Shakespeare, Crowds in St. Peter’s Square and the Pope

Pope depicted in a medieval miniature“… is it fantasy that plays upon our eyesight?”

(King Henry IV, part 1, act 5, sc. 3)

Comment. Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) was a French sociologist famous for his study of the behavior of crowds. His book “The Crowd – A Study of the Popular Mind” is instructive. As it is the case with some books, LeBon tell us what we may know already, though perhaps hidden in the labyrinth of the mind. His study of the popular mind could well apply to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square during the election of the new Pope.
I think most would agree that both the crowd and the media would have displayed the same enthusiasm, irrespective of who had been elected. While in no way exhaustive, the following are brief related comments, on the strength of LeBon’s observations.

As we all know, unconscious phenomena act heavily on the operation of the mind. And our conscious acts are the outcome of an unconscious substratum created in the mind mostly by hereditary influences, says LeBon. And, we may add, especially today, by what we call environmental causes.

By consciously deciding to join a crowd (such as that in St. Peter’s square) the crowd-goer accepts the temporary abatement of his conscious personality in exchange for the predominance of the unconscious.

In turn, the crowd has the effect of a contagion by turning feelings and ideas towards one identical direction. In the instance, the usually repressed desire of participation in enthusiasm finds an outlet in the joint expectation of an event, even if the event is already given for granted.

The choreography only adds to the tension, the price gladly paid for the reward of participative enthusiasm. That is, as LeBon writes, “He (the crowd-member) is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will… Crowds being only capable of thinking in images are only to be impressed by images… For this reason, theatrical representations, in which the image is shown in its most clearly visible shape, always have an enormous influence on crowds.”

Even so, once the spectacle is over, the instinctive, conscious and rational question springs out, “What was it all about?” In the case of a theatrical representation proper, the question is easily answered – after all it was a show.

But in other cases, such as the Pope’s election, the question cannot easily be dismissed. This explains the frenzied necessity to justify the enthusiasm on rational grounds that are, frankly, amusing. That the Pope prepared his own meals, or that he has used public transportation, becomes the stuff of legend. I suspect that many readers cook their own meals and use public transportation and never dreamt that, by so doing, they accomplished legendary enterprises or a mythical feat.

Tips for Use. An elegant way to express surprise.

In the play. The Prince of Wales is surprised at finding Falstaff alive. Prudently and cowardly Falstaff had pretended to be dead during the battle.

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