“I stole all courtesy from heaven and dressed myself in such humility that I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts.”—Henry IV Part 1, Act 3, Scene 2.
American actors, as most of us know, are overwhelmingly liberal; one estimate is that only perhaps 1% of Hollywood’s entertainment industry is made up of conservatives. (Even the “NY Times” admits as much—although it tries mightily to prettify the reasons for such bias.) Clint Eastwood is a legendary force in movie-making, as both actor and director; but even his unabashed, outspoken libertarian-conservatism gets lost amidst the PC rants of Tinseltown, epitomized by Robert Di Niro’s boorish and jejune tantrums.
What about British actors, particularly Shakespearean ones? Checking the backgrounds of 15 well-known UK thespians famous for appearing in the Bard’s plays (a “top 14” list, as well as Benedict Cumberbatch), less than half–only six—give evidence of being decidedly Left: Mark Rylance, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Derek Jacobi, Vanessa Redgrave, and Cumberbatch. So perhaps the London stage is not as politically tendentious as Los Angeles film sets. It would seem the same is not true of young Americans doing Shakepeare, however—at least based on personal experience. Some years ago I played Leonato in a production of Much Ado About Nothing at the college where I taught at the time. Most of the cast was comprised of college students or young actors and actresses who had recently graduated. Not surprisingly, many were—as I recall from conversations with them—quite liberal. (In fact, some seemed shocked that a conservative faculty member liked Shakespeare, much less had the ability to memorize lines.) In addition, my wife and I regularly attend the excellent versions of Shakepeare’s plays put on by Atlanta’s superb Shakespeare Tavern. I’ve gotten used to the bio notes of actors—usually, but not only, the recent college grads—proclaiming that they “punch Nazis” or support LGBT. (My automatic response to such virtue signalling is to order another ale and, while drinking, wonder bemusedly whether anyone who majored in theater arts has ever actually been in a real fight.)
So, then, actors are overwhelmingly liberal, Shakespearean ones arguably less so. But what about those who write on Shakespeare? Well, college faculty overall are also overwhelmingly liberal or “progressive,” by a factor of over 11:1. In English departments, where the Bard is still sometimes studied, at least 8 of 10 professors self-identify as liberals and fewer than 1 in 10 as conservative. (At least that’s better than my own academic field, history—where “liberals outnumber conservatives by a 33 ½ to 1 ratio”). And only about 7% of journalists are conservatives. So when the greatest playwright in the history of the human race is adduced, in books or articles, to support a political agenda, one can safely predict that Will’s heroes will probably be Democrats, and his villains Republican—a tradition going back to the Left’s typecasting of Nixon as Richard III.
The Tower of London Keep, from our trip there, spring 2018. Bodies are buried about the grounds, although the building lacks a secret tape recording system.
Typical of the academy’s weaponizing of Shakespeare against conservatives is Stephen Greenblatt’s anti-Trump screed disguised as scholarship: Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (Norton, 2018). Without even naming the current American President, the eminent Shakespeare scholar and Harvard professor makes it clear that The Donald is Jack Cade, who led a lower-class revolt in Henry VI’s time. But wait! He’s really as depraved as Richard III. Or as murderous as Macbeth. Or as crazy as King Lear. Or as self-absorbed as Coriolanus. Or more likely, a million times worse than all of them put together (to paraphrase The Simpsons’ Kent Brockman, reporting on “Krisis at Kamp Krusty”). Herewith is a sampling of Greenblatt’s thinly-diluted venom. “Populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation” (p. 35). “[A]n effective demagogue” is “the master of voodoo economics” (p. 37). Like Cade, the modern leader of fraudulent populism “promises to make England great again” (p. 41). But like Richard III, “he can devote himself to bullying those who possess the natural endowments he lacks” (p. 58). Macbeth, unlike Richard, finally realizes the emptiness of his deeds and life, but Greenblatt insists that “[i]t is difficult to picture the tyrants of our times having any such moment of truthful reckoning” (p. 111). Trump, like Lear, is an “impulsive narcissist” who “should not have control even of a very small army” (p. 118). Only the Fool—“the equivalent of a late-night comedian”—can speak truth to his power (p. 118). Coriolanus, like the other patricians of ancient Rome, only wants small amounts of wealth to “trickle down” (p. 161) to the scorned plebians. “In civilized states, we expect leaders to have achieved…a minimal level of self-control…. Not so Coriolanus: here we are dealing instead with and overgrown child’s narcissism, insecurity, cruelty, and folly…” (pp. 165-66). Is there any doubt whom Greenblatt sees as Coriolanus’ modern incarnation? Or this, when dissecting Coriolanus’ defection to the Volscians after he is defeated for consul: “It is as if the leader of a political party long identified with hatred of Russia…should secretly make his way to Moscow and offer his services to the Kremlin” (p. 178). It’s not just Shakespeare, it seems, who is “[m]aster of the oblique angle” (184). But Greenblatt lets the mask slip—intentionally, no doubt—in his “Acknowledgments:” “Not so very long ago…I sat in a verdant garden in Sardinia and expressed my growing apprehensions about the possible outcome of an upcoming election. My historian friend…asked me what I was doing about it. ‘What can I do?’ I asked. ‘You can write something,’ he said. And so I did” (p. 192).
Journalists and other progressive politicizers of the Bard who can’t afford to vacation in bucolic Mediterranean settings are less circumspect, but no less convinced, that Trump is a Shakespeare-level despot-villain. Googling “Trump dicatator” produces 28.5 million results. (My hands-down favorite: “Trump’s Dictator Chic,” about how his taste in furnishings is somehow Mussolini-esque.) Peruse the many articles—some thoughtful, many not—on this topic and you’ll see that Greenblatt had already identified the primary possible Bardian analogs for President Trump: Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Coriolanus. None of them—with the possible exception of Lear, who was of course insane—is a sympathetic figure. So the Left’s scribblers, who wield Shakespeare with all the subtlety of a broadsword, give us Trump as conniving, twisted pedicide; murderous usurper; mad monarch; infantile traitor—or some poisonous combination thereof.
Trump as Lear never really works, unless one subscribes to the ludicrous notion that the 45th President is indeed insane. Macbeth is a flat-out killer, a category which might suit Vladimir Putin (at least in his past KGB career) but not Trump. Richard III is a better fit—albeit in ways that the Left might not like—insofar as he, like Trump, “though…neither good nor merciful…is every endearing thing else. He is brave, witty, resourceful, gay, swift, disarmingly candid with himself, engagingly sly with his enemies” (as per John Palmer, Political and Comic Characters of Shakespeare, Macmillan & Co., 1965, p. 65; I will rely heavily upon this splendid work in the rest of this essay). “He never sins, for sin implies a breach of the moral law accepted by the sinner. Richard has his own code. To that he is always faithful and so lives happy as the day is long” (p. 85). Sound familiar? Stormy Daniels may not be Lady Anne, but one might well see Trump’s “success” with the former in much the same register as Richard’s with the latter. Of course, Richard’s (alleged) murder of his nephew Edward V’s young sons has no parallel in the career of Trump, “a recognisable type of public person who wins our sympathy by conducting himself with a refreshing candour” but does not “kill little children in their beds” (p. 101). “What we like and admire about Richard”—and Trump—“is that he knows, as the politicians seldom know, precisely what he is doing. He presents the situation for what it is and makes no bones about it. We relish his exposure of a truth which in various forms and disguises is a matter of common observation (p. 101). Still, the differences between Richard III and Donald Trump are greater than the similarities. Trump has no bodily deformity driving his psyche, and in the final analysis Richard III is simply evil—despite the “sinister magnificence” of his intelligence and eloquence—in a way that only the most infected with Trump Derangement Syndrome would ascribe to the President. Among recent Presidents, Bill Clinton would appear to be more of in the mold of Richard III than Trump, it might well be argued–with his roguish charm, keen intellect and total lack of a moral center.
The proud, arrogant yet adolescent Roman commander Caius Marcius Coriolanus is the other major Shakespeare political figure of whom Trump is often said to be an epigone. Coriolanus is perhaps the Bard’s most overtly political play (Palmer, p. 250) and while “finely praised, but little loved” (p. 308) in England (and, presumably, the US) has proved popular in France (p. 307). Of course, the protagonist (insofar as he fits that definition) is a war hero, quite unlike Trump—and the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius who oppose his election as consul “are not concerned with the motives of Marcius [Coriolanus]…but with the dangers inherent in his character…” (p. 260). Coriolanus is incensed when he is rejected for the office, not in “protest against the political dishonesty of the course to which he is invited” but solely because of the affront to his “personal dignity” (p. 279). The self-righteous general then defects to Rome’s mortal enemy Volsci, and to his antagonist Tullus Aufidius—who eventually has Coriolanus killed, after the Roman refuses to conquer his own city. While Greenblatt and Bill Kristol might see Aufidius as Putin, the reality is that Trump has never betrayed his country in such fashion. To find a Coriolanus analog in American history, we might have to go back to Benedict Arnold—for no President really exhibits such Shakespearean characteristics.
Always talking of Crusading, but never doing it–in the play: Henry IV (from Wikipedia, public domain).
I propose another view of Trump, also mining Shakespeare, but one far less negative: as Henry IV. But to grasp the logic of that, we must first examine his rival and erstwhile superior: Richard of Bordeaux, or Richard II. Henry and Richard were cousins, each with a legitimate claim to the throne; the latter, who actually ruled for years before being deposed, was according to Shakespeare “unfitted to rule…coping ineffectually with men of the world who adapt themselves to the event” (p. 121). Richard II “is concerned with public affairs and the kind of men [and women!] who in every generation delude themselves into the belief that they are making history” (p. 121). The proximate cause for Henry’s rebellion is King Richard’s seizure of the former’s estate. But as John Julius Norwich explains at some length in Shakespeare’s Kings (Viking, 1999), Richard’s reign was marked by “quite alarming arrogance, self-indulgence and irresponsibility” (p. 73) and “blind devotion to his favourites” (p. 74), such as Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and, for a time, Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham—with whom Henry famously quarrels in the play. Even the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 failed to change Richard’s behavior, epitomized by “continuing to spend money like water and resorting to tantrums at the first breath of criticism” (p. 78). Richard banishes Henry, who then returns with an army to…what? At first, he “gives no sign of his purpose—and for an excellent reason. He is that most dangerous of all climbing politicans, the man who will go futher than his rivals because he never allows himself to know where he is going” (Palmer, p. 134). But Henry and his forces move toward London, gaining supporters as they go, until he sees that “[h]is chance has come and he seizes it” (p. 161)—and thus the throne. Richard, meanwhile, retreats into self-pity and victimhood, blaming everyone and everything but himself for the loss of the throne which was his by divine right. Ultimately, “Richard failed because he had no principles at all….(p. 177). Richard is the most self-centered character in all the Bard’s canon, and the one least able to communicate with, and understand, the common man (p. 178).
And who is today’s Richard II? Why, Hillary Clinton, of course. Her toxic mix of self-entitlement and political maladroitness is perfectly Richardian, even if she never actually achieved the pinnacle of power. Remember, most polls and much of the public expected her to demolish Trump in the 2016 election. President Obama said that Hillary was “the most qualified Presidential candidate ever,” and while her divine right to the office was not quite articulated, we were told that those who voted for Trump would reserve themselves a “special place in hell.” Hillary had barely lost the 2008 Democrat nomination, remember, to Obama. So by November 2016 “Narcissus [was] already absorbed in the contemplation of [her] royal image” (Palmer, p. 152). Trump did not win due to Russian “collusion” but because Hillary, like Richard II, was “dangerously unpopular” with large segments of the population–including, most tellingly, many blue-collar Americans who had voted previously for Obama in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin–enabling Trump, like Henry, to “rally virtually the whole country to his banner” (Norwich, p. 3)–a major factor which the play Richard II really does not explain, leaving the readers/crowd to assume “Bolingbroke” was only motivated by the king’s unjust dispossession of his lands.
So Hillary’s coronation was stymied by Trump’s march to the Presidency, which unfolded very much in the mold of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, as his character is revealed in Richard II and in Henry IV Part I. But which Henry of Lancaster presages Trump best? That of “a long-headed conspirator, consciously bent on obtaining the crown from the outset…deliberately advancing step by step to the achievement of his purpose?” Or, instead, “a man who…appears to be borne upwards by a power beyond his volition”—in whom “there is no premeditation…no indication of a deep design.” Rather, there is a third portrayal, even more apt: that of a “political opportunist” who “instinctively adapts himself to the moment. His intentions remain obscure, even to himself, till they are in effect fulfilled. He thus conveys the impression that he is just as much the victim of necessity as master of the event….” (p. 136). The fates, it seems, guided his steps, from the Trump Tower escalator to the Oval Office.
From real estate mogul to reality TV star to President of the most powerful country in human history—Trump has risen even further than Henry of Lancaster. The two formidable characteristics that drove Henry’s political triumph are shared by Trump: an instinct for doing the right thing at the right time; and the ability to connect with those below his socioeconomic class. What Norwich said about Henry vis-à-vis Richard equally applies to Trump in respect to Hillary : “his easy charm was a far cry from Richard’s cold and haughty majesty” (Shakespeare’s Kings, p. 118).
In the final analysis, one must admit, enlisting Shakespeare in any political cause is a quixotic quest, not least because “[h]is main concern was not so much with the politics as with the men who made them” (Palmer, p. viii). Still, it’s a labor of love to turn the table on liberals who hack at conservative politicians with Shakespearean broadswords. I’ve tried to employ, on the contrary, a Bardian rapier against Hillary and the Left. Let me know if I’ve succeeded.
Stage combat weapons at The Globe, London (from our family trip there, spring 2018). Note the abundance of exquisite Elizabethan rapiers!
Here’s a fun quiz on the “Shakespeare & Beyond” blog: “if Shakespeare characters were running for President, who would you vote for?” I got Henry V! Deus vult!