The Bard as pundit

Jess Winfield co-founded the Reduced Shakespeare Company and is the author of "What Would Shakespeare Do?" His first novel, "My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs and Shakespeare," is due out in July.

The day after the Pennsylvania primary, April 23, will be the 444th birthday of William Shakespeare. As we take a brief respite from nonstop election coverage to raise a glass to the Bard -- for surely Democrats and Republicans alike can agree on Shakespeare’s genius? -- it’s worth noting some words that do not appear in Shakespeare’s works: “Democrat,” “democracy,” “republic,” “Republican,” “primary,” “pundit,” “delegate” ... not even “vote.” (In case you’re wondering, “liberal” appears 28 times; “conservative,” not at all.)

One can easily forget that the concept of democracy as a viable political system would have been quite alien in Shakespeare’s day. Its brief flowering in Greece was ancient history, its rebirth in the New World still two centuries away. So what would the West’s greatest dramatist make of modern American democracy? And, more enticingly in this election year, what would he make of our candidates? Shakespeare, whose most iconic characters are based on political figures -- Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Prince Hamlet, Richard III, King Lear -- would find plenty of source material in this year’s blockbuster electoral battle.

The Bard was clearly fascinated with politics. Of his 21 histories and tragedies, every one deals directly or indirectly with the acquisition or maintenance of power. Usurpations, regicides, civil wars -- even the classic “love story” of Romeo and Juliet is woven into the tale of a civic feud between two powerful noble factions: the Montagues and the Capulets.

But it’s difficult to pin down Shakespeare’s personal political views. This may have been simple self-preservation. His overtly political contemporaries -- Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Thomas Kyd -- were murdered. England in the age of Shakespeare was undergoing cataclysmic change. The burning of Protestants at the stake by “Bloody” Mary had been followed by the public hanging, drawing and quartering of Catholic priests and their supporters during Elizabeth I’s reign. It all makes today’s culture wars look rather like a tea party.


Not surprisingly, the political themes that do emerge in Shakespeare’s works reveal a fear of chaos, a distrust of popular rule and the elevation of order and English sovereignty above all. Shakespeare usually portrays “the people” as an unruly mob in the street -- the “fool multitude that choose by show.” In “Troilus and Cressida,” the Greek hero Ulysses proclaims that the greatest peace and prosperity come when “the heavens themselves, the planets and this center, observe degree, priority and place ... proportion, season, form, office and custom, all in line of order.” I’d argue that Shakespeare too believed this was the best prescription for his country, “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

So, what would Shakespeare make of the dramatis personae of the 2008 election? Perhaps the best way to try to answer the question is to examine Shakespeare’s leaders and their parallels to our candidates.

Leaving aside too-easy comparisons to the aged King Lear, it’s tempting to imagine patriotic war hero John McCain as Shakespeare’s type of politician. But in Shakespeare, former military men -- Othello, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, Henry Bolingbroke -- tend not to fare well. They are usually too hardened to make effective leaders. Perhaps the closest Shakespearean character to the former POW McCain is Coriolanus. A triumphant Roman soldier, gravely battle-scarred, he “hath deserved worthily of his country” and is appointed consul.

But Coriolanus has no respect for the “mutable, rank-scented many.” Of Greek democracy, he says: “Though there the people had more absolute power, I say, they nourish’d disobedience, fed the ruin of the state.” Like McCain, Coriolanus is prone to fits of snarkiness. Coriolanus calls the plebs “dissentious rogues” and “scabs” to their faces. The commoners are shocked: “He used us scornfully: He should have show’d us his marks of merit, wounds received for his country.” When the Hydra-headed mob turns against him, Coriolanus vengefully allies with the enemy’s army and ends up murdered as a traitor. A war hero, to be sure. But like so many of Shakespeare’s soldier-kings, unfit for civilian leadership.

Barack Obama brings to mind several Shakespearean leaders. Is he Richard II? A regal, well-spoken, graceful monarch, Richard is unquestionably the greatest orator of the Shakespearean kings. But he’s a hapless ruler who indulges in excessive spending to support a corrupt court and ill-advised foreign wars. His reign ends in a shambles. No, on second thought, there are other American leaders more analogous to Richard.

What of young Prince Hal? His youthful carousing in the taverns of London is certainly reminiscent of Obama’s self-described teenage years as a pot-smoking “goof-off.” But after ascending the throne as Henry V, a brash, vigorous Hal becomes the “mirror of all Christian kings,” using his passionate oratory to inspire his troops to victory at Agincourt and his personal charm to sweep the French princess Katherine off her feet, and thus France itself under British dominion. If that is to be Obama’s career arc, Shakespeare would surely approve.

Finally, there’s Hillary Clinton. Again, leaving aside the Lady Macbeth jabs, Shakespeare’s female characters -- from the sharp-tongued Kate to Viola, who’s unafraid to wear the pants in the family -- are groundbreaking, and I suspect the Bard would be inspired by Clinton’s historic assault against the glass ceiling. Shakespeare would also recognize in her story an echo of his sovereign, Elizabeth I. She too battled gender bias and a baggage-laden background of culture wars, scandal and adultery. As she used her intelligence and political savvy to keep England’s foreign enemies at bay and preside over a domestic Golden Age -- of which Shakespeare himself was the emblem. Of course, a President Hillary Clinton would, like the Virgin Queen, have to find a way to keep would-be meddling husbands out of the mix.

I won’t presume to guess at Shakespeare’s vote, but he would certainly be encouraged to find that 400 years later -- although the Middle East is still a mess -- Europe is at peace, our holy men are no longer butchered in the public square and the savage New World has given birth to a reasonably orderly democracy.

For making that journey, we should congratulate ourselves. But let’s also remember, the day after the Pennsylvania primary, to thank the Bard. After all, the wisdom and humanity in his plays helped us get here.