A sick man's appetite

Epic entrance: Ralph Fiennes as Gaius Marcius confronts the plebs in Fiennes’s film adaptation of  Coriolanus

Epic entrance: Ralph Fiennes as Gaius Marcius confronts the plebs in Fiennes’s film adaptation of Coriolanus

Kevin Williamson wrote an interesting piece recently on the acquiescence of major news organizations to the realities of Twitter mobs. He begins with a meditation on one of Shakespeare’s less well known plays, Coriolanus, and the amazing entrance of its title character, the Roman general Gaius Marcius Coriolanus.

In Scene I, Act I, Coriolanus confronts an angry mob of plebeians— “mutinous Citizens” armed “with staves, clubs, and other weapons,” according to Shakespeare’s stage directions—who threaten to riot over the price of bread. Though hostile to Coriolanus—no more than five lines into the play they call him the “chief enemy to the people”—upon his appearance they hail him as “noble Marcius.” Already having the measure of the mob, he responds with a putdown, and when their leaders say “We have ever your good word,” trying to initiate an exchange of flattery, Coriolanus launches into the first of his several short but savage speeches:

He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: You are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him
And curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favors swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What's the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another? What's their seeking?

Williamson’s interest in his piece, prompted by this New York Times article and especially journalist Masha Gessen’s comments in it, is the capitulation of news organizations to social media mobs. The “morality clauses” discussed there seem to be—by the most charitable interpretation I’m capable of—legal mechanisms for covering a news organization’s butt, at the expense of its writers, in the event of a Twitter outrage mob. While I agree this is a risible, even craven trend which will only encourage online rabblerousers and Williamson argues his point eloquently, something else in Coriolanus’s introductory speech, something related but tangential to Williamson’s angle, stuck with me.

Near the middle of his harangue, Coriolanus tells the mob of angry citizens that “your affections are / A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that / Which would increase his evil.”

Can there be any better metaphor for our social media addiction?

Barring the word addiction itself—which is more literal than metaphorical now anyway—I don’t think so. We have a lot of electronic opiates available to us—games, memes, videos, gossip, pornography, and more, all of it soaked in one form of satisfied self-affirmation or another and a retreat from the world. But the most dangerous electronic drug has to be outrage, because unlike any of those others it imparts to the addict a sense of purpose and moral uprightness and, worst, an illusion of caring about the real world. And the more we indulge, the worse it gets.

I’ve been mulling over two examples for some time: one recent, one ancient history (by internet standards).

The first is last weekend’s Covington Catholic incident at the March for Life in Washington, DC, a story everyone, whether they like it or not, should be familiar with. I can’t add much to the discussion there—the misinformation, the superheated Twitter mob, the public pillorying, the death threats were all despicable, the more so for being a kneejerk reaction—but keep this example in mind.

The second example I observed by accident on Facebook a few months ago. A post from a Florida sheriff’s department popped up in my newsfeed because a friend from college—a Florida native serving in the Marines—commented on it. The headline was certainly attention grabbing: a Florida man (“Har har,” says the entire Internet instantaneously) had been reported to and arrested by this heroic sheriff’s department after he was observed having sex with a miniature horse. He immediately confessed. The post included details, a mugshot of the offender (a pretty ordinary looking 21-year old man), and—of course—a picture of the horse.

Fortunately, before simply clicking away in disgust, I decided to see what my friend had written in the comments. There were hundreds, and the story had been shared and “liked” nearly a thousand times. He asked, pretty simply, why the sheriff’s department was bothering to publicize this story. As replies stacked up under his comment, I realized there was more to the story than the sensationalism provided by the sheriff’s department: the suspect had severe mental handicaps requiring medication and had lived alone since his mother’s suicide.

In response to my friend’s honest and justifiably pointed “Why?” one commenter wrote: “To let us know what is going on I’d assume.” His reply: “What does this news do for you?”

What I realized in observing this exchange was that a sick man, having already lived through 21 years of difficulty and pain, was being paraded to the public by the authorities for clicks. What’s worse, as the responses to my friend made clear, the prurient Facebookers could justify their leering and hooting by invoking a vague “right to know.” The Victorians had their freak shows, something that should turn the stomachs of all of us; but we have Facebook, and we’re ready with the “likes.” Our response to a real life tragedy converted to electronic stimulus is mere consumption. The tiny number of commenters who were actually familiar with the situation expressed only sympathy, not outrage, disgust, or Bojack Horseman memes.

To return to Covington Catholic and the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, the best piece I’ve read so far on that debacle is this short essay by Julie Irwin Zimmerman at The Atlantic. Zimmerman was among the outraged as the story developed last weekend. She even began castigating her own kids—tellingly, via text message—about the story as it developed. Within two days, as a fuller picture emerged, her view changed and to her credit she repented. She writes:

Take away the video and tell me why millions of people care so much about an obnoxious group of high-school students protesting legalized abortion and a small circle of American Indians protesting centuries of mistreatment who were briefly locked in a tense standoff. Take away Twitter and Facebook and explain why total strangers care so much about people they don’t know in a confrontation they didn’t witness. Why are we all so primed for outrage, and what if the thousands of words and countless hours spent on this had been directed toward something consequential?

The same sentiment my friend had expressed, two months later and in entirely different circumstances. If there’s an upside to this shameful display, it’s that it's very publicity could make it a widely understood example, something we can learn from. But I doubt it.

Williamson, for his part, published a complementary piece this week that unpacks a little bit of what keeps the outrage snowball rolling: self-radicalization, self-selection (creating bubbles or echo chambers), extremism, and, perhaps most crucially, the absence of a hierarchy of credibility. “[T]he only hierarchy that remains,” he writes, “is the crude hierarchy of popularity.” Think of the likes, shares, and jocular comments on that pitiful personal tragedy in Florida trumpeted to the masses on a sheriff’s Facebook page. “Rage and extremism build audiences, especially on social media.” Think of Covington Catholic—or any one of hundreds of similar examples in the last few years. Anyone remember Justine Sacco?

And while it would be tempting, especially for those of us inclined to Luddism, to blame Twitter or smartphones, the truth is that we can’t just blame our technology “The news is there for people who want it,” Williamson writes. “The problem is: Most don’t.” We have to want the right things, and we don’t.

We are, as we try very hard to forget, the real problem. Shakespeare, through Coriolanus, anticipated this. “What’s the matter,” he asks in that first speech,

That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?

The urge to outrage and mob violence and scapegoating is always there, but the beliefs, institutions, and practices that keep those urges at bay—religion, family, honor, government, law enforcement, established and credible news sources, personal virtue—are not, as we’ve learned. We are no longer awed by anything. How could we be? We have spent decades tearing them down and enjoying it. Now we live for our fix, to give in to our appetites. We’re sick. And absent a recovery of the qualities that keep our will to gawk, to leer, and to participate in others’ public calamities, we will only increase our evil.

As more and more examples make clear, the mutinous citizens, armed with their phones and Twitter and Facebook accounts, are more than willing to feed on one another.

Shakespeare in Fiction

Last week I got Bernard Cornwell's latest novel, Fools and Mortals, from the library and blitzed through it. It's an immensely enjoyable book and a quick read.

Fools and Mortals

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Cornwell made his reputation with historical action adventures like the Sharpe series, following an English soldier in the Napoleonic wars, an the Uhtred series, set in Anglo-Saxon England during and after Alfred the Great's reign. He's also written standalone novels like Agincourt and Redcoat, set in crucial times and featuring lots of thrilling, well-executed action. His heroes are typically amoral badasses who are tough bordering on sociopathic but always do the right thing in a pinch.

Fools and Mortals is vintage Cornwell is some ways and a departure in others. The characters are masculine tough talkers and there's plenty of grit to be found, and there is more than one fistfight and plenty of casual wench-ogling. But, as Cornwell himself has pointed out in interviews, not a single person dies in this novel, and the heroes aren't soldiers, but actors. And the protagonist dresses like a girl.

Fools and Mortals takes place over the course of a few days in 1595. The narrator is Richard Shakespeare, baby brother to the Bard. Richard is ageing out of the female roles he has been playing and longs to have a man's part in one of his brother's plays. His brother is, in fact, working on two, which he believes to be among his best work. In the meantime, the brothers and the rest of their company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, keep up a tedious schedule of rehearsals and performances and try to keep the Puritans from shutting them down.

There are multiple subplots and threads of conflict running through Fools and Mortals (not unlike one of Shakespeare's plays), and Cornwell paces it all masterfully. Rival companies are trying to steal Shakespeare's new material so they can stage it first. The Puritans are looking for ways to shut down the theaters that have been built outside their jurisdiction in the City of London. The government's Catholic hunters are harassing everyone. Richard wants better roles, a permanent position with his tetchy brother's company of players, another chance to meet the fetching servant girl who works for the Lord Chamberlain's wife, and, in the meantime, he's barely paying his rent.

Like A Midsummer Night's Dream, which Shakespeare and his company perform at the end, all these loose plots come together in the staging of a play to celebrate a wedding. A book with lots of subplots ending in a play with lots of subplots ending in a play—it's wonderfully meta in a way modern pop culture can't rival. 

Cornwell being Cornwell, there is no shortage of sneering religious hypocrites (an actual line from the villain: "In the name of the Lord, bend over.") and sniveling cowards as bad guys, but he keeps things pretty restrained. And there is a surprisingly sympathetic and moving portrait of an elderly Jesuit missionary living out the end of his life in the house where Richard rents a room. The book is full of period detail, especially when it comes to the staging of Shakespeare's plays themselves.

And the theatrical aspect proved the most enjoyable and interesting part of the book to me. Cornwell got the idea for Fools and Mortals from summers he's spent acting with the Monomoy Theatre (you can see him as Prospero here), and his experience as an actor shows. The performances in the book are peppered with unexpected but vivid touches clearly drawn from life—for example, the different ways each player handles the stress backstage before a performance begins, the panic and irritation that come when someone forgets their lines, the way the actors feed on the energy of a bored, indifferent, or excited audience. It made me want to find the nearest theater performing Shakespeare and go sit down for a play as soon as possible. 

Fools and Mortals was a great read, a real labor of love for Shakespeare, and a treat for people who love Shakespeare's work. I recommend it. 

And, by the way, the two plays in the novel are A Midsummer Night's Dream, from which Cornwell gets the novel's title ("Lord, what fools these mortals be") and Romeo and Juliet. I won't reveal whether Richard finally gets his man's role onstage.

The Shakespeare Stealer series

By sheer coincidence, as I read Fools and Mortals for myself I also finished reading a young adult series I've been reading to my wife before bed each night. They're The Shakespeare Stealer, Shakespeare's Scribe, and Shakespeare's Spy, by Gary L. Blackwood.

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The series follows Widge, an orphan from the north of England, as he is first enlisted to steal from and then joins Shakespeare's players. The series takes place across about two years, from 1501-3, ending with the accession of James I. Along the way, Widge survives plague, works directly under Shakespeare, and becomes no mean player himself. He also develops a crush on Shakespeare's daughter Judith, who proves to be a high-maintenance tease, and rivalries with other boys in the company. 

Many of the same Elizabethan themes crop up in the series as in Cornwell's more recent book—acting, boys playing female roles, Puritanism and Catholic hunters, the cutthroat rivalries between acting companies, and more—but usually in a more kid-friendly way. The plots are more diffuse and not as tight, but Widge is an amiable narrator and good company to have on the journey. The series incorporates a lot of nice period detail and you get a really good sense of what London was like at the time.

We really enjoyed Blackwood's trilogy and recommend it for your own reading, or if you have kids who enjoy a good historical story and might want to learn a little about Shakespeare, too.