This month marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. I once made a New Year’s resolution to read all 38 of his plays in one year. Although I missed the deadline, eventually I got them all read. Even after four centuries the plays seem oddly up-to-date—especially in an election year.
With the news playing dully in the background, I reflect on the poet from the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon. “Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked twixt son and father.” Those words from King Lear sound like commentators on Fox News describing the modern world. Too bleak for most generations’ taste, King Lear was performed for centuries in a happy-ending version. Now that modern realism has caught up with its dark vision, it has become Shakespeare’s most revered play.
“Each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face”—is that from Macbeth or Bernie Sanders? Shakespeare’s depictions of crime, injustice, war, treachery, and greed demonstrate that, no matter what either political party says, these problems are not inventions of modern America; they have been around since Eden. “All-seeing heaven, what a world is this!”
Some major differences between the Elizabethan view of the world and our own stand out as well. Listening to politicians from both parties, I get the distinct notion that if we could just get the economy rolling and create prosperity—either through trickle-down economics or income equalization—why, then a golden age would return. Social problems (the closest modern equivalent to “evil”) stem from poverty and lack of education.
Shakespeare would disagree. “They are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing,” observes an heiress’s maid in The Merchant of Venice. His plays show genuine respect for the decency of the lower classes. The real villains are the rich and powerful, such as Macbeth and Richard III, who have every advantage of education, wealth, and fine breeding. Beware, Donald Trump: along with other literary giants—Tolstoy, Balzac, Dickens—Shakespeare sees the rich, not the poor, as most susceptible to injustice and corruption.
King Lear states the danger well: “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold…” Lear learned this lesson the hard way. Cast out of his own castle by his greedy daughters, he wandered alone through a pounding rainstorm, finally taking shelter in a cave with a refugee. For the first time he saw up close the plight of the poor and homeless:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’r you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!
Shylock, in Merchant of Venice, pleads for an understanding of his minority status. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” he asks. “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die, and if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge?” I recently re-read his words, substituting first Syrian refugee and then illegal alien for the word Jew.
A belief in Providence underlies all of Shakespeare’s plays, which makes apparent injustice all the more grievous. “Wilt thou, O God, fly from such gentle lambs and throw them in the entrails of the wolf? When didst thou sleep when such a deed was done?” cries one character after a murderous crime. “O God, seest Thou this, and bearest so long?” laments another. We heard similarly eloquent moral appeals from Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, but no longer. You only rail against God if you still believe God is active in history, and the mainstream media now eschew God-talk as politically incorrect.
In Shakespeare’s time, people still lived out their days under the shadow of divine reward and punishment. Lady Macbeth hoped otherwise: “A little water clears us of this deed,” she said as she and her husband rinsed their hands of blood. How wrong she was. Our leaders could use a dose of the humility of the Earl of Warwick, who prayed, “…ere my knee rise from the earth’s cold face, I throw my hands, mine eyes, my heart to Thee, Thou setter-up and plucker-down of kings…”
King Lear knew what it was to be set up and also plucked down, and only in his reduced state did he taste the wonder of grace. Shakespeare often echoes what theologians call “the theology of reversal,” as expressed in the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor…the meek…those who mourn.”). In the paradox of grace, “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.” Dogberry, the comical constable in Much Ado About Nothing, gets his words mixed up in a deeply ironic way when he says to a wrongdoer, “O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption.”
I wish the election process showed more of the wisdom and profundity of William Shakespeare. Alas, I hold out little hope. If the mud-slinging among Republicans is any indication, even more gutter-talk awaits us in the general election.
I have one proposed solution. Shakespeare was a master of insults, and websites have compiled some of his best in a mix-and-match table of offense. (See, for example, http://web.mit.edu/dryfoo/Funny-pages/shakespeare-insult-kit.html.)
Rather than falling back on pedestrian words such as “loser” and “liar” and “bully,” why can’t Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump elevate their speech if not their dialogue. Think of the TV ratings if politicians would learn to mimic Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, who defends herself against a “mad-brain rudesby, full of spleen.” Democracy thrives on disagreement; I just wish for more poetry in the contest.
Alternatively, I suggest an even more audacious option. What if our leaders lowered the rhetoric and showed a bit more civility. “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?” asked the duke in The Merchant of Venice.
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.