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Sunday: October 30, 2011

The Totalitarian Temptation for Grade-Schoolers

Filed under: — site admin @ 8:13 PM GMT-0500

In a post on Matthew Yglesias’ idiotic proposal to allow children to vote, Ann Althouse reveals that she would have voted for Nixon when she was 9, for Eldridge Cleaver when she was 17.

That reminded me of Shakespeare. His three Henry VI plays are early works, not much read and not often performed. Of all Shakespearean quotations, “First, let’s kill all the lawyers!”, from Henry VI Part II, has probably been the most quoted while least read or seen. I mean that the ratio of the number of people who have quoted it on-line and elsewhere, relative to the number who have actually read the entire play or seen it performed, is probably higher than for any other line of Shakespeare. (Alternative candidates may be posted in the comments.)

As it happens, I have seen the play, in the January-March 2010 season at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA. One of my fondest memories of that production was seeing the reaction of some small children to the revolutionaries’ tirades in Act IV. The ten-year-old loved Jack Cade and Dick the Butcher, the eight-year-old loved them even more, and the six-year-old was jumping up and down with delight and almost climbing onto the stage whenever they were on.

What particularly pleased the children? It wasn’t so much Dick the Butcher’s line about killing lawyers, or the marching around waving flags and weapons of various kinds (Dick, played by Tyler Moss, had a bloody cleaver and bloodier apron). Most of all it was the Jack Cade’s political promises, or perhaps the voice in which he (played by Daniel Kennedy) made them:

There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass: and when I am king, as king I will be,– (All: God save your majesty!) I thank you, good people: there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.

He also orders a clerk to be hanged for being able to write his name and not signing with a mark, “like an honest plain-dealing man”, and says of Lord Say that “he can speak French; and therefore he is a traitor”. After he captures London:

I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign.

(No mention of scrubbing it thoroughly first.) He also gives orders to burn London Bridge and the Tower, and pull down the Savoy and the Inns of Court. After he captures Lord Say he tells him (among other things):

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

A bit later:

The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute; there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it: men shall hold of me in capite; and we charge and command that their wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell.

I trust that last part went over the heads of the grade-schoolers in the audience.

In sum, Shakespeare seems to have anticipated most of the nastier parts of modern totalitarianism. The fact that the children were so enthusiastic about Cade’s program is just one reason why children in general should not be allowed to vote. If anyone cares to object that the ones I observed were 6, 8, and 10 and that Matthew Yglesias is probably talking about 15- and 17-year-olds, please note my first sentence above: Ann Althouse’s political judgment certainly did not improve between 9 and 17.

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