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.Shakespeare

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!

Protestor2Some 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:

Syrian refugeePoor 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,

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.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Portia added,
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.


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11 responses to “Shakespeare and the Election”

  1. Deb says:

    Funny, you are one of my favorite writers, but I read this and just had the thought that “You are an extremely good writer” as if I didn’t know that. I suspect, your writings were like eating good tasting, perfectly ripe fruits and vegetables and tidbits of meat and not finding out until much later how many vitamins and minerals and enzymes I received from the meals.

    I have come here these weeks as a starving person, who was ill from lack of nutrition and now I have moved from a desperate person crawling in from the desert searching for water to someone who can enjoy an article on Shakespeare for how well written it is…. [pyasst]

  2. Harold Holmyard says:

    One cannot but love this article. Thank you, Philip.

  3. Robert says:

    This is from a Pastor in San Diego… thoughts?

    I have been asked “the question” so many times regarding Trump or Hillary. By way of background, I have followed every national convention—Republican and Democrat—from the time I was age 9, and have attended most of the GOP Conventions from 1984 to the present. I have watched the news virtually every day from the age of 8. I have never seen anything like what we are observing.

    In spite of the unprecedented nature of this election cycle, I will attempt to respond to “the question.” I am not demanding that anyone else share my view. But I was asked. Here is my best attempt to answer as I am able to see things at this time:

    1. The Democratic and Republican party platforms are as different as night and day, in my opinion, as far apart as evil vs. good. The 51-page Democratic platform is the most leftist ever. (I don’t care for the “right vs. left” nomenclature. I am far more concerned with “right vs. wrong.”) The Democratic platform contains many points which are anti-biblical. (Time does not permit me here to identify what is meant by “anti-biblical,” which is covered in my new book Well Versed: Biblical Answers to Today’s Tough Issues.) It is thoroughly socialistic (a socialist is a communist without a gun). The 54-page GOP platform is one of the strongest GOP platforms ever. A biblically alert person could be comfortable with almost all of it. Party platforms are a big issue to me. Although some “blow off” party platforms, I do not. Nor do many people up and down the ballot who are running for office. This is a serious and very important item. I have a hard copy of both platforms in front of me now. Most people have never checked out what the party platforms say. They should. If a person is not drawn to the “top-of-the-ballot” candidate, they ought to at least consider voting for the candidate attached to the best party platform.

    2. Analogy #1: Both candidates are flawed. We all know that. But permit me an analogy: As a pastor, I would rather deal with a church attendee who is blatant and brash in his sinning than one who is devious, lying, cunning and deceptive. Both are problematic, but one is easier to deal with than the other. If I were a pastor bringing correction to a parishioner, I would prefer dealing with a “Trump-type” any day over a “Hillary-type.” The chances of making progress with the “Trump-type” are many times greater than the “Hillary-type.”

    3. Analogy #2: When my (late) wife’s remarkable and much loved oncologist said, “Don’t take Carol to that alternative (non FDA approved) treatment.” I asked, “Why not?” He said, “The unknown.” I said, “Doctor, your ‘known’ is much worse than the alternative treatment’s ‘unknown.'” I took her to that alternative treatment. One year later that same oncologist went to the alternative treatment doctor to see how it was that Carol had improved so much. While this alternative treatment did not ultimately save her life, it likely stretched two to three years of life to six years of life—by the admission of another one of her brilliant young oncologists who later said, “Without any medical training or scientific fact, you have put together a protocol of treatment that has moved her into the top fraction of 1 percent of survival rates of all patients with Carol’s particular cancer. Application of the analogy: Hillary’s “known” is considerably worse—many times over—than Trump’s “unknown.”

    4. Trump has lots of sins in his past (actually, we all do), and—in the present—says things he should not say. I make no attempt to defend any of the things he has said. There is no need to rehearse the wrong things he has said. We know what they are. He should not have thought or said them. But there is no need to rehash them here. So we won’t. But let’s turn to the other candidate. Although America has had some scandal-ridden candidates in its history, we have never seen any one major party candidate more constantly scandalous as Hillary (along with her husband). She seems to exceed all previous boundaries for wrongdoing. The scandals just don’t stop. In the same way we did not take time to list all of Trump’s misstatements, neither will we here rehash the seemingly continuous string of horrific scandals of the Clintons.

    5. Trump is slowly being surrounded by increasingly good people. From time to time, I receive encouraging calls regarding this. Can these good people impact Trump? We will see. In contrast, I see no reason for any encouragement regarding the people who surround Hillary.

    6. Trump is right on approximately 75 percent of the issues. I wish it was 100 percent. It is not. I am in hopes that those beginning to surround him can help him connect the dots on more issues. Hillary is wrong on 100 percent of the issues.

    7. This next issue might be one of the most important, but I suspect few will understand its significance. Trump opposes globalism. Hillary thrives on it. Globalism is far more than “geographical” or “eliminating national borders and boundaries.” It is spiritual and demonic at its core. Few—very few—understand this. This is quite likely one of the main reasons why Trump is hated. Do your homework on this one. Think “principalities and powers.” Serious. Extremely serious.

    8. Not voting is not a viable option, contrary to what the “purists” claim. It is not my intention to begin a war of the issue. I know that some radically disagree with this. My view? They have the right to be wrong.

    9. Voting for a third party candidate is—regardless of what is said—a complete “throw-away.” No third party candidate will be elected, or even come remotely close to being elected. And yes, that matters to me. And for the record, the Libertarian ticket—Johnson and Weld—is nearly as bad on many issues as Hillary. When I listen to them, I am stunned people of their ability have ever made it to elective office.

    10. Trump has moved pro-life. Hillary is pro-baby killing, and prides herself on that, and honors the organization—Planned Parenthood—that actually traffics human parts from dead babies whom they have killed. This is below anything we have seen since Nazi Germany. The gall of Hillary! The Clintons have evaded justice for decades and likely will continue to. But they will someday stand before the Great White Throne. They will have to give account of their support of the ripping babies to shreds in the womb. For the record, those who vote for those who support the genocide of pre-borns will also have to give an account.

    11. Trump wants to defend the nation (which is the purpose of government). Hillary has a horrific track record as Secretary of State, and due to hundreds of millions of dollars given to her and her husband’s foundation, she is beholden to those who want us dead.

    12. Hillary claims “everything is fine” in America. This defies every single fact, but facts have never been an interest of Hillary’s. Trump understands that it is 11:59 p.m. on the “cultural clock.” America is near the end—morally, economically, militarily and, sadly, spiritually. There are very clear identifiable indicators—measurable ones—that America is no longer the world’s leading power. That day is over. Hillary will hasten the final destruction. Trump could either slow that down—or possibly, with God’s help—reverse it. Maybe.

    13. Trump will address the massive government spending. Hillary will expand it above the existing unsustainable debt the U.S. currently is carrying (almost $20 trillion plus unfunded liabilities to Social Security, etc).

    14. Trump will expose—and I pray, bring down—”the systemic evil” (crony, deceitful, misuse of capitalism) that reigns among many high-dollar lobbyists. Hillary thrives because of them.

    15. Trump will stop the massive overreach of government. Hillary will extend it.

    16. Freedoms come in “threes.” Political freedom, economic freedom and religious liberty coexist together. Take one away and the other two will eventually disappear. One cannot exist without the other two. The genius of America is that it had all three, until recently. Trump fully grasps the loss of religious liberty. I have heard him speak on it in person on several occasions. He knows that economic and political freedoms are evaporating. He will reverse that. Hillary will decimate all three.

    17. Every rational person knows the Supreme Court appointments are paramount. Trump has listed 11 superb potential nominees. Hillary’s appointments would snuff out the tiny vestige of the three freedoms that are left (mentioned in the statement above).

    18. I make no excuse for wrongdoing or wrongful, hurtful words from either candidate. Candidly, I want King Jesus. He rules in my heart. And yours too, I suspect. And I want Him to rule here—now. But that day is not fully manifested—yet. In the meantime, we prayerfully, carefully navigate this challenging election season, with great concern that above all, we honor our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in every arena of our lives, including the voting booth. That is my hope. I believe it is yours as well.

    • Don Miller says:

      I love Philip Yancy’s writing but I must humbly ask why he and Max Lucado speak out against Trump now? They were silent about Obama’s treachery during 8 years of Obama’s anti-Constitutional abominations. They were silent on the corruption of Hillary, Holder, and Loretta Lynch. But yet they publicly speak out against Trump? How balanced is that? I’m not a big fan of Trump but he isn’t a felon and he didn’t betray classified documents. Even the atheist pundit Pat Condell has more credibility regarding Trump! Shalom!

  4. Vicki Bee says:

    They’re both evil incarnate, especially her if the story I read about her 2 days ago is true. If THAT’S the case there’s no way I’m voting for EITHER of them, if she really did sell sarin gas to Syria and I was never going to vote for him. I already voted for Bush Jr., twice. I’m nowhere near stupid enough to make a mistake three times.
    “Fool me once, shame on you
    fool me twice, shame on me
    food me three times, shame on BOTH of us.”

  5. Drenda says:

    Thoughtful article

  6. Ann says:

    Education and income equality are not the solution but the PURSUIT of both is necessary.

  7. Loved the reframing of our politics and how we think, whether through redistribution or economic growth, all will be solved by money and education.

  8. Karen Craddock says:

    Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who killed the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Matthew 23:27

  9. John says:

    As always, your commentary on the state of society and grace as the only remedy suffers no rival. Great stuff! Blessings.

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