Sage Political Advice from Shakespeare’s Plays
From the adage-filled tragedy Hamlet to the pastoral comedy As You Like It, the Bard’s plays are veritable gold mines of advice for politicians — and the body politic.
With only a few days left for would-be electoral winners to wow the voting public, they might consider these words of wisdom for office seekers of every stripe, taken straight from Shakespeare himself.
1. “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice” and “Give thy thoughts no tongue.” — Hamlet
Modern-day translation: Listen up, and think before you speak. Politicians tend to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease, whether it’s fulminating over flimsy facts or saying something doltish during a televised debate. Heed the Bard’s advice and you just might avoid the kind of verbal slip-up that turns into the sound bite of the century. (The “47 percent” can probably all agree on this one.)
2. “Come, sir, leave me your snatches and yield me a direct answer.” — Measure for Measure
Modern-day translation: Enough with the rhetoric — get to the point, already! Digressing from the topic at hand is many a politico’s favorite pastime, whether he or she is attempting to evade the point entirely or just using it as an opportunity to hammer home a favorite talking meme. But here’s “the rub”: when you fail to actually respond to the question asked, one can only surmise you don’t know the answer.
3. “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” — As You Like It
Modern-day translation: Don’t be a know-it-all. Astute politicians play to their strengths, yet remain fully aware of their weaknesses. Start by admitting you don’t know everything, and then, rather than hiring a bunch of sycophants, surround yourself with wise counsel — smart people who aren’t afraid to give you an unvarnished answer.
4. “An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.” — Richard III
Modern-translation: KISS (Keep it simple, stupid). Pundits sometimes scoffed at the “folksy” jargon of former president Bill Clinton, but it inevitably scored verbal points with constituents. (Exhibit A: the catchy phrase “it’s arithmetic” from the DNC.) The bottom line? You have to know when to ditch the fancy rhetorical flourishes and double down on austerity… in this case, straight talk.
5. And keep you in the rear of your affection, Out of the shot and danger of desire.” — Hamlet
Modern-day translation: Keep calm and carry on. Remember the old adage “take a deep breath and count to ten?” At times, our politicians would do well to give themselves a “time out,” too. While playing the mild-tempered milquetoast is hardly the way to go, neither is acting like a petulant pit bull (as the recent debates proved). Show real conviction, but keep cool under the collar, and rather than “going to the mattresses,” <em>Godfather</em>-style, how about going to the corner, instead? Congressman Brad Sherman, take note.
6. “We must speak by the card or equivocation will undo us.” — Hamlet
Modern day translation: Stick to the facts. With real-time fact-checking available to everyone — including head-in-the-game debate moderators — you’ll likely be called out on minor inaccuracies, embarrassing gaffes (binders full of women, anyone?), or major whoppers, as the case may be. Know your stuff, lest the talking heads seize the chance to shout, “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” and, when in doubt, refer back to our first piece of advice.
Political Advice From Shakespeare
Why Watch Shakespeare: All the Stage’s a World
I began my effort in earnest when I read the late Allan Bloom’s manifesto, The Closing of the American Mind.
The book was a key text in the so-called “culture wars.” The University of Chicago professor penned the improbable best-seller a quarter-century ago. He argued against both logical positivism and rock and roll music, blaming them for the end of civilization.
As a teenager, I wondered about Bloom’s thesis. He seemed to assume that high culture and popular culture had to be antithetical and openness to new ideas meant failing to differentiate excellence from mediocrity.
The man from Stratford demonstrates why the opposite is true in both respects. Here was an author, acclaimed as the greatest ever. Yet he had to compete with bear-baiting as entertainment. He introduced so much language that was original but turned into idiomatic speech. (Incidentally, I am not persuaded by the cult of anti-Stratfordians who advance the conspiracy theory that the individual called “Shakespeare” could not have written that for which he has received credit. Bloom assailed relativists who accepted everything as true and equal. He is wrong that willingness to consider intellectual possibilities leads to embracing nonsense.)
The groundlings who crowded into the Globe Theatre of sixteenth-century London, risking disease, standing for hours, demanded a diversion. They were given it without fail. Titus Andronicus can still more than compete with any Hollywood offering in terms of gore and lust, not to mention gory lust.
As for me, I had attended Hamlet in high school. That is the right time in one’s life to be introduced to the doubting Dane. I decided shortly thereafter to complete the cycle.
The history plays especially show how the particular is universal. Shakespeare borrowed from multiple sources, improving them dramatically. In doing so, he transformed what was thoroughly English into what could be appreciated by people around the world.
Richard III is a beloved villain who engages audiences by inviting them into his schemes, showing the terrible potential of self-invention. But there also is a complicated backstory of relationships that, if they are not cut out of the evening’s narrative altogether, must be diagrammed in the playbill to explain the intricacies of royal succession.
Shakespeare encompasses infinite promise. Scholar Harold Bloom (no relation to Allan) suggested that the “upstart Crow,” in the description of an Elizabethan-era critic, invented our conception of human identity. He did so in a manner that allows — requires — so much interpretation.
Among the many versions of Romeo & Juliet I’ve witnessed come to a star-crossed conclusion are a strictly traditional-dress version, including young men playing both title characters (sans décolletage) and a fat old man playing the Nurse; another adaptation featuring a frame story of four students in an exclusive all-male prep school discovering the script, then deciding to act out the romance for themselves; and a very conventional staging, except with an Asian American who has made a career as the female lead.
None of this is to slight the accomplishment of cinematic versions. Baz Luhrman’s 1996 big-screen extravaganza, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes (replacing Natalie Portman, who appeared too authentically young for comfort), is an excellent introduction to the canon. The spectacle inspires further study. If it eventually leads a viewer to the erudite revisions of the Oxford Shakespeare edition, then all the better.
At his best, Shakespeare is accessible. The iambic pentameter may take a moment to become accustomed to, but it has a natural rhythm and rhyme. The after-dinner speaker who wishes to impress turns to Shakespeare for a quote, even now. As W.E.B. DuBois, America’s first public intellectual who was a “race man,” declared, “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not.”
The words know no bounds. Michael Kahn, the impresario behind the Shakespeare Theatre in the nation’s capitol, the finest company performing classical works in the United States, once put on King Lear with a deaf Cordelia. The deserving daughter employed sign language; the Fool was her interpreter.
Even the problems of Shakespeare become opportunities. Merchant of Venice, with its background of anti-Semitism, was a comedy in its time. Perhaps inspired by Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, its depiction of the money-lender, Shylock, humiliated, and his daughter forced to assimilate are meant to inspire ridicule of the subjects and applause for their fate.
Our remedy has been to make Shylock the star with an actor who is a star. He upstages his tormentors. For example, Broadway presents us Dustin Hoffman in what is not the title role.
I have enjoyed Othello with Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: Next Generation fame, in a role reversal: the soldier Moor, portrayed by a muscle-bound Stewart, was white; the faithless Iago and the faithful Desdemona were black. I’ve been thrilled by Macbeth, the Scottish play, as understood by Akira Kurosawa, the masterful Japanese movie director who turned it into Throne of Blood, brought back once again to the stage, culminating in the usurper shot through by his own men, doubled over with arrows protruding. I was troubled by Measure for Measure set in early 1960s Mississippi, with a half-black, half-white cast that made a drama about gender and power an even more troubling reflection on miscegenation and civil rights. I laughed out loud at Much Ado About Nothing, placed in a latter-day Italian American diner, with Leonato’s brother replaced to salutary effect by a spouse who was in every scene and who voiced a few crucial lines.
The terrific contemporary directors I’ve seen in action include Mary Zimmerman, whose Pericles at the Shakespeare Theatre, was visually spectacular, and Rob Melrose, whose Troilus & Cressida of American generals camped out in Afghanistan, produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, made me wonder why it is not offered more often. They are the type of vital artists upon whom Shakespeare depends. Without them his legacy is academic.
I like to talk theatre. I have never been involved in drama directly, but there is always a need for good audience members. To be a fan of live theatre, or in the quaint phrase, “legitimate theatre,” is to embrace life itself. No virtual reality yet captures the same feelings as people before you inhabiting a world at once artificial and actual — and I hope we never progress to the point of giving up that exhilaration.
Shakespeare Is Hot Again
The pop culture interest in Shakespeare is driven by his plays ubiquitous themes, which translate well to today’s audience. “The heightened drama and emotions in Shakespeare’s plays feel very true to the experience of being a teenager,” Askew said. “Many of his characters are young people facing the same issues teens and — and adults — will always face: the drama of falling in (and out of) love, dysfunctional families, the question of where you rank in the social sphere…it’s very easy to take his universal themes and make them relatable to the modern era. His plays are very ‘of the now’ in whatever time period they’re read.”
Is GOP Suffering From a Hamlet Complex?
Something is rotten in the halls of Congress. After a post-election epiphany where the Republican Party became aware of its own relationship faults with Latino and immigrant communities, House and Senate Republicans rushed to show their first efforts to fulfill the immigration void. But their remedies are crumbs versus the full loaf of economic and social benefits that would come from common sense immigration reform.
This week, the House will likely vote on the STEM Job Acts, a partisan special interest bill authored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who in a recent editorial called an ABC News/Washington Post poll — which found that 57 percent of Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants — biased and “skews results to support the media’s predetermined notions.” Just as Smith clearly refuses to accept the public’s unequivocal backing for such a reform, so too do the Republicans refuse to see what’s right in front of their faces.
Or perhaps they are suffering from a Hamlet complex: Are they mad or are they actually scheming? Conservative support of the STEM bill is no substitute for a real, comprehensive immigration reform. This proposal takes away the potential opportunities and contributions of others, most notably those of African immigrants, that require legal visas and provides no further relief to the backlog of visa petitions.
It also comes with a big trick: permanent residents’ families would be able to wait for their visas in the U.S. but the family members would not be allowed to work. Asking immigrants to wait years without working to help support their families is an unrealistic, gotcha measure which would obviously lead to even more deportations and broken families. The STEM bill, unfortunately, is simply a political ploy by the GOP to garner the attention of Latino voters and hope that they think, “Hey, Republicans are trying to be an inclusive party.”
But if Latinos are still not convinced, two departing GOP senators from border states — Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona — have offered the ACHIEVE Act, a challenge to the DREAM Act. This bill appears to offer young immigrants opportunities to gain legal status like the DREAM Act, but delays for years any chance at citizenship. Here again lies an age-old problem of the GOP — their hubris under the guise of friendliness and empathy that produces a plan that is never really intended to work.
Perhaps the GOP should go back to the drawing board and index card the election exit poll results to not forget what actually happened just a few weeks ago. Over 12.5 million Latino voters went to the polls this year to emphasize their growing numbers and influence in America. The message couldn’t have been clearer: We exist, we’re listening, we’re voting and if you don’t pay attention, we will hold you accountable.
President Obama and Democrats acknowledged the Latino community’s voices and power during the recent campaign season, while conservatives chose to dismiss an obvious presence and their demands. It proved to be a costly mistake that can be easily avoided in the future if they get serious about developing policies that take into account the demographic shift.
Latinos aren’t fooled by such measures that reward one set of immigrants over others and, most importantly, don’t provide a path to citizenship for individuals who are every bit American. The immense Latino vote this year wasn’t about voting for Band-Aid solutions to a very complex wound in our immigration system. Our vote was for the promise of a comprehensive immigration reform that would address all the issues currently affecting immigrant families, DREAMers, workers and their employers.
It’s time to leave all the political pandering behind and come together in an effort to write legislation that’s not only comprehensive and fair in its nature, but also allows undocumented immigrants who have planted their roots in our country an immediate opportunity to earn citizenship and one day, finally, cast a ballot that resoundingly echoes their voice.
The future is here. Republicans would do well to understand the benefits, political, economic and social, of an immigration reform that’s inclusive and makes true, civic participants out of immigrants. Or if not, they might as well embrace their own tragic end.
A Liberal Ayn Rand?
It’s no secret that the right is awash in Ayn Rand. Tea Partiers carry signs like “Who is John Galt?” and, astonishing for a novel published 55 years ago, sales of Atlas Shrugged topped 445,000 last year.
All of this has prompted researchers like Yale historian Beverly Gage to wonder, “Why is there no liberal Ayn Rand?” Good question. Liberals today, Gage observes, have no long-term goals or vision, no big ideas, no canon.
Here’s a radical thought. Instead of liberals dismissing Rand’s appeal to the American spirit of individualism and independence, as President Obama recently did in his Rolling Stone interview, why don’t liberals make Rand part of a new canon? Why let conservatives monopolize her?
Rand herself I suspect would have welcomed this. In a talk in Boston in 1961, she lamented the fact that both liberals and conservatives were ideologically bankrupt, with too many liberals turning sympathetically to unlimited government and too many conservatives turning back to the Middle Ages. She was seeking to address, she said, “the ‘non-totalitarian liberals’ and the ‘non-traditional conservatives'” in the audience.
Her message that night was the need for a principled, uncompromising fight for a moral ideal she thought long abandoned by both sides, the rights of the individual. This means life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness: your moral right to follow your own reasoned judgment in earning your way in the world and achieving your happiness.
Religious conservatives like Paul Ryan have to distance themselves from Rand’s philosophy. Theirs is an inconsistent position. Ryan, for instance, wants to be seen as an advocate of individual rights while simultaneously making a mockery of a woman’s right to the pursuit of happiness by proposing to force her to bring a pregnancy to term even in the case of rape.
Rand rejects such medievalism. Precisely because raising a child is a personal and immense undertaking, a woman must have the freedom to judge whether and when to have children. To equate an embryo with a human being, a potential with the actual, and then to declare the willful ending of a pregnancy murder, is to abandon reason and science in favor of mystical Church dogmas. No government, Rand argued, should have the power to dictate to a woman in such matters; it’s her life and her decision.
The same principle — the individual’s moral right to his own life — put Rand on the side of other supposedly liberal causes: she was a staunch defender of free speech and immigration and a staunch opponent of racism. But this very principle led Rand to reject what too many liberal-leaning people seemingly dare not even question: the modern regulatory-welfare state.
What in the end is the regulatory-welfare state but a massive and growing attempt to override our reasoned choices and decisions: to dictate to us whose permission we must obtain to drive a taxi or serve alcohol in a restaurant, what questions we’re allowed to ask in a job interview, whose health care we must pay for and in what way, how much we must “save” for retirement (which the government then proceeds to spend), and on and on and on.
Take the case of but one regulatory agency, the FDA. The FDA wasn’t created to outlaw fraud, which was already illegal. It exists to tell us which drugs we can buy, companies which drugs they can sell, how those drugs must be tested and how manufactured. What if people rationally disagree with the government’s dictates? What if a company thinks it has developed a better way of testing for efficacy or an unconventional but superior manufacturing process? What if a patient is willing to risk known and even unknown side effects because of the unusual severity of his disease? If the decision about abortion should be left to a woman (in consultation with her doctor), why shouldn’t these important decisions be solely between the individuals involved? Because they are economic in nature, and therefore subject to majority vote?
This is precisely one issue on which Rand challenges modern liberals: whether it’s consistent to advocate an individual’s intellectual and personal liberty while denying him economic liberty.
It wasn’t always so. Liberals in the nineteenth century were champions of science and at the forefront of abolishing slavery and securing a woman’s individual rights. But they were also champions of private property, free trade and economic liberty. It is this combination that produced the individual’s unprecedented progress in that century. Modern liberals, however, abandoned the right to private property in favor of various socialistic visions, which have since faded with awareness of what socialism and communism actually wrought. The result is what Gage notes: modern liberals bereft of an ideal.
Any liberal-leaning person today who seeks long-term goals and a new vision, but will not touch the political right because of conservatives’ anti-evolution, anti-immigration, anti-abortion platforms, would do well to remember nineteenth-century liberalism. Perhaps the two alternatives confronting us, a government with virtually unlimited power to dictate our personal lives or our economic lives, are both defective.
For anyone willing to explore this possibility, I can think of no better place to start than with Ayn Rand.
5 God Excuses to Avoid After a Natural Disaster
In a disaster aftermath, whether caused by hurricane or earthquake or tsunami, the right impulse is to rush in with appropriate relief. For people of faith, too often this same “rush in” model is applied to making excuses for God.
This comes to mind today — now — after conversations both with friends in Haiti and my sister in Manhattan in Sandy’s wake. After Haiti’s earthquake, I wrote about avoiding these kinds of statements in this excerpt:
We grope at straws trying to make sense of the suffering. To fill the silence, we say things that are sincere but sometimes silly. We find slivers of Scripture that prop up our defense, but do we want the kind of God that the logic of our straw-patched statements creates?
“What a miracle how that girl was pulled from the rubble!”
The straw God spoken into being by this statement is one whose power and compassion are disturbingly out of whack. If God could orchestrate the rescue of the one, then why wouldn’t God have protected the many in the first place?
Friends in Port-au-Prince told me about an 8-year-old girl who survived when the building she was in collapsed — but her mom and sister died in front of her, and her father had died some years ago. She wandered the streets in shock. Days later someone found her and got her back to her village. At that point, do you say, “What a miracle of God that she survived and was brought back to her village”? Isn’t that like a babysitter taking your three children out for a canoe ride, returning with only one — because the other two drowned — and then expecting to be congratulated for bringing back one of the three alive?
“Well, people down there have always been really poor, right?” Or “They believe in Voodoo, right?”
Most people avoid saying these types of statements (one prominent TV personality aside) because when said aloud the monstrous logic is so clear. But I have heard them spoken in conversations, and they often seem to linger in the background as a way to find some order. The logic implied is that God’s rain falls on the just and unjust, but God’s judgment is highly selective and tends to fall especially hard on those who are poor (and whose skin isn’t white). But what about my friend Emmanual? He is a pastor and a motorcycle taxi driver. When the earthquake struck, he was out working on his motorcycle. Hundreds of people in his church (including two of his sisters and a brother) were together at a prayer service in the name of Christ. They were all killed. God, then, must not judge only harshly — at least that would be consistent — but also capriciously and disproportionately. The victims are to blame for the crime.
“At least they’re in a better place now.”
Even if we believe eternal life is true, which I do, that doesn’t reduce present suffering, does it? And it’s not a fair dismissal of suffering, because God put such value on this life. Nobody, not believer or atheist or anyone in between, is certain about whether there is a next life. Conceivably any suffering on earth could be eclipsed by the goodness of what is to come, but meanwhile a statement like this simply creates a monstrous God for whom the ends (even if they torture people) justify the means.
“Isn’t it amazing that we … happened to be there at just the right time to help?”
This self-help God provides suffering to some as an opportunity for others to express compassion or work on self-improvement. This wouldn’t be an all-bad God if everyone made it through. Suffering can be positive for both the helpers and those being helped. But it’s far from positive for everyone. Some die. Some suffer too much to ever recover. Others fail the opportunity for self-improvement and live lives of disappointment (often taken out on their own children). And doesn’t this create a God who is a buffoon of a logistician — who can coordinate getting one group into the perfect place, but for some incompetence couldn’t get the young mother off the porch before the concrete blocks collapsed on her?
“We might not understand, but it’s all part of God’s plan.” Or “It was meant to be.”
Wouldn’t any plan this flawed be sent back for major revisions before it could be put into place? The architect says, “Here’s the building design, but occasionally the elevator will malfunction and a dozen or so people will plummet to death. The water piped in for the daycare is occasionally radioactive and will cause slow, painful deaths for some of the children. Oh, and the entire building will collapse in the middle of the business day every few years, but we’ll rebuild.” Um, back to the drawing board please. This platitude about God’s plan is often said citing the verse in Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for good,” but surely the assertion of faith is that “in all things God works for the good of those who love God,” that God eventually overcomes evil with good, not that all this madness is part of a detailed plan.
But without these simplifications, what can we say to fill the heavy silence? The simple answers are all unsatisfying as attempts to settle the aftershocks of suffering. Hopefully, in faith and doubt, part of faithfulness is to keep asking, listening and asking again.