to the Benedictine monastery for a meeting between representatives of the Pope and the Franciscan Order.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss whether the Franciscans should be allowed to live in absolute poverty as they contended Jesus and his disciples had done.  The manuscript consists of Adso’s notes and reconstructions of what transpired and, especially, what William said and did.  In the manuscript, Adso admits that he often did not understand the purport of William’s philosophical ideas, and it is clear to us that he didn’t.[10]

But Adso is still able to communicate William’s words to us so that we can fathom what William was saying.  That we can understand William seems to exemplify one of Eco’s points in the book that although we see each other and the world through a glass darkly, we can still see clearly enough to make pragmatic sense of things if we try.  There is a faux preface to the book by the faux editor in which he clearly does not understand the import of the book he is publishing and completely misses any comparison of the fourteenth century with today, and this seems to make the same point because we readers can see the comparison.

The Name of the Rose is a complex and complicated.  It has several plot lines and many themes. It is abstruse and hard to penetrate, which I think is consistent with the idea that we see through a glass darkly.  I think, however, that one can identify three main plot lines and two main themes in the story.  The plot lines follow William’s investigation of a series of murders at the monastery, William’s theological debates with other monks at the monastery and his disquisitions with Adso, and William’s participation in the meeting between the Pope’s delegates and the Franciscan leadership.  The themes focus on the morality of laughter and the nature of the nomenclature we use to understand things and communicate with each other.

William is at the center of each of the plot lines.  He has come to the monastery to help mediate the meeting between the Franciscans and the Pope’s representatives.  But, no sooner does he get there than the Abbot of the monastery ropes him into investigating a death that had occurred just prior to William’s arrival, and which is suspected to be a murder.  Consistent with the idea that things are not always what they seem to be, the death is eventually found to be a suicide.

William’s investigation of that death seems, nonetheless, to trigger a series of murders that are not directly connected with either the suicide or with the subject of the forthcoming meeting, but which William is now called upon to investigate.  The murders seem to follow a pattern from the Book of Revelation in the Bible and are possibly intended to signal the second coming of Jesus Christ.  This pattern is eventually found to be a red herring intended by the murderer to lead William’s investigations astray, but it is this plot line that keeps the pot boiling in the book.

In the course of his investigations, William increasingly finds a fanatical blind Benedictine monk named Jorge in his way, and the second plot line consists of theological debates among various monks but especially between William and Jorge.  The Benedictines were historically known for their scholarship, and the book’s fictional Benedictine monastery is supposedly a major repository of ancient texts.  Many of the texts were written by Greeks and Romans who were not Christians, and these texts are jealously guarded by the monks lest they get into the hands of lay people who might misinterpret them in ostensibly heretical ways.

Jorge is an arch-Benedictine who espouses Church orthodoxy and upholds the authority of Authority.  And he does so vehemently.  To Jorge, the Church is constituted by its hierarchy, not its adherents, and the truth is in Church documents, not scientific discoveries.  He claims that the purpose of scholarship should be to preserve knowledge, not to discover or invent it. He derides the quest for new knowledge as sinful “pride” that is subversive of the established Church.  Jorge accepts the literal truth of Scripture and claims it says “everything that is needed to be known.”  To him, science is evil.  “Before we looked to heaven,” he complains, “now we look to earth.”[11]

Soon after William arrives at the monastery, he encounters Jorge in a workroom in which monks were copying and illuminating holy books, and they begin their debating.  When William enters, Jorge is berating one of the illustrators for drawing on the sacred manuscripts absurdly humorous caricatures of humans and other animals which make the other monks laugh.  Jorge condemns the illustrations as distortions that denigrate God’s creation and warp men’s minds.  And he condemns their laughter as inconsistent with the seriousness of a monk’s work.

William defends the drawings as a means of contrasting what is false with what is true and, thereby, highlighting the truth.  “God can be named only through the most distorted things,” William claims, and “He shows Himself more in that which is not than in that which is.”  In turn, laughter, William contends, can be an aid to understanding.  Jorge replies that in the Gospels “Our Lord did not have to employ such things to point out the straight and narrow path to us.  Nothing in his parables arouses laughter.”  And “Christ never laughed,” Jorge concludes.  But he could have, William counters, “nothing in his human nature forbade it.”[12]

And despite Jorge’s claim that Jesus’ parables don’t provoke outright laughter, many of them were certainly witty.  This includes sayings such as “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven” and “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”  The former saying disparages riches and indicates that it would be absurd to think a rich man can be good enough to get into heaven.  The latter saying turns on the fact that to a Jew such as Jesus and to the Christian followers of Jesus, everything is owed to God and there is, in effect, nothing owed to Caesar.  It would be absurd to think otherwise when dealing with a Supreme Being.  This was an irony lost on Jesus’ audience and many others since.  Both sayings are quite humorous and were historically used by Franciscans to support their position that Jesus favored Church poverty.

As their initial interchange illustrates, Jorge and William held antithetical views of scholarship and the Church.  Jorge stands for the upholding the past, William for the progressing in the present.  As an erstwhile scientist, William especially promotes the questioning of authority.  Doctrines are merely hypotheses, subject to being proved, disproved, and modified as circumstances change and different evidence emerges.  Institutions are also made to evolve as circumstances change. “Books are not made to be believed,” William explains, “but to be subject to inquiry” and that, he insists to an astonished Adso, includes even Scripture.  Knowledge can, in turn, come from many sources. The Koran, he contends, is “A book containing wisdom different from ours” but there are many things Christians can learn from Muslims.[13]

The third plot line concerns an actual conflict during the 1320’s between the Franciscan Order backed by the Emperor and the Dominican Order that administered the Inquisition for the Pope.  The story in the book is fictional but the dispute is historical.  Historically, the Franciscans were known for their relatively relaxed rules of behavior and liberal theological interpretations, and for ministering to the poor and to social outcasts.  The Dominicans were known for their theological purity and for harshly administering the Inquisition against alleged heretics. During the first part of the fourteenth century, the Franciscans and the Pope were engaged in a virulent and sometimes violent debate about whether Jesus and his disciples had lived in poverty and owned nothing, and whether monks and maybe the Church as a whole should do likewise.

The Benedictine monastery in the story is ostensibly neutral territory and is hosting a meeting between the Franciscan leadership and some representatives of the Pope on the question of whether Franciscans should be allowed to practice the poverty they attributed to Jesus.  The Pope has denied them that right, seemingly because he fears it would reflect badly on the wealth of the Church and the lavishness of his own lifestyle.  The Emperor is supporting the Franciscans merely in order to gall the Pope.  The Pope’s delegation is headed by a zealous and bloodthirsty Dominican Inquisitor named Bernard Gui, who was an actual historical person.  At the fictional meeting, William jousts with Bernard over questions of what constitutes heresy and what should be done with people who are accused of heresy.

Bernard essentially takes the position that it is better to burn a slew of innocent people at the stake than to let one guilty heretic get away.  He seems to want to execute anyone who is accused by any reputable authority of heresy, no matter what the accused has actually said or done.  He claims that the authority and integrity of the Church as an eternal institution are at stake.  To him, anything that calls the Church into question does the work of the Devil.  And Bernard implies that Franciscans who support the poverty movement might be in that number.  William responds with questions that he hopes will demonstrate the absurdity of Bernard’s position but does not directly attack Bernard for fear of getting his colleagues into trouble.  The meeting soon breaks down into shouting among the participants and nothing is resolved.

Later, speaking to Adso, William claims that people become heretics and outcasts because the Church does not address their problems of poverty, disease, and oppression.  The goal should be to reincorporate rebels back into the Church, rather than slaughtering them.  But, he continues, “The recovery of the outcasts demanded the reduction of the privileges of the powerful,” which is why the powers-that-be in the Church prefer to kill rebels as heretics.  When Adso remarks that it seems the Church “accuses all its adversaries of heresy,” William replies that the Church also “recognizes as orthodoxy any heresy it can bring under its control.” Cynicism, William claims, lays behind the faith proclaimed by the Church.  In the holy scheme of things, William contends, “The faith a movement proclaims doesn’t count; what counts is the hope it offers.”  And that is where the Church is failing, he concludes.[14]

It turns out in the end that Jorge is behind the murders. He has been attempting to keep anyone from reading a long-lost book on comedy and laughter that Aristotle had written.  Among medieval theologians and philosophers, Aristotle was a revered pre-Christian philosopher, widely known as The Philosopher.  Jorge was afraid that if Aristotle’s book became public knowledge, it would place a stamp of approval on laughter and humor, which he believes are tools of the Devil.  Jorge arranges things so that any monk who even briefly possesses the book dies almost immediately.  Tellingly, although Jorge thinks the book is evil, he has been too much of a scholar to simply destroy it.

William discovers the truth about the murders but it is too late to avoid further tragedy.  Jorge gains a Pyrrhic victory over William when he destroys the book and the whole monastery in a fire that kills most of the learned monks, destroys all of the other precious books, and also kills himself.  William and Adso escape the inferno.

The Morality of Mirth: Laughter is not a Laughing Matter.

“The Devil is the arrogance of the Spirit, faith without a smile, truth that is never seized by doubt.” William of Baskerville. The Name of the Rose.

The Name of the Rose is a dense book with many themes.  I think, however, that one can identify two main interrelated themes that run through the book.  They can be characterized as the morality of mirth – whether laughter is a moral or immoral act — and the metaphysical nuances of nomenclature – what we mean when we call something by a name.

The Name of the Rose is not a funny book. It tells a grim story set in a particularly vicious time and place in history. The story mainly consists of serious philosophical discussions that are periodically punctuated by gruesome murders.  The book is, nonetheless, dominated by laughter, laughter as a subject of theological dispute and laughter at the wit and witticisms of the author Eco and the main character William of Baskerville.  William is a proponent and exemplar of laughter whose name is itself a witty reference by Eco to Sherlock Holmes.

Laughter is a common response to disorder.  When things are not what they are supposed to be, it may be distressing but it can also be humorous.  Laughing can be a way of distancing yourself from the pain of an undesirable person or unwanted event by seeing the situation as ridiculous and, therefore, less threatening.  Self-awareness is a key to laughter.  In laughing at a situation, you can see yourself as both in but not of the situation.  That is, you must be able to rise above the situation and see yourself in the midst of others but also apart from them.

Aristotle, whose philosophy dominated the Middle Ages and is at the center of the philosophical discussions in The Name of the Rose, defined humans as animals that can laugh.  Until recently, we humans generally thought that we were the only ones who could laugh.  Aristotle and most people believed that other animals were merely automatons and were creatures of instinct and blind causality.  They were supposedly without self-awareness and, therefore, without laughter.  We now know differently, that other animals are aware of themselves as individuals, can make choices about their lives, and seemingly can laugh.  But laughter is still a universal human characteristic.  People everywhere laugh.

Laughter is a moral issue because it can be an expression either of smug certainty and pride or of doubt and humility.  In its former form, it is often seen as immoral.  In its latter form, it is often seen as a moral virtue.  Philosophers have differed through the ages on the relative virtues and viciousness of laughter, a debate that is played out by William and Jorge in Eco’s novel.

Philosophers and psychologists have categorized laughter in various ways but two theories seem to stand out as most commonly used, the Superiority Theory and the Incongruity Theory.[15]  The Superiority Theory was promoted by Plato, Descartes, Hobbes and others who denounced laughter as immoral.  In this view, laughter is a means of denigrating a person and asserting superiority over him.  Comedy is laughing at a fool and making him feel bad.

Plato rejected laughter as an emotional outburst in which the laugher loses rational control of himself and both the laugher and the target of the laughter are denigrated. Among Christians, Saints Jerome, Ambrose and John of Chrysostom rejected laughter as proudful, uncharitable and unholy.  Saint Benedict, who composed the rules by which most medieval monasteries operated, banned laughter among monks as inconsistent with the seriousness of their vocation.

The Incongruity Theory was promoted by Aristotle, Kant and Kierkegaard among others.  It emphasizes laughter that is about something, rather than aimed at someone.  In this theory, laughter is an expression of surprise and wonder at some unexpected or inconsistent turn of events.  In contradistinction to Plato’s Superiority Theory, Aristotle defined funny as “a mistake or unseemliness that is not painful or destructive.” In this theory, comedy is laughing at foolishness, to which we are all potentially prone, and laughter is a recognition of the absurd contradictions in ourselves, life and the universe.[16]  Summarizing this position, the philosopher John Morreall claims that “Comedy embodies an anti-heroic, pragmatic attitude toward life’s incongruities.”[17]  In this theory, laughter is benign, useful, and a source of humility, not pride.

What are we to make of the incongruity between these two theories?  Laugh, I suppose, but maybe also see them as complementary rather than contradictory.  Instead of focusing on whether the joke is on someone or is about something, we might focus instead on the power relations between the laugher and the target of his laughing.  In particular, we might distinguish between laughter that is intended to afflict the oppressed while comforting the oppressor, and laughter that is intended to comfort the oppressed while afflicting the oppressor.  That is, we can distinguish between the laughter of the bully who seeks to put down someone weaker than himself from the laughter of the downtrodden who seek to take down the bully. It is a difference between the laughter of repression versus the laughter of rebellion.

Based on this distinction, laughter can lay at the root of morality because it can help enforce the Golden Rule.  Some version of what we call the Golden Rule – the admonition to love thy neighbor as thyself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you – is part of virtually every culture in world history.  Rejecting the laughter of bullies while encouraging laughter at them can help promote the Golden Rule ideal of treating others fairly and as family.  As the philosopher Jacqueline Bissel puts it: “Laughter can interrupt the banality of evil.”[18]  William represents this position in The Name of the Rose.

It is, of course, not merely dour philosophers who disparage and discourage laughter.  History is full of powerful people who fear the subversive nature of laughter and try to discourage it.  There are also people who would suppress the self-awareness in others that makes laughter possible.  Ideologues, fanatics and megalomaniacs often seek to overwhelm the selves of their followers and absorb them into whatever causes they are promoting.  Religious cults and revolutionary political parties are notorious examples.  They try to root out independent thinking and feeling in their adherents, and generally oppose laughter as inconsistent with the deadly seriousness of their causes.  Many would disparage the Golden Rule in the name of zero-sum competition in what they see as a dog-eat-dog world or in the name of battling heretics and sinners in what they see as a world full of evil.  Jorge and Bernard Gui represent this position in the book.

The Absurdity Test and Speaking Humor to Power: You laughing at me?

“Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the passion for truth.” William of Baskerville. The Name of the Rose.

In The Name of the Rose, the case for laughter is espoused and exemplified by William of Baskerville who contrasts with the ideologues, fanatics and megalomaniacs he mixes with at the monastery.  In the course of his investigations of the murders, his debates with Jorge, and his involvement in the meetings between the Franciscans and the emperor’s representatives, he practices what might be called an absurdity test.

An absurdity test is a way of evaluating your own ideas and actions and those of others in order to decide whether they are laughable.  It requires you to conduct thought experiments about the potential results of a belief or action in the event it was extended to its practical and logical limits.  If the long-term results of extending it are practically or logically absurd, that is, if they are laughable, then the results are unacceptable, and you must modify or limit your belief or action.  It is a pragmatic test of the workability of an idea or action, and it tends you toward Aristotle’s Golden Mean which is a middle way of thinking and acting.

A premise of the absurdity test is that people, and especially powerful people, do not like to be laughed at.  The test is an appeal to their humility – maybe I could be wrong — but also to their vanity – I don’t want to look like a fool.  The hope is that people, and especially those in positions of power, will apply the absurdity test to themselves.  William applies this test to himself in his investigation of the murders when he realizes he has fallen for the red herring left by the murderer and laughs at himself for being fooled.

But if powerful people don’t apply the test to themselves, the test should be applied to them by others.  If the Emperor has no clothes, or the Pope has too many, people have a moral obligation to laugh at them, or at least snicker.  That is what William does in the story as he tries to demonstrate to people around him, and especially to the theological and political powers-that-be, the absurdity of their fixed and narrow-minded ideas.

The Metaphysical Nuances of Nomenclature: What’s in a name?

The dispute between Jorge and William about laughter relates to the medieval debate about universals, which was one of the biggest issues in philosophy during the fourteenth century.  A universal is that which particular things have in common.  It is a general idea that groups or connects particular things.  White things, for example, have whiteness in common.  Humans have humanness in common.  Nearby things have closeness in common.  The nature of universals is a question that occupies William in his debates with Jorge and Bernard.

The philosophical question was about the metaphysical status of general ideas.  The question was whether universals exist as things in their own right or are merely names that are arbitrarily given to groups of things.  Does the general idea of things precede the particular things that are covered by that general idea, or do the particular things precede the general idea that they have in common?  On its face, this question seems to have the unsolvable quality of “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”   But it is, in fact, solvable, albeit in different ways that have significant theological, social and moral ramifications, including on the meaning and morality of laughter.

The debate over the metaphysical status of general ideas goes back to ancient times and continues in the present day. There were three main ways in which universals were considered during the fourteenth century.  These ways were what are called ontological realism, nominalism, and conceptualism.[19]

To try to simplify a very complicated debate, ontological realism holds that universals are things in themselves that precede the particular instances of those things.  The idea of whiteness, for example, ostensibly came first, white things came second.  And the idea of man came before any actual men.  Among the ancients, Plato claimed that “There is a heavenly realm of greater reality consisting in forms, ideals, or ideas.” He promoted an extreme version of ontological realism in which universals were ostensibly abstract objects that existed in a world of their own.

Nominalism holds that universals are merely arbitrary names that we give to groups of things.  White things came first, the word whiteness is an arbitrary term that we apply to them.  Heraclitus, who famously claimed that “You cannot step in the same river twice,” held an extreme form of nominalism that bordered on nihilism.

Conceptualism holds that universals are names that we give to groups of things, but the names are not arbitrary and, in fact, conform to the reality of those things.  White things came first, but the term whiteness is not arbitrary and conforms with concrete reality of whiteness.  Aristotle, who proclaimed that “Virtue is found in the Golden Mean,” took a characteristically middle position between nominalism and realism.  Aristotle believed in the reality of universals but insisted that they be supported by concrete evidence.

Aristotle’s was a pragmatic and scientific approach to universals.  In this approach, you can subject general ideas to an absurdity test and laugh if the results are absurd. General ideas that work are acceptable.  Those that don’t work aren’t.  During the early Middle Ages, Aristotle was generally thought in Europe to be an ontological realist, but by the fourteenth century, with an infusion of new knowledge of him from the Arabs, he was frequently being cited as a conceptualist.[20]

Interpreters of The Name of the Rose have differed in whether they think Eco is opting in the book in favor of nominalism or conceptualism through the character of William of Baskerville.  And they have differed in where they think the name of the book comes from and what it means.  Eco was characteristically cryptic and ambiguous about the origins of the book’s name.  Among critics, the two leading candidates seem to be Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose” and Juliette’s “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”[21]  I don’t think that either of these sayings captures the meaning of the book.

Stein said that her phrase was a reference to the language of the fourteenth century poet Chaucer and to his times when, she claimed, if you had a word for a thing or said the word for a thing, you concluded that the thing must really exist.  Stein was, in effect, saying that her phrase was an exercise in ontological realism, the orthodox metaphysics of the fourteenth century.  As such, I don’t think her phrase reflects the meaning of the book because I think it is clear that Eco is not promoting and William is not espousing ontological realism.

Shakespeare’s Juliette is a thirteen-year-old girl who is in the first stages of infatuation with Romeo, a young man from the wrong family background.  She is not a philosopher and she is almost certainly wrong in what she proposes.  Her statement about the smell of roses is preceded by a plea for Romeo to “Deny thy father and refuse thy name.” And he responds “Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”  Taken together, their statements about the name of Romeo and the smell of roses reflect an extreme nominalism that is wrong-headed on at least three counts.

First, Juliette seems to think that if Romeo changed his name, he would somehow be purged of his family background.  And he thinks likewise.  That is clearly not the case.  By any name, he would still be a person with the wrong family background.  Second, if Romeo were to reject his family background by changing his name, he would effectively be changing himself.  He would be saying to himself as well as others that he does not want to be the person he was when he was named Romeo, and he would no longer smell as he had when Juliette fell for him.  Third, if Romeo rejected his name and family background, he would be rejecting the form of himself that she fell in love with, which is the rose that she thinks is so sweet. Names make a difference both as to what a thing is and to how we respond to it.  If Romeo’s name had been Satan, wouldn’t it have made a difference in him if he had been forced to grow up with the name of Satan and mightn’t she have reacted differently to him?  Just think of the song “A boy named Sue.”

I think a better candidate for the meaning of the book’s name is a poem by Robert Frost called “The Rose Family.”  It goes: “The rose is a rose, and always was a rose.  But the theory goes that the apple’s a rose, and the pear, and so’s the plum.  The dear only knows what will next prove a rose.  You, of course, are a rose – But were always a rose.”  The factual point of the poem is that fruit such as apples are in the botanical family of rose plants.  The ontological point seems to be that the name “rose” is a tool with which we make sense of the world.  But it does not have a fixed meaning.  Its meaning changes as we discover new things that botanically fall within the category.  Frost’s is a conceptualist view that fits with a pragmatic philosophy, and that fosters humility – we can never know everything or adhere to fixed categories – and a sense of humor – what we say today may seem absurd tomorrow.  This is, I think, the view that is being promoted in the book by Eco and espoused by William.

In addition to evidence provided by the book’s name, the arc of the book’s narrative seems to tend toward conceptualism.  Adso begins his narrative with the opening words of the Gospel of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  This statement can be characterized as the ontological realist’s credo.  Words come first, concrete reality comes after.

But Adso ends his narrative with a Latin phrase that translates as “The ancient rose remains by its name, naked names are all that we have.”  This is a conceptualist conclusion as well as another potential source of the book’s title.  The phrase seems to mean that words are a function of concrete reality, but when the reality is gone, we still have the words and we can try to gain meaning from them.  Adso has said in the lines just before this closing phrase that “I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about.”  The pragmatic and conceptualist point is that he has left the manuscript for posterity and that is us, and we can understand it and make use of it as best we can.[22]

Nominally nominalist; conceptually conceptualist; pragmatically pragmatist.

“The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away.”                                       William of Baskerville. The Name of the Rose.

Ontological realism was the metaphysical and theological orthodoxy in the fourteenth century.  As a general rule, ontological realism tends to support any orthodoxy at any time because it holds to a fixed and immutable set of general categories.  The world is the way it is because it was made that way.  Whatever is, is right.  This is the position of Jorge in the novel.  In this view, if anyone questions any of the conventional categories or orthodox ideas, that person is guilty of both heresy – undermining the Truth – and treason – undermining established institutions.  Laughter and even irony are forbidden because they are inherently subversive.  And there is no absurdity test because extremism in defense of orthodoxy is no vice.  A deadly seriousness is the ideal attitude.  This is the position of the Inquisitor Bernard Gui.

William of Baskerville disagrees with the ontological realists.  And in his debates with the other monks and his discussions with Adso, William espouses the views of many of the most progressive thinkers of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in Europe who opposed ontological realism, in particular the scientist Roger Bacon, the metaphysician William of Ockham, and the political philosopher Marsilius of Padua.  William is a fictional character but he expresses the views of actual people who figured prominently in the intellectual life of that time, and who figured especially in opposition to the scientific, political, theological, and philosophical orthodoxies of the day.  The book is a mixture of the factual and the fictional but it is the facts that constitute the main point behind the fiction.

William says that he is particularly indebted to Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius.  Each of them was a Franciscan, as ostensibly is William.  Franciscans and people who used the Franciscan name as cover were often involved in many unorthodox movements during this time, including the Franciscans’ poverty movement.  Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius, in turn, acknowledged deep intellectual debts to ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, especially Aristotle, as well as to contemporary Arab Muslim scholars from whom they got much of their knowledge about Aristotle.  This cultural interchange and indebtedness is highlighted by William in the novel and seems intended by Eco to promote the idea that there is a pragmatic commonality among the best thinkers from different cultures.

Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius all operated within the assumptions of the Catholic Middle Ages, which included adherence to the one and only Roman Catholic Church and its Scriptures. Nonetheless, they promoted ideas that point towards the Renaissance and the Reformation, which are widely considered by historians to mark the beginning of modern history. The fact that these men could intellectually look backwards to ancient cultures, look sideways to contemporary Arabic cultures, and point forwards to modern culture so that we can understand, argue and agree with them today, seems again to support the idea that a common pragmatic reasonableness can emerge from many different cultural frameworks. This is an idea that underlies what I think is the optimism of the book despite its tragic events.

Roger Bacon, who William considers his intellectual forefather, was a late thirteenth century Franciscan whose work as an alchemist and scientist emphasized proving hypotheses through empirical evidence.[23]  Conventional medieval science was based on ontological realism and the reality of universal general ideas. Given this foundation, medieval scientists often arrived at conclusions that were based on deductions from mere assumptions, assumptions drawn from the realists’ storehouse of universals.  Bacon rejected this methodology as absurd. He insisted that propositions be proven through evidence.  Assumptions were mere hypotheses, not reality. And reality was physical evidence, not mere ideas.

Based on new translations from Arabic of Aristotle’s works on science, Bacon rejected ontological realism and leaned toward nominalism.  “A universal,” Bacon claimed, “is nothing but the agreement of many individuals,” that is, general ideas are derived from individual experiences and must be supported by a mass of evidence to prove them.  General ideas don’t precede individual experiences and don’t exist in a world of their own.  Bacon’s scientific and ontological ideas flew in the face of Church orthodoxy.  In addition, he was sympathetic with the poverty movement within the Franciscan Order. As a consequence, Bacon was frequently chastised by the Church hierarchy and even imprisoned for his views.[24]

William also considers William of Ockham to be a mentor and a friend.[25] Ockham was a Franciscan of the early fourteenth century whose ontological theories went even further than Bacon’s in rejecting universals and moving toward nominalism.  In the debates of his time, Ockham frequently bested his opponents through performing the sort of thought experiments that I have called absurdity tests, and thereby hoisting them on their own petards.

In objecting to ontological realism, Ockham argued, for example, that the idea of an all-powerful God in which all Catholics believed was inconsistent with the orthodox idea of universals.  Ontological realism, he said, holds that the general idea of a thing has a real existence of its own, that the general idea precedes any individual examples of the thing, and that the general idea exists irrespective of any individual examples of the thing.  So, he said, according this theory, if we were to posit the general idea of “man” as a universal, an all-powerful God could abolish all individual and actual men but the universal idea of “man” would still exist as a real thing. This, he said, was absurd.  Either God cannot do this because He is not really all-powerful, or the universal idea of “man” does not exist as a real thing.  Since the former conclusion is blasphemous, the latter must be the case.  In the alternative, Ockham added, God could abolish the universal idea of “man” but leave intact all the individual men without any general idea of what is a man, which is also absurd.  The only reasonable conclusion, Ockham claimed, is that general ideas are mental concepts constructed out of actual experiences, which is nominalism.

Ockham was also unorthodox on other theological and moral issues that are reflected in William’s positions in the book.  Ockham argued, for example, that intent determined the morality of an action, not the action itself.  This position put him at odds with orthodox Catholic doctrine which held that various sacramental acts, such as baptism, confession, and others, were keys to morality.  The intent to do these things was not sufficient if they weren’t actually done.  Ockham’s view that intent was sufficient was considered heretical.

Even more significantly, Ockham rejected the Pope’s claim to hegemony over the Christian world.  Ockham claimed that Church and State should be separate but equal domains, and that no one man, not even God’s vicar the Pope, should rule over all things. The Pope is, after all, only a man and there should be checks and balances on the power of men.  Ockham was, in addition, at odds with the Pope in supporting the poverty movement within the Franciscan Order.  Given the radicalism of his views, Ockham was frequently chastised by the Pope and was eventually excommunicated and persecuted as a heretic.[26]

Finally, William is portrayed as a colleague of Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius was a Franciscan who took even further Ockham’s ideas that Church and State should be separate and that no one man should have absolute power.  He claimed that the Church consisted of the body of believers and was not constituted by the Pope and the Church hierarchy.  The Church was not a universal that existed on its own and that somehow preceded its members but was a concept created in the minds of its members and constituted by their persons.

Subjecting orthodox Church doctrine to what I have termed an absurdity test, Marsilius claimed that if the Church was constituted by its hierarchy, then theoretically it could exist without members, which is absurd.  The Church is an idea and institution that is conceptualized and realized by its members.  Marsilius similarly insisted that the State consisted of its citizens and was not constituted by the Emperor and the aristocracy. Even more radically, he believed that the government of both the Church and the State should consist of councils of ordinary people, which was a fundamentally democratic idea.  Like Ockham, Marsilius was excommunicated and persecuted as a heretic.[27]

In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco brings the ideas of Bacon, Ockham and Marsilius together through the character of William of Baskerville.  William repeatedly references them or paraphrases their arguments in his statements.  Mirroring Ockham, William rejects universals because they “would imply that God is their prisoner,” which is absurd.  He insists that everything must be open to questioning and reinterpreting, even the Holy Scriptures.  No one, not even the Pope, had the absolute truth or the last word on Scripture.  And William subjects Scripture to what I have termed an absurdity test and concludes that “the freedom of God is our condemnation, or at least the condemnation of our pride.”  Scripture is couched in human words.  If God is restricted to our words and our interpretation of those words, then even if they were inspired by God, we are saying that we can define and restrict God and that we are more powerful than God.  That is either blasphemous or foolishness.[28]

At the same time, William rejected as absurd the extreme positions of people, including some of his fellow Franciscans, who took nominalism to the point of anarchism and even nihilism, which some in the book do.  Extreme nominalism in which everything has its own name, and there are no general ideas, is unworkable because it “creates an infinity of new entities,” which is absurd.  Like Ockham, his solution to the problem of universals is a conceptualism in which individual things are mentally grouped into general ideas.  Like Bacon, he proposes to start his analysis of any problem with hypotheses — “Imagine many general laws” — and then follow the facts to his conclusions.  And like Marsilius, William concludes “That for the management of human affairs it is not the Church that should legislate but the assembly of the people.” [29]

Reformers and Reactionaries: The Empire invariably strikes back, but don’t panic.

“If you find it hard to laugh at yourself, I would be happy to do it for you.”             Groucho Marx.

It seems that it is always the best of times and worst of times, only sometimes the best are better and the worst are worse.  I am writing this essay during July, 2018.  Right now, it seems to be a worst of times in many places in the world.  But, who knows?  The events in The Name of the Rose ostensibly took place during the 1320’s and things looked as though they couldn’t get much worse.  But they did.  The Black Plague hit in the 1340’s and killed off a third of Europe’s people.  It seemed then as though things would never get better and the world would go out with a whimper. But it didn’t. The Renaissance happened instead.  And so on and on, back and forth between reformers and reactionaries, and between better and worse times to the present day.

Our hero William was defeated in the book.  His mentors Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius were defeated in their time.  Bernard Gui, the Inquisitor, was triumphant both in fact and in the fiction.  But who today remembers, let alone celebrates, Bernard Gui?  Meanwhile, Bacon, Ockham and Marsilius are widely known and highly celebrated.  And that, I think, is the ultimate point of the novel.  The pragmatic and common sensible ideas that those thinkers gleaned from the ancients and developed further within their own medieval culture have been passed down to modern times and developed further within ours.  Those ideas bucked the conventional wisdom and faced opposition from emperors and fanatics in ancient times, then again in medieval times, and still again in our modern times.  But the ideas have survived.  And although these same pragmatic ideas and common sensible attitudes are under assault today by a host of would-be emperors with the support of modern day fanatics, we cannot let the bastards get us down.

When we find ourselves on a downward slope, we should remember that every slope isn’t slippery, and that laughter can check a free fall. History repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce,” Karl Marx intoned in 1852 when comparing the newly crowned French Emperor Napoleon III with his celebrated ancestor the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Applying what I have called an absurdity test to Napoleon III, Marx proceeded to heap serious ridicule on the buffoonish erstwhile emperor, and that is largely how he is remembered today.  Napoleon III was pathetic and might have been an object of pity if he had not been doing so much harm that he became an object of sarcasm and scorn instead.[30]  It is the same with Donald Trump today.  How awful it must be to be him.  Nonetheless, when dealing with the would-be emperor Trump, we should proceed as Marx did with Napoleon III, and maybe Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel can show us the way to help bring him down.

B.W. 7/2018


[1] Barbara Tuchman. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.

[2] Ibid. p.XIII.

[3] Ibid. p.306.

[4] Ibid. p.26-30.

[5] Ibid. p.43.

[6] Umberto Eco. The Name of the Rose. New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1980.  

[7]  Ted Gioia. “The Nature of the Rose.”  New Angles on an Old Genre.

[8] Kenneth Atchity. “’The Times’ 1983 review of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: An intriguing detective story.” The Los Angeles Times, 2/20/2016.

[9] “The Name of the Rose.”

[10] Eco. op. cit. p.11.

[11] Eco. op. cit. pp.400, 472.

[12] Eco. op. cit. pp.77-81, 95..

[13] Eco. op. cit. pp.116, 315 -316.

[14] Eco. op. cit. 202-204.

[15] John Morreall. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9/28/2016.

[16] Jessica Wahrman.  Quoting Santayana in “’We Are All Mad Here’: Santayana and the Significance of Humor.” Contemporary Pragmatism, Vol.2, No.2. 12/2005.

[17] John Morreall. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9/28/2016.

[18] Susannah Laramee Kidd.  Quoting Jacqueline Bissel in “Review of The Laughter of the Oppressed by Jacqueline Bissell.” April, 2009.

[19] Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra. “Nominalism in Metaphysics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015.

[20] Jonathan Barnes. Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.pp.71-74.

[21] “The Name of the Rose.”

[22] Eco. op. cit. pp.11, 502.

[23] Eco. op. cit. p.17.

[24] Jeremiah Hackett. “Roger Bacon.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring, 2015.

[25] Eco. op. cit. p.18.

[26] Rondo Keele. Ockham Explained: From Razor to Rebellion. Chicago: Open Court Pub. Co., 2010.

[27] Bertrand Russell. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1943.

[28] Eco. op. cit. pp.207, 493.

[29] Eco. op. cit. pp.206-208, 262-263, 304.

[30] Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers, 1963. p.15.

From Phallus to Phalanx. Is Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Coriolanus actually a Comedy? The End of a Heroic Age.

From Phallus to Phalanx.

Is Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus actually a Comedy?

The End of a Heroic Age.


Burton Weltman


“The tragedy of Coriolanus is one of the most amusing of

[Shakespeare’s] performances.”   Samuel Johnson.


When is a Tragedy a Comedy?  Telling a fool from a hero.

The main thesis of this essay is that Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Coriolanus would be better played and more meaningful if it were read as a dark comedy rather than as a tragedy.  That sounds like nonsense and even blasphemy against the sacred Shakespearean canon.  I think, however, that the definitions of tragedy and comedy are fuzzy and flexible enough, and that Shakespeare’s writings are complex and multidimensional enough, to make that thesis plausible.

One of the great things about Shakespeare’s plays is that you can read the lines and play the scenes in many different ways that legitimately represent the original text.  And you can come up with different meanings depending on how you say, stage and act the words.  Shakespeare also liked to play around the edges of story forms, combining and overlapping different genres to produce intricate dramas.  It is in that context that I contend Coriolanus is a comedy.

Story forms can be categorized into three main types – melodrama, comedy, and tragedy.[1]  Melodrama is the predominant story form in our society and the form in which most people instinctively react to adversity.  It is a story of good against bad, good guys against bad guys.  “Who is doing this to me and how can I defeat them” is the first reaction of most people to a problem.  This reaction is essentially the “fright, then fight or flight” reaction that we have inherited from of our piglet-like precursors who had to make their way in a world of giant carnivores.  It is a function of the brain stem, the earliest and least sophisticated portion of the human brain which we inherited from those puny ancestors.  Comedy and tragedy are more complex reactions that derive from the cerebral cortex which evolved later in humanoids.[2]

Comedy is generally defined as a story of wisdom versus folly, wise people versus foolish people.  In comedy, the problem is created by someone acting out of stupidity or ignorance, “the intervention of fools,” and the solution is for the wise to teach or restrain the fools so that they can do no further damage.[3]  Comedy involves conflicts and struggles but the action is usually peaceful, although it can become violent and even fatal.  The humor in a comedy stems from our recognition of the stupidity of the characters.  A comedy may have a happy or unhappy ending depending on whether the fools learn their lesson and whether violence is avoided.

Tragedy can be defined as a story of too much of a good thing becoming bad.  Tragedy involves a character who pursues a too narrowly prescribed good too far until it turns on itself, becomes bad and precipitates a potential disaster.  The character’s tragic flaw is a lack of perspective, the failure to see things in a broader context, for example failing to recognize that one person’s good may be someone else’s bad, that the world may contain competing goods, and that an individual’s good ultimately depends on the good of all.

Tragedy is a story of hubris versus humility, the failure of the tragic character to recognize his personal limits and reconcile contradictions within herself, within his society or between herself and society. The goal of tragedy is for the tragic hero and the audience to recognize the narrowness of the hero’s perspective – recognition of the character’s flaw at the end of the story by the character and the audience is a key to this narrative form [4]

The lines between melodrama, comedy and tragedy are not hard and fast, and the story forms overlap in many respects.  Each, for example, can contain elements of stupidity, conflict, violence, and pride, and each can have an unhappy ending.  Too much of one element can transform one story form into another.  Too much conflict, for instance, could turn a comedy into a melodrama, and too much stupidity can turn a comedy into a tragedy.

Shakespeare often wrote so-called comedies that can be read as bordering on melodrama.  For example, in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio’s treatment of Katherine can be seen as misogynistic and malevolent. In The Merchant of Venice, the treatment of Shylock by Antonio and Portia can be read as cruel and un-Christian.  In The Comedy of Errors, the treatment of foreigners and slaves can be interpreted as brutal and brutish.  Read in these ways these plays should perhaps be called comic melodramas or, at least, melodramatic or dark comedies.

Many of Shakespeare’s comedies also have endings that may superficially look happy but seem to contain within them the seeds of future melodramatic conflicts and even disasters.  The Taming of the Shrew, for example, ends with Kate making peace by seemingly subordinating herself to her husband, but it looks like a fragile and temporary peace at best.  Likewise, the marriages at the end of The Merchant of Venice look like the prelude to future marital conflicts between manipulative women and macho men, and the likelihood of unfunny abuse.

Comedy can also border on tragedy, and too much stupidity and too little dignity can turn what purports to be a tragedy into a comedy.  I think this is what happens in Coriolanus. As described by Aristotle, a tragic hero is someone who suffers from hubris or excessive pride, makes an error of judgment as a result of his hubris, suffers a serious reversal of fortune which is greater than he deserves, and then recognizes that his downfall was his own fault.  Applying these criteria to Coriolanus, Coriolanus clearly suffers from excessive pride and makes serious errors of judgment based on his overweening pride, but I do not think that he suffers a downfall out of proportion to his faults or that he ever recognizes that his downfall is his own fault.  And his boorish behavior and outlandish language do not befit tragedy.

Coriolanus can best be seen, I think, as a comic fool, not a tragic hero, and that, I contend, is what makes Coriolanus important for us today.  Shakespeare was dramatizing the end of an age of individualistic heroes and the beginning of an age in which cooperation among common people was imperative.  We live in an era in which proponents of an anachronistic individualism are battling to stop a similar pro-social transformation and turn the clock back a hundred years to a Social Darwinian struggle of each against all.  Coriolanus is a play that can help us understand those people and help us stop their retrograde political, social, and intellectual programs.

The Relevance of Coriolanus: Putting Things in a Historical Context.

“But no man’s a hero to himself.”  Ray Bradbury.

Unless he is Coriolanus, King James I, or Donald Trump. And therein lies a tale worth telling.

Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Coriolanus is the story of a renowned Roman warrior who lived in the fifth century BCE. The play deals with real historical people and events.  It is based on Plutarch’s account of Coriolanus in his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.[5]  The play focuses on the personality and actions of Coriolanus and on his interactions with the common people of Rome in a time of widespread popular protests against food shortages and almost continuous warfare between the Romans and their Volscian neighbors.

Although the play is full of action, colorful characters, and biting dialogue, scholars have noted that Coriolanus “has not, on the whole, been a popular play, either on the stage or with the literary critics,”[6] and has been called Shakespeare’s “most neglected play.”[7]  It is not widely read or performed.  I think that is unfortunate because the play is eminently relevant to events in our world today.  There seem to be two main reasons for the play’s unpopularity.

The first reason is the repulsive personality of its main character, Coriolanus. He is characterized by an overweening egotism, a derogatory attitude almost everyone around him, and an unwillingness or inability to keep from violently insulting anyone who differs with him.  As the ostensible hero of this play, most people find it hard to identify with someone as obnoxious as Coriolanus. The second reason for the play’s unpopularity is the way the common people are portrayed, which is generally seen as anti-democratic and, as such, objectionable to modern-day democratically inclined audiences. [8]

I think, however, that reading the play as anti-democratic and as a tragedy misses its main points and its relevance for us today.  Shakespeare lived at a time of significant changes in England from a still largely medieval society to an incipient modern society.  These changes met with considerable resistance and conflict.  Shakespeare was aware of the changes and conflicts, and he wrote about them in many of his plays, sometimes explicitly, other times implicitly.  Coriolanus, which was completed in 1608 during the early years of the reign of King James I, portrays political and social changes and conflicts that took place in fifth century BCE Rome which reflect similar changes and conflicts that were taking place in early seventeenth century England.

Both societies were moving from dictatorial to more popular forms of government, from isolated monocultures to more inclusive and diverse cultures, and from more individualistic to more socialized institutions of war and peace.  The relevance of the play is that changes and conflicts of this sort have been taking place over the past century in the United States and much of the western world. In seeing the play as an anti-democratic tragedy, I think that interpreters fail to take fully into consideration the changes that were taking place in ancient Rome and Stuart England and in so doing, they misinterpret the personal and political implications of the play.

In my opinion, the play is better read as a dark comedy.  In this view, Coriolanus is not a tragic hero but an arrogant ass who is the chief fool in the play, and the play includes an implicit but daring criticism of James I.  The play is not anti-democratic but a plea for balance in government and justice to the lower classes.  The noxiousness of Coriolanus is one of the things that made the play relevant to people in Shakespeare’s day and makes it relevant to us today.

The Plot: A Vicious or Virtuous Cycle of Debate?

The basic plot of Coriolanus is fairly simple. The backstory of the play is that Coriolanus, whose given name is Martius, after the Roman god of war, has been raised by his mother to be a proud and valiant warrior with an inflexible personality.  She is a true Valkyrie who would love to be a warrior herself.  The play opens with an argument between some plebian citizens involved in protesting food shortages and Menenius representing the patricians who control the food.  The plebians want the government to make food available to the hungry people, which the patricians resist on the grounds that it is their food.  Martius intervenes to denounce the protesters and call for them all to be hanged.  How one interprets who has the better of the argument in this scene is crucial to how one views the play.

Shortly thereafter, Martius performs heroic individual military feats in defeating the Volscians and taking the city of Corioles.  He is given the name Coriolanus in honor of his heroics.  He then repeatedly rejects any special payment for his service to Rome because he considers himself above any kind of service to the state.  He does what he does because he wants to do it.   He considers any reward to be demeaning, as though he were for hire and acting heroically for pay.

Based on Coriolanus’ military heroics, the patricians propose elevating him to be a counsul, which was one of the two chief executives in the Roman government.  An assembly of the plebians initially approves this appointment.  But then they hear of his refusal to share food with the populace and his plans to eliminate the newly created position of tribune, which gave the plebians a say in government.  Coriolanus repeatedly insults the plebians and their tribunes and rejects the idea that as counsul he would be serving them.  He considers himself above doing service to anyone, let alone a bunch of lowly plebians.

The plebians retract their approval of Coriolanus’ appointment as consul and conduct a trial in which they find him guilty of treason based on his plans to abolish the tribunes and thereby overthrow the established government, a crime for which he could be executed.  But because of his prior heroic service to the state, which ironically Coriolanus refuses to acknowledge as service to the state, the tribunes decide to spare his life and exile him instead. The government then distributes food to the hungry populace, much to Coriolanus’ disdain and chagrin.

In exile, Coriolanus spitefully offers his services to the Volscians whose leader literally welcomes him with open arms.  Coriolanus then leads a Volscian army toward Rome with the vengeful intent of ransacking the city and killing its inhabitants.  He rejects pleas from former Roman friends to spare the city from annihilation but eventually responds positively to a plea from his mother.  Coriolanus decides to go back on his agreement with the Volscians and spare Rome. How the scene with his mother is played is also crucial to interpreting the play. The play ends with Coriolanus being killed by the Volscians as a turncoat.

Coriolanus is a talky play, chock full of personal and political debating.  People are continually debating the virtues and vices of Coriolanus and the pros and cons of popular government.  The weight of the debate continually swings back and forth between fear of tyranny and fear of mob rule, and between concern for the personal problems of Coriolanus and the political problems of Rome.[9]  The debaters circle around and around so much that many critics are flummoxed as to what Shakespeare intends.[10]

I think this confusion is to a large extent a result of interpreters trying to fit the debates into the serious story form of a tragedy instead of a comedy in which most of the characters are confused and many of them are fools, even if they are dangerous.  Most of the debates are conducted in hyperbole, and most of the speeches should be played as overblown and somewhat ridiculous.  Among the main characters, only the Roman general Cominius stands out as a voice of reason and reasonableness who tries to bridge the gaps among the arguing parties.

So, is the play a virtuous cycle of debate that leads to the softening of Coriolanus and the salvation of Rome?  Or is it a vicious cycle that culminates in a hardening of Coriolanus’ pride and an exacerbation of the class struggle in Rome?  Explicating the historical contexts in which Coriolanus lived and in which Shakespeare wrote can help answer these questions.

Coriolanus in Ancient and Modern Historical Context.

“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.”           Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Developments in fifth century BCE Rome paralleled developments in seventeenth century England and that, I think, is a key indicator as to what Shakespeare intended with this play.  Rome in the fifth century BCE was politically moving from a kingship to an aristocratic republic with some democratic elements.  We see in the course of the play Coriolanus the beginnings of the development of the basic ideologies and institutions – the autocratic consuls who stood in place of a king, the patrician senate that represented the rich, and the democratic tribunes and general assemblies of plebian citizens – that were the foundation of the Roman Republic for the next four hundred years.  They were also the source of almost continuous conflict as the social classes represented in each of those institutions vied for power over the others.  Much of the cycle of debate in the play revolves around whether Rome will be ruled by a dictator, for which position Coriolanus was a leading candidate, by an aristocracy, by the demos, or by some combination of these three possibilities.

Paralleling the political movement from one-man rule to a more popular and collective government, Roman military tactics were moving from a more individualistic and heroic form of combat – the simultaneous one-on-one battles of hordes of men that one sees in The Iliad – to a more collectivist combat of large numbers of men organized into phalanxes – groups of armed soldiers standing close together and presenting a wall of aggression and opposition to the enemy.  In one-on-one combat, victory generally went to the most highly skilled and most wildly ferocious soldiers.  It was the sort of combat made for heroic individuals such as Coriolanus.

Phalanx warfare, by comparison, required little skill and less intensity.  Patience and fortitude were the keys.  Soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with spears or swords outstretched, each soldier supporting the others next to him and willing to stay in formation with his comrades no matter what.  Not the sort of thing for free-lancers or egotists.  They would at best look foolish and would likely endanger the rest of the group. Nor would phalanx warfare be likely to produce individualistic heroes.  Heroism, in this context, was Emerson’s standing together for five minutes longer.  It was, however, the sort of warfare that enabled Rome to conquer much of the world.  The play Coriolanus in effect dramatizes a last hurrah for someone like Coriolanus whose heroism was becoming obsolete in Ancient Rome, but not without resistance from high-ranking supporters of the old ways.

England in the early 1600’s CE was facing a similar situation and conflict.  King James I was claiming to be a divine right king whose will should be considered omnipotent.  James was a scholarly and deeply religious man and was, after all, responsible for the publication of the almost universally acclaimed King James Bible.  But his religiosity also took him down some dark alleyways.  He was, for example, obsessed with the dangers of witchcraft and personally supervised the torturing of women to get them to confess to being witches.

Born in 1566, James became King of Scotland in 1567 and was not only raised to be a king but was raised as a king.  James grew up endowed with autocratic power that he attributed to God.  In The True Law of Free Monarchies, published in 1598, James claimed that “The state of monarchy is the supremist thing upon earth; for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods.”  Talk about hutzpah.

Upon assuming the throne of England in 1603, James immediately came into conflict with Parliament.  Parliament represented English aristocrats who did not generally ascribe to James’ theories of divinely instituted autocratic monarchy.  They insisted that what James considered the legitimate freedoms of the monarch be balanced by the freedoms of aristocrats as set down in The Magna Carta and English common law.  And these patricians asserted their rights through Parliament’s control over the government’s purse.  If James did not approve laws and take other actions they wanted, they would not grant him taxes to run his government and engage in wars.

This running conflict between the King and Parliament eventually erupted in civil war in the 1640’s and led to the execution of King Charles I, James’ son, who went to his death insisting on the divinity of an autocratic monarchy.  These later events were past Shakespeare’s time, but he lived through the beginnings of them and portrayed similar events in his plays.

While King James and the aristocrats in Parliament were battling over their rights, the lowly English masses were demonstrating against the enclosure movement and on behalf of what they claimed as their rights as free-born Englishmen.  During the Middle Ages, a portion of a nobleman’s land was generally set aside as a common area on which peasants could graze their animals and raise some crops.  Over time, this use of the so-called commons became considered a legal right of the peasants.  But starting in the 1500’s, patrician landowners began enclosing these common areas, and banning the peasants from using them, so that the patricians could devote the commons along with their other lands for grazing sheep.  Exporting wool to the European continent became a very profitable industry for these patricians.

But the combination of closing off the commons and dedicating most of England’s other farmland to raising sheep resulted in a large decrease in the amount of grain being grown in the country.  Unable to use the commons, huge numbers of peasants were bankrupted off their land.  And with little land devoted to raising grain, grain shortages occurred and bread prices for the urban poor skyrocketed.  The result was bread riots in the cities and anti-enclosure demonstrations and land occupations in the countryside.  In the latter case, peasants would tear up the newly grown hedges that enclosed what had been common land, then they would dig into the land and plant crops.  Hence these protesters were called Diggers.

In 1607, a group of some five thousand peasants known as the Diggers of Warwickshire addressed a petition to King James I asking for help against the landlords.  Frequently citing the Bible, they claimed the enclosures were an offense against the King since they “deprive his most true harted (sic) communaty (sic)” of the right to live.  James responded by calling their petition “a wicked instrument” and sending troops that slaughtered hundreds of the peasants.[11]

The parallel of James’ response to the protesters with that of Coriolanus couldn’t be closer.  Shakespeare was not only aware of the events in Warwickshire when he completed Coriolanus in 1608, he incorporated the arguments and the very language of the Diggers’ petition into the opening scene of the play in which a group of citizens representing the hungry Roman populace debate with a spokesperson for the Roman patricians.  In their petition, for example, the Diggers repeatedly spoke of themselves as members of a body politic – “We members of the whole” –  that was being starved by greedy landlords. The metaphor of a political body that is made up of members that serve different functions and need to be cared for is at the center of the debate between the protesters and the patricians in Coriolanus.  Significantly, I think the protesters get the better of the argument in the play.[12]

Changes in warfare that were taking place in seventeenth century England also paralleled those in fifth century BCE Rome.  Just as Rome had moved from the individualized combat of phallic sword fighting to collectivized phalanxes, so too warfare in Shakespeare’s time was moving from the individualized battling of knights in shining armor to the collectivized combat of massed musket-wielding soldiers.

Muskets were newly developed weapons in Europe that shot bullets which could penetrate armor and made armored knights obsolete.  Muskets had smooth barrels, however, which made them extremely imprecise as to aim.  They propelled round lead balls that wobbled down a barrel and then out into the air in the general direction in which the musket was aimed.  An individual musketeer was very unlikely to hit any specific thing at which he was aiming.  But a massed row of musketeers could launch a wall of lead that would mow down an enemy army.

Armored knights were highly trained and skilled warriors whose individualized combats were often heroic as, for example, in Shakespeare’s play Henry V.  As with Roman phalanxes, massed musket warfare required little skill, since aiming a musket was almost irrelevant, and it involved little in the way of individual heroics.  Again, as with the Roman phalanx, heroism was standing together for five minutes longer.  It was, however, massed armies of plebian soldiers that enabled England to become the world’s largest empire.  Individualistic heroes of England’s recent past, such as Henry V, were becoming obsolete in Shakespeare’s time and, I think, this was one of the implications of his play Coriolanus.

Conventional Interpretations: Psychology, Sociology, and Tragedy.

Most interpretations of Coriolanus focus on the character, psychology and personal relations of Coriolanus and on the character, psychology and social relations of the rebellious citizens.  The variety of interpretations of Coriolanus is vast and often contradictory.  There are analyses that focus on Coriolanus’ abilities and actions as a military general and civilian leader, some in praise, others in disparagement. There are characterizations of Coriolanus as a fascist warmonger and a Leninist communist revolutionary.  There are Freudian analyses of Coriolanus as suffering from Oedipal problems with respect to his dominating mother and absent father, and as a repressed homosexual whose sexuality is perverted into violence.  There are laudations of him as a Nietzschean superman who is in fact above it all. There are also various interpretations of the plebians.  These include mob psychology analyses of the plebian crowds in the vein of Gustave Le Bon, Malthusian interpretations of the plebians as exemplifying overpopulation problems in Rome, and Social Darwinian interpretations of the Roman plebian as a useless underclass.

But there are two common factors in almost all these interpretations of the play.  One is that Coriolanus is seen as a tragic figure, a “man of war [who] cannot keep the peace,” but whose underlying soft-heartedness leads him to accede to his mother’s wishes and spare Rome in the end.[13]  The other is that the Roman plebians are seen as an irrational mob who are ignorant, gullible, and easily manipulated by the vile tribunes that supposedly represent them.[14]

The distinguished Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard claimed, for example, that the way in which Coriolanus concedes to his mother’s wishes at the end of the play shows that he must have been a natural poet as a child.  Despite Coriolanus’ rough language and rude behavior, Goddard insists that “Coriolanus is all tenderness at the center.”  Goddard also dismissed the plebians as ignorant, gullible and fickle.[15]  I don’t agree.

Coriolanus as Comedy:  The Line Between Tragic Hero and Comic Fool.

I think that my contention that Coriolanus is best seen as a comedy can be illustrated by focusing on two scenes, the opening scene where Menenius confronts three plebian citizens with respect to the food shortage in Rome and the scene at the end of the play when Coriolanus accepts his mother’s plea to spare Rome from invasion.

The play opens with the entrance of a group of citizens armed with clubs and other rude weapons.  These are far less murderous than the swords and spears carried by patricians and their soldiers.  Emphasizing the collective nature of the group, only two of them are singled out as individuals by Shakespeare and they are called merely First Citizen and Second Citizen.  These two are the leaders of the group.  The First Citizen opens the play with three statements: “You are all resolved to die than to famish,” then “You know that Caius Martius [Coriolanus]is chief enemy to the people,” and then “Let us kill him, and then we’ll have corn at our own price.”  To each of these statements, the group shouts its approval.

The First Citizen then goes on to explain that they are threatening violence only because the patricians, led by Coriolanus, are hoarding corn and will sell it only at an exorbitant price.  The patricians are taking advantage of the plebians’ plight, the First Citizen claims, and “our sufferance is a gain to them.”  It is significant that the plebians are not demanding free corn or threatening to steal it.  They only want to be able to buy it at “our own price,” that is, a price they can afford.  And although they condemn Coriolanus as “a very dog to the commonalty,” they don’t want to kill him and propose to do so only because he is the chief obstacle to their gaining corn.  They are acting, they say, “in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.”

The way that you read and play these opening lines spoken by the First Citizen are a key to your interpretation of the play.  Harold Goddard speaks for many critics in characterizing the First Citizen as “an egotistical, loud-mouthed, malicious, illogical troublemaker and knave.”[16]   And it is certainly possible to play these lines in that way.  You can merely have the actor say them with a sneer and a leer, have him wave a club around in a murderous way, and you’ve got a demagogue leading an irrational mob.  But, I think if you just look at the lines themselves, they are not the words of a demagogue, and the consent of the crowd to the First Citizen’s speech is not irrational.  The citizens merely want to buy bread because they and their families are hungry, and they need to eliminate the person who is keeping them from doing so.

No sooner has the First Citizen finished speaking than Menenius, who is the main spokesperson for the patricians and chief apologist for Coriolanus, enters to respond to the citizens.  He launches into a speech blaming the food shortage on the gods and defending the control of Rome’s grain by the patricians. He compares the patricians to the belly of the body politic that must take in all the food and then provide sustenance to the rest of the body as best meets the needs of the various body parts.

The argument is so ridiculous that even Goddard compares Menenius to the fool Polonius in Hamlet.  But Goddard and most critics claim that Menenius convinces the even stupider citizens.  Goddard says that the citizens “can only stammer in reply, ‘Ay, sir; well, well’” and stupidly ask “’How apply you this?’” and offer other seeming inanities.[17]  And you certainly can play Menenius as a well-intentioned fool and the citizens as ill-intentioned idiots taken in by his arguments, but I think if you just look at the lines, that is not the best way to play them.

On its face, Menenius’ speech is anything but well-intentioned toward the citizens, especially if you see it in the context of his later conversations with Coriolanus and others in which he expresses the deepest scorn and ill regard for the plebians.  Like Coriolanus, he would just as soon see them starve.  And I think that the citizens are anything but taken in by his arguments.  Their questions and monosyllabic responses should be seen as satirical rather than sincere, which Menenius eventually seems to realize and begins to insult them at the end of his speech.

As Menenius is beginning to insult the citizens, Coriolanus comes onto the scene and his first words to them, without anything having been said to him, are “What’s the matter you dissentious rogues?”  He goes on to call them “curs,” among other insults, and call for them all to be hanged.  At the end of the scene, a messenger comes to inform them all that the Volscians are on attack. Coriolanus rejoices that now “we shall ha’ means to vent our musty superfluity,” that is, rid Rome of troublesome citizens by having them killed by the Volscians in battle.  In this scene, Coriolanus does not look like a tragic hero who is going to fall from a height and suffer more than he deserves.  And Coriolanus, for whom threats are a stock-in-trade, keeps up this kind of over-the-top rhetoric, degrading others and elevating himself, throughout the play.

It is the plebian citizens who come off as the most reasonable people in this scene.  And despite Coriolanus’ implacable opposition to them, they later even grant him leniency when he is convicted of treason and faces execution.  In sum, although the citizens sometimes vacillate, and their tribune spokespersons play political games during the play, they are much more sympathetic characters than Coriolanus.

The scene at the end of the play in which Coriolanus agrees to spare Rome from invasion is almost invariably interpreted as a softening of his heart in response to the emotional appeal of his mother.  But I don’t think that is the best reading of the scene.  In this scene, Coriolanus, after refusing to see any of his Roman friends who want to plead with him to spare Rome, reluctantly accepts a visit from his wife, son, and mother.  He insists on seeing them in the presence of the Volscian commander, Aufidius, to show that he is not doing anything underhanded and to show off his strength of will against any pleas for him to change in his mind.

Through extensive entreaties from his mother, wife and son, Coriolanus stands firm in his intention to destroy Rome until his mother launches into one last-gasp appeal in which she grasps at one argument after another and then, as she is seemingly getting ready to leave in despair, hits on what seem to be the magic words.  “Come, let us go,” she says, and then pointing at Aufidius, continues “This fellow had a Volscian to his mother; His wife is in Corioles, his child like him by chance.  Yet give us our dispatch: I am hushed until our city is afire, and then I’ll speak a little.”  In a flash, Coriolanus changes his mind and decides to spare Rome.  Why?

The conventional view is that his pride is softened.  My view is that his pride is hardened, and that is why he changes his mind.  Coriolanus is a man who needs to see himself as superior to everyone else.  He has already been trying to assert his military superiority over his Volscian commander Aufidius, which has displeased Aufidius.  Now Coriolanus’ mother has implied that if he sacrifices his own mother, wife and child in the attack on Rome, he will be making a sacrifice in the service of Aufidius that Aufidius does not himself have to make.  He will be putting himself at a lower level than Aufidius.  It is this that Coriolanus cannot accept.

Although Coriolanus has already several times rejected his mother’s pleas, he tells Aufidius that she has convinced him, and that Rome will not be invaded.  He gives the order to his commander Aufidius.  He is the one taking charge.  And Aufidius has no choice but to agree.  Coriolanus seems to think he can get away with this because the Volscian soldiers in Aufidius’ army seem to respect and even revere Coriolanus more than they do Aufidius.  Coriolanus has previously turned traitor to Rome by joining the Volscians.  Now he turns traitor on the Volscians, but thinks he is above approach and reproach.  Aufidius, however, has had enough, connives with some assassins to have Coriolanus killed, and that is how the play ends.  Coriolanus falls, but from vain stupidity rather than tragic heroism, and this is the mark of a comedy, not a tragedy.

Trump, Coriolanus and the Present Danger.

Coriolanus is a play about power, politics, and pride.  These are three things that almost invariably go together, and that’s a problem.  It takes a good deal of vanity to seek political office in the first place and if you attain high office, that will itself reinforce your pride.  Then of course, you will likely be surrounded by sycophants and panderers who stoke your pride, plus you will be in a position to exercise power over people and society, and that will feed your pride even more.  It is a vicious cycle in which overweening power can result in overweening pride, and that is not a good thing for anyone.

Set in fifth century BCE Rome, Coriolanus speaks to issues that were relevant to people at that time and place but also to people in Shakespeare’s day and in ours today.  Two issues raised in the play stand out in particular: the resistance of people to change from a more individualistic to a more collectivistic society; and, the threat posed by would-be dictators who would take advantage of that resistance to change to gain absolute power.

Over the long course of history, societies have ebbed and flowed back and forth between more individualistic and more collectivistic social orders and power structures.  Writing today in the spring of 2018 in the United States, we are witnessing in this country and in many other countries around the world the resurgence of would-be authoritarians and autocrats.  These Trumps, Putins, et al are being aided and abetted by billionaires who stand to profit from their support of these would-be dictators.  Coriolanus can help us think about the perils of our situation in the United States in at least two ways, first, by comparing and contrasting Coriolanus with Donald Trump and, second, by comparing and contrasting our political systems with those of fifth century Rome and seventeenth century England.

Coriolanus and Trump have some key similarities.  Both are enormous egotists who think of themselves as above everyone else and above the law, and who try to bully everyone to get their way.  They both use a doomsday strategy in which they threaten total destruction to their opponents and even to their own societies in order to get their way.  Coriolanus threatens to hang the plebians who oppose him and to destroy Rome for having rejected him.  Trump routinely threatens to jail or otherwise destroy his opponents, and periodically threatens nuclear war.

Both also see themselves as the leaders of countries that have the might and therefore the right to rule over other countries.  Coriolanus represents a Rome that in the recent past had essentially been an organized criminal enterprise which routinely conquered and plundered neighboring societies.  In proclaiming a slogan of “America First,” Trump wants Americans to personally pursue their own selfish self-interests above all other considerations, as he always has.  But, he also wants the United States to use its power to extort concessions from other countries in a zero-sum game in which we get more of everything and they get less.

Coriolanus and Trump are also both bloviators.  Goddard claims that Coriolanus is merely a blunt speaker who is too honest to speak in euphemisms.[18]  But I think that in any objective review of Coriolanus’ language you have to conclude that this is a man who cannot or will not control himself so as to speak decently.  And I think that his speeches are best played comically as ludicrous.  Trump is, likewise, incapable of speaking of himself in other than platitudes and of others who disagree with him in other than insults.  He lives in a melodramatic world in which he and his supporters are the good guys and everyone else is a dangerous bad guy.  In Trump’s case, noxiousness is a matter of politics and policy as he tries to garner support by stoking fear and hate, and then showing he scorns the people his supporters fear and hate.  He is ludicrous but also very dangerous in sowing the seeds of bigotry, misogyny, and dissention.

Coriolanus and Trump are both fools, albeit dangerous fools. They are also both destined from the start to fail in the long run unless they bring about the destruction of their respective societies, which Coriolanus could have done if he had gone through with his plans to invade Rome and which Trump could do with a push of the nuclear button.  Coriolanus’ overreaching and overweening pride brought his career to an abrupt end.

Trump and his right-wing supporters will also, I think and hope, fall prey to demographic changes that will foil their plans to restore a nineteenth century regime of individualism, laissez-faire capitalism, and white peoples’ power in the United States.  The population of the country will soon be a majority minority, and young people are overwhelmingly more progressive than their nostalgic regressive elders.  Coriolanus represented the last-gasp of a heroic age as Rome evolved from monarchy to republic, and Trump represents a last-ditch effort of American right-wingers in their century-long battle to keep the nineteenth century from ending.

But the differences between Coriolanus and Trump are also important.  Coriolanus was completely honest, which even his fiercest opponents recognized and admired.  He would not lie or cheat.  In fact, I think Coriolanus was not so much honest as above dishonesty.  Trump is a chronic, almost compulsive, liar and a notorious cheater in business and probably in politics.  He has repeatedly bragged about his sharp business practices, and they may be a factor if he falls from grace as a result of investigations currently ongoing.

Coriolanus was also a brave warrior who repeatedly volunteered for military service and rushed to the most dangerous spots in the battle.  The down-side of this bravery was that he was essentially a thug at the head of a gang of thugs.  He was the guy who could whip everyone else in the gang and so he became their leader.  At the same time, Coriolanus also eschewed adulation and was immune to criticism.  He had a thick skin and he was above any need for praise, but the down-side of this is that he refused correction when he was wrong.  Trump was a draft dodger, and he is seemingly also a coward who has historically gotten others to fight his battles for him.  In turn, Trump lives for adulation and cannot stand criticism.  Trump is clearly a weaker person than Coriolanus, but not necessarily less dangerous for that very reason.

Shakespeare wrote many plays about tyrants and his art often imitated life.  In Coriolanus, he also suggested the potential solution to the problem of tyranny.  In the fifth century BCE, Rome was developing a split government of consuls, senate, tribunes, and popular assemblies, with different institutions representing different groups of people, each of which could check and balance the others, and which required the agreement of all of them to make the society work.  Similarly, in Shakespeare’s time, Parliament, with a patrician House of Lords and a bourgeois House of Commons, along with street demonstrations of the populace, were evolving to check and balance the King.  Things did not always work the way they should have, and both the Roman Republic and Stuart England suffered from repeated conflicts and civil wars.

In the United States today, we have institutions of divided government and separation of powers like those in the Roman Republic and Stuart England but, hopefully, more effective at keeping the peace while saving the country from authoritarians.  The division of powers between the federal government and the state governments and within the federal and various state governments ought to provide sufficient checks and balances on a would-be dictator if these institutions do what they are supposed to do.  In addition, we have a free press that did not exist in either Republican Rome or Stuart England and which provides another check on a potential autocrat.  Finally, we have a free theater which can remind us with plays such as Coriolanus of the dangers we face and the collective institutions we need to rely on to meet those dangers. With supports such as these, we can hopefully keep Trump and company from turning what is already bad enough as a dark comedy into a disastrous melodrama.

B.W.  5/18

Postscript: 2018 Stratford Ontario Festival Production.

A Shameful Production: Promoting authoritarianism.

I recently had the mixed pleasure of attending a performance of Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival.  The production was awesome.  The interpretation was awful.  Worse than awful, it was shameful.

Coriolanus is a play that features protests against the mistreatment of the lower classes, warnings about the rise of dictators, and arguments in favor of checks and balances in government.  These were developments in the sixth century BCE when Coriolanus lived and in early seventeenth century when Shakespeare lived.  And they are still critical issues today.  Shakespeare was clearly sympathetic with all three of these developments.  But you would not know that from the interpretation that has been given to the play at Stratford this year.

To the contrary, the play is staged as a glorification of the authoritarianism of Coriolanus. In an age of Trump, Putin, and other authoritarians and would-be dictators, how could the Stratford management let this be the interpretation of their play?

Awesome Staging: Now you see it, now you don’t.

The director Robert Lepage is a genius when it comes to staging the play and using lights and other technologies to enhance his production.  Just as one example that I can describe simply: He had Coriolanus get into a car on the stage and then drive through a series of landscapes, with the illusion of movement perfect.  The other illusions are too complicated for me to describe in a few words, but walls came and went with a change of light, people were in one place then another in a flash, stage sets moved from one place to another… I have no idea how he did these things, but they worked.  They were not just high-tech gimmickry aiming to distract and entertain.  The gimmicks added to the story.  It was the sort of thing you can imagine Shakespeare doing if he had had the technology.  Brilliant.

Awful Interpretation: Tragic or Fitting Death?

Lepage’s interpretation of the play is something else.  He has Coriolanus played as a man whose public persona is overly proud and harsh but who is actually humble and warmhearted underneath.  Coriolanus is played as a misunderstood hero whose disdain of the masses is justified and whose death results from a softhearted response to his mother’s pleas to spare Rome.  Lepage has the masses of people played as idiots and the tribunes as scoundrels.  He has Menenius played as a wise elder statesman rather than a long-winded fool.  These are very different than as I see them and as I have described in the essay above.

And Lepage has Coriolanus killed by one of Tullus’ men in a moment of anger rather than as a result of Tullus’ connivance as Shakespeare wrote it.  Lepage has Coriolanus’ death played as tragedy.  But I disagree.  I think Coriolanus got the death that he wanted as proof of his superiority as he would see it, and as proof to us of his overweening pride.

Coriolanus’ pose all along has been that of a man who is above everyone and everything.  He disdains praise because he considers himself above those who would praise him.  He disdains reward for his service because he will not demean himself to be seen as acting heroically for gain.  He even disdains the idea of public service because service implies he is beneath those whom he is serving.  When he agrees to spare Rome from the Volscian army, he is asserting his superiority over his commander Tullus.  And when Tullus has him killed, Tullus is effectively admitting that he is jealous of Coriolanus and that Coriolanus is his superior.

Earlier in the play, when Coriolanus first went over to the Volscians, he challenged Tullus to either accept him into the Volscian army or kill him.  Coriolanus was thereby challenging Tullus either to work with Coriolanus or to admit that Coriolanus was too big for Tullus to handle, that Coriolanus would outshine him. This is just what happened and is why Tullus had Coriolanus killed.  Shakespeare seems to be portraying this as a fitting death, not a tragic one, that confirmed Coriolanus’ pride and crowned his proudful life.  Coriolanus was a hero for another time but a harmful fool in his own.

B.W.  June 16, 2018


[1] Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1954.

[2]Jared Diamond. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1993. Pp. 220-221, 276-310.   David Sloane Wilson Evolution of Everyone. New York: Delacorte Press. 2007. Pp.51-57, 285.

[3]Aristotle. Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. P.59. Kenneth Burke. Attitudes Toward History. Boston: Beacon Press. 1961. P. 41. Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.1954. Pp.82-100.

[4] Aristotle. Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. Pp. 61, 81-86. Kenneth Burke. Attitudes Toward History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. Pp.37, 39.  Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1954. Pp.35, 172.

[5] Plutarch. “The Life of Coriolanus.”  The Parallel Lives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.

[6] H.R. Oliver. “Coriolanus As Tragic Hero.” Shakespeare Quarterly, 1959. P.53.

[7] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.209.

[8] Frank Kermode. The Age of Shakespeare.  New York: Modern Library, 2004. P.173.

[9] Scott Palmer. “Timely Tragedy.” Bag and Baggage Productions, 6/23/16.

[10] Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. P.244.

[11] Steve Hindle. “Imagining Insurrection in Seventeenth Century England: Representations of the Midland Uprising of 1607.” University of Warwick, 2018.

[12] Michael Wood. Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books, 2003. P.298.

[13] Jonathan Bate.  “Introduction.” Coriolanus. New York: Modern Library, 2011. P. VIII.  Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. P.244

[14]  Frank Kermode. The Age of Shakespeare.  New York: Modern Library, 2004. P 170.  Jonathan Bate.  “Introduction.” Coriolanus. New York: Modern Library, 2011. P.XII. Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. P.246. Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. Pp. 218, 232, 234.

[15] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.223.

[16] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.210.

[17] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.232.

[18] Harold Goddard.