I watched Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood the other week and, able to suspend my disbelief around Russell Crowe’s accent, it was actually a reasonable film (if one that borrows from other war films i.e. Come and See and Saving Private Ryan), though not exactly the Robin Hood legend as I remember it. In this film, Robin’s off fighting with Richard I in France; Richard is killed and Robin has to return to England, which is now ruled by King John, whose tax policy is causing the nobles to revolt. Meanwhile Cate Blanchett is a dead toff’s wife concerned with improving the lot of the peasants; and Robin then pretends to be her husband and there’s some fighting.
It turns out though that Robin’s father, whom he’d forgotten, was some sort of communist revolutionary, fighting for a charter of basic human rights. And I was sitting there thinking to myself, this all seems to be something of a Hollywood American-constitution-based liberty-for-all-style anachronism – albeit one based somewhere along the line on the Magna Carta and Runnymede and all that.
But then a few days later I was reading Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part II, which is basically a sort of political thriller, about two factions struggling to control the throne of England, and in it there’s the bizarre bit towards the end (in Act IV, I think) where this character John Cade suddenly appears out of nowhere as an ally of Richard of York and leads a revolution which threatens to wipe away the entire establishment on which the play has been based up to now and which at times bears a striking resemblance to c20th communist revolutions.
The writing around John Cade’s revolution – the running joke, if you like – is a sudden piece of inspiration, transcending the rest of the play. In particular, John Cade wants to do away with intellectuals, which in his terms is anyone who can read or write. He’s introduced in the following exchange by two men of the people:
Beuis. I tell thee, Iacke Cade the Cloathier, meanes to dresse the Common-wealth and turne it, and set a new nap vpon it
Hol. So he had need, for ’tis thred-bare. Well, I say, it was neuer merrie world in England, since Gentlemen came vp
followed by further communist ideology:
Beuis. Nay more, the Kings Councell are no good Workemen
Hol. True: and yet it is said, Labour in thy Vocation: which is as much to say, as let the Magistrates be labouring men, and therefore should we be Magistrates
Beuis. Thou hast hit it: for there’s no better signe of a braue minde, then a hard hand
Then Cade finally appears and states his vision of the future communist utopia:
Cade. Be braue then, for your Captaine is Braue, and Vowes Reformation. There shall be in England, seuen halfe peny Loaues sold for a peny: the three hoop’d pot, shall haue ten hoopes, and I wil make it Fellony to drink small Beere. All the Realme shall be in Common, and in Cheapside shall my Palfrey go to grasse: and when I am King, as King I will be … There shall bee no mony, all shall eate and drinke on my score, and I will apparrell them all in one Liuery, that they may agree like Brothers, and worship me their Lord
Intellectualism (conflated with literacy) is regarded with suspicion, as the following interrogation of a clerk demonstrates:
Cade. Let me alone: Dost thou vse to write thy name?
Or hast thou a marke to thy selfe, like a honest plain dealing man?
Clearke. Sir I thanke God, I haue bin so well brought vp, that I can write my name
All. He hath confest: away with him: he’s a Villaine and a Traitor
Cade. Away with him I say: Hang him with his Pen and Inke-horne about his necke.
As Cade wins victories, he increasingly descends into megalomania:
Cade. Now is Mortimer Lord of this City,
And heere sitting vpon London Stone,
I charge and command, that of the Cities cost
The pissing Conduit run nothing but Clarret Wine
This first yeare of our raigne.
And now henceforward it shall be Treason for any,
That calles me other then Lord Mortimer.
Enter a Soldier running.
Soul. Iacke Cade, Iacke Cade
Cade. Knocke him downe there.
They kill him.
But. If this Fellow be wise, hee’l neuer call yee Iacke
Cade more, I thinke he hath a very faire warning
There is soon another glorious piece of invective against Henry VI (in the person of Lord Say) and his failure to suppress all forms of writing:
Cade: … Be it knowne vnto thee by these presence, euen the presence of Lord Mortimer, that I am the Beesome that must sweepe the Court cleane of such filth as thou art: Thou hast most traiterously corrupted the youth of the Realme, in erecting a Grammar Schoole: and whereas before, our Fore-fathers had no other Bookes but the Score and the Tally, thou hast caused printing to be vs’d, and contrary to the King, his Crowne, and Dignity, thou hast built a Paper-Mill. It will be prooued to thy Face, that thou hast men about thee, that vsually talke of a Nowne and a Verbe, and such abhominable wordes, as no Christian eare can endure to heare. Thou hast appointed Iustices of Peace, to call poore men before them, about matters they were not able to answer. Moreouer, thou hast put them in prison, and because they could not reade, thou hast hang’d them, when (indeede) onely for that cause they haue beene most worthy to liue.
But eventually, the fickleness of the mob betrays Cade, as it betrayed many a peasant revolution:
Cade. Was euer Feather so lightly blowne too & fro, as this multitude?
Cade’s appearance, his communist revolution, is a comic interlude to the more serious action of the nobility’s petty internecine squabbling; probably Shakespeare merely included it because that’s what the history book he was following said and he thought he could make some good scenes out of it – it fits oddly into the drama, in truth; but I’m guessing the message here is that, lack of noble leadership and civil order leads to a state of chaos as represented by Cade, and aren’t we glad we live in stable Tudor times.
So I’m inclined to go back to Robin Hood and give it the benefit of the doubt: throughout history, there’s always been this view of a wholesale social revolution; and it’s only the c20th that tries to make us believe, as it always does, that our forms of thought have become in any way different. This kind of social revolution utopianism didn’t begin with the French Revolution and the later communist revolutions; our history is full to the brim with all kinds of peasant revolts.