If this moves you not, your legs cannot: Shakespeare and the persuasion delusion.

I’ve been thinking a lot about persuasion recently. It is a truth universally acknowledged that our political climate is increasingly polarised. When we talk about how we talk about politics, it’s basically obligatory to use the words ‘bubble’ and ‘confirmation bias’. Machine learning helps Facebook tell you what you want to hear just as surely as it will try to show you ads for only the things you want to see. Information is a consumption item, like any other. And the upshot is, of course, that it is increasingly impossible to have a conversation with someone whose political opinions are different from yours. It’s impossible, because you cannot agree on a shared reality. Do you disagree that £350 million pounds a week goes to Europe? Well, you would say that. Do you think that turnout was lower at Trump’s inauguration than at Obama’s? Well, you would say that. And, in a very real sense, I would. I assume my own biases are reasonably obvious from the two examples above. But can we change people’s minds? Is there any point in even trying?

I’m doing a (Tax) Year of Shakespeare with my friends, as I’ve often remarked. And one of the plays I’ve recently watched, Julius Caesar (JC henceforth), is an oft-cited case study in persuasion. Its most famous example, of course, is that of Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar. Brutus, leader of the conspirators who have just now stabbed Caesar to death, walks out to a muttering mob. Calmly, rationally, he lays out the case of the conspirators:

Why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:

Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved

Rome more.

He challenges his audience to name which ‘bondman’ he has offended, and theatrically pauses for a reply. The mob is soon swayed, calling ‘Let him be Caesar’, and Brutus is triumphant.

Until Mark Antony arrives, staggering under the weight of Caesar’s body. And that’s when the real show begins. The speech is (justly) famous, so I won’t weary my readers with its repetition. All I can do is point to the difference between Brutus’s measured, bloodless rhetoric (even as he is standing with his hands literally smoking and reeking with blood), and Mark Antony. Short words, seductive rhythms (‘And Brutus is an honourable man’) and the best prop of all: Caesar’s corpse, with wounds like open mouths. All wrapped up in the aw-shucks self-deprecation of the ‘plain blunt man’, who speaks ‘right on’.

I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts:
I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
That love my friend; and that they know full well
That gave me public leave to speak of him:
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;
Show you sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me

Somewhere, Trump and Hitler are smiling gently in approval, and they don’t even know why.

Of course, that Roman mob is swept away in an ecstasy of self-righteous fury, tearing a poet to pieces because he shares a name with one of the conspirators. Shakespeare was no democrat.

Or say rather that this is a play about persuasion, and neither Plebeian nor Patrician is immune. Mark Antony’s speech gets a lot of press, but in fact the play’s been playing with persuasion and seduction long before Caesar’s murder. Brutus is won over to the side of the conspirators by the ‘lean and hungry’ Cassius, that ‘great observer’, who ‘looks quite through the deeds of men’. It’s one of the play’s most delicious ironies that that practised and praised orator, Brutus, is the stiffest and least persuasive of the three men driving most of the action: himself, Mark Antony and Cassius. Look at Mark Antony with his hypnotic repetitions and the ‘poor dumb mouths’ of murdered Caesar. Hearken to Cassius, whose so-called ‘weak words’ include:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

And then the purring rhythms of:

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.

Brutus is startled and nervous, disclaiming any of the ambition that he claims Cassius is kindling in him. But of course Brutus has been fretting about Caesar’s tyranny for some time before Cassius speaks to him,

Vexed I am
Of late with passions of some difference,

And Cassius himself is sincere in his detestation of tyrants. Or rather more to the point, the complaisance that breeds tyranny.

Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.


And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf,
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.

Cassius’s Patrician distaste of the mob aside, this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? You cannot be persuaded – or ruled – without your own consent.

But what of the duelling speeches that win over the Roman mob, you ask? Well, what of them? I submit that neither Brutus nor Mark Antony has convinced the mob of a damn thing. Brutus hasn’t convinced the mob of his essential rightness, so much as he has given them excuse for hysterical condemnation of Caesarian tyranny. Mark Antony hasn’t convinced them of Brutus’s wrongness, so much as given them wider and more delicious license: to ‘let slip the dogs of war’. It is the orgy of emotion and/or violence that the mob wants in both cases, and both Brutus and Mark Antony oblige. Mark Antony succeeds better because he is more honest with himself, and sees more clearly what he – and the mob – want.

I’ve watched another play recently which lays out the particular resilience of a favoured idea. The Winter’s Tale is about a king, Leontes, who becomes dementedly and homicidally convinced of his wife’s infidelity, based on no evidence whatsoever. Based, in fact, on less than no evidence: a (very mild) show of warmth that he himself has demanded that his wife make towards his best friend. When told that his suspicions are groundless, this is how he replies:

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?–a note infallible
Of breaking honesty–horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.

Amid the disjointed, lurid frothing, note another thing that Leontes has in common with another jealous man. When asked to substantiate his accusation of his fiancee’s unchastity, Much Ado About Nothing’s Claudio responds:

Leonato, stand I here?
Is this the prince? is this the prince’s brother?
Is this face Hero’s? are our eyes our own?

Both men are claiming, in effect, to be the reference point of truth. Their eyes, their feelings, their word, their reality. Claudio, at least, has had some flimsy proof offered to him of his fiancee’s infidelity, but Leontes clearly and specifically has nothing but his own heated imaginings. And – as is obvious from his broken, febrile speech – this is not a man whose fixed and settled gaze could convincingly be the arbiter of any sort of truth.

Not that it matters. Because anything – anything – that Leontes’s wife or horrified attendants can say is violently repudiated as folly or treason. They would say that, wouldn’t they?

In my review of the Cheek by Jowl production of The Winter’s Tale, I said that Leontes clung to his idee fixe with ‘the demented fixity of a Trump supporter’. But why not Trump himself, as Shakespeare Confidential more provocatively muses? After all, Leontes is sole ruler of his kingdom, and he can afford for his delusions to be reality – or at least to be treated as reality. Even when the Oracle of Apollo issues a clear exoneration of his wife, and a clear condemnation of his own tyranny, Leontes is only swayed until he thinks that the Oracle has made an error in one particular. Upon which he instantly blasphemes against the gods in his headlong rush back to his pet theory. Of course, Leontes is up against someone even more arbitrary and tyrannical than himself, and he pays, immediately and horribly. Or rather, his wife and children pay. Because of course they do.

But change does happen, in fiction as well as in life. Big changes happen. Tyrants are overthrown. Laws are written or struck off the books. Change does happen. And surely change is impossible without changing people?

Well, that’s true. But it’s not really a question of changing the people who decide, but of changing the people who decide.

I’ll explain. A sizeable body of economic literature looks at what happens when decision-making power shifts from one group to another. If everybody basically wants the same things, or you can write a contract saying that certain decisions have to be made, then it shouldn’t matter who decides, right?

Well, at least one of those things isn’t true, because – as any fule kno – it matters. It matters very much. When historically underrepresented groups like women or disadvantaged minorities have access to power, they tend to push for policies that affect their interests. Are you a woman in rural India making that arduous trek to get drinking water? Do you have a female head of local government? Well, guess what’s getting invested in: roads and drinking water. Are you a member of the British working classes in 1832? Hurrah, you get the vote if you’re a man, and public works get a big spending boost. And it works the other way too: the American South’s Jim Crow laws made it awfully comfortable for special interest groups, and not so comfortable if you care about infrastructure spending and employment.

To be fair, there is some slight evidence that engaging people in conversation helps to at least tip a ‘maybe’ into a ‘yes’. But I tend to think that those ‘maybe’s would go along with the equilibrium, whatever that was. Even if mass changes of heart were possible, they’d be unnecessary. It’s far more efficient to find the people who agree with you, and get them to show up. Try persuasion if you must, but never forget to mobilise.

And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?

3 thoughts on “If this moves you not, your legs cannot: Shakespeare and the persuasion delusion.

  1. There was a portrait in the Guardian today of an African American female Democrate running for governor of Georgia, she used a nice metaphor to illustrate your closing thought: rather than persuade atheists to become Catholic, it is more useful to get Baptists to actually show up for church.

    Liked by 1 person

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