The Morbid Curiosity of a Crowd, from Shakespeare to Villanova

I can’t recall ever having read an entire Shakespeare play, but I’m guessing that at some point in high school I must have, because one phrase has always stuck in my mind. I remember the teacher asking something along the lines of how Shakespeare demonstrated the “morbid curiosity of a crowd“.

I must admit I really don’t know one Shakespeare play from another, except perhaps for Romeo and Juliet, so I have no recollection of what play such a phrase applied to.

Fortunately Google came to my rescue, and it seems as if the phrase is from the play Julius Caesar, and is referring to when Marc Antony is inciting the crowd by offering to show them Caesar’s stab wounds.

Kind souls, what, weep you when you but behold
Our Caesar’s vesture wounded? Look you here,
Here is himself, marred, as you see, with traitors.

(My apologies to any Shakespeare experts out there; I think this is the right play and passage my teacher was referring to when he uttered the phrase about the morbid curiosity of the crowd. If not, oh well…)

Anyway, I’ve thought of that phrase often over the years, particularly while driving. If there is an accident, everyone slows down to see what happened, curious to see how bad the accident is. As my annoyance grows with the slowed down traffic, I often utter the phrase “the morbid curiosity of the crowd” to myself.

I also think the phrase partially explains the appeal of a “sport” like race car driving. I don’t think most people find it interesting to watch cars go around and around a track, mile after mile. I think the appeal is the chance of a major accident.

It’s also what attracts people to watch someone walk a tight rope, or to stick their head inside a lion’s mouth. I think secretly the crowd is hoping something goes wrong.

The phrase came to me again last night after I walked up to Villanova’s campus right after they won the national championship. It was fun to be caught up in all of the excitement, with all of the students out celebrating.

As might be expected, a few students were a little more out of control than the rest of the crowd. One student in particular captured everyone’s attention.

He climbed up one of the traffic light poles (as did other students), but then he decided to take it a step further by making his way out across the traffic light pole, towards the middle of the road. At this point he was probably 15-20 feet above the ground, with nothing to hold on to except the traffic light pole that he was sitting on. (see photo above)

He certainly captured the attention of the crowd, myself included. I think most of the crowd was curious how this was going to end. Was he going to fall, and if so, would his fall be cushioned by the crowd below? Was he somehow going to be able to successfully climb back down the pole to the ground? (The odds of this happening seemed to diminish after he chugged two beers while sitting up there, much to the delight of, dare I say, the morbid crowd). Were the police going to help him down?

There were also some people who seemed to want to see this guy get hurt, as evidenced by the fact that there were several filled water bottles thrown at him while he was sitting up there. If any of those bottles hit him in the head, I’m sure he would have lost his balance. Fortunately, none of the bottles landed a direct hit, although a few came very close. I considered the bottle throwers the worst behaved in the crowd. The guy on the pole was just stupid, the ones throwing the bottles were mean.

Others in the crowd were busy trying to set small fires (not really sure why), but for the most part, everyone’s eyes were on the guy on the pole. Demonstrating once gain, the morbid curiosity of a crowd.

The guy sat up there for at least 30 minutes, and I must admit, I didn’t want to leave until I saw how he got down (I’m sure others felt the same way). Miraculously he was able to make his way back to the pole and at that point I felt that things were going to end OK, so we headed back home.

I’m sure that the notion of the morbid curiosity of a crowd was around long before Shakespeare, and will be around long after Villanova’s third national championship. I wouldn’t consider it one of mankind’s greatest character traits, but it is one that needs to be recognized, and occasionally dealt with, nonetheless.

By the way, if you want to see a bit of the aftermath of last night’s celebration, here is what I came across early the next morning while walking through a nearly deserted campus. It’s too bad the students themselves don’t have to clean up the mess they made…

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