What William Shakespeare would think of our recent election will never be discovered by those who cite words without taking the trouble to examine them…

Persons who look up to others sometimes ask what they would advise. What would Jesus or Allah, Lincoln or Lenin, F.D.R. or Reagan, tell me to do? they wonder. But elections stir the passions and so others feel sure their hero thinks just as they already do, and they sometimes tell the rest of us what that is. During our Civil War, President Lincoln was often visited by those sure of God’s advice. And so in our recent election, Shakespeare has been drawn into our presidential fray. Were he living at this hour, what would Shakespeare tell us?


Back in the spring on main-stream National Public Radio, Bob Mondello cited a tour of some Shakespeare manuscripts, in order to highlight the one passage in Shakespeare’s own hand, in The Book of Thomas More, in which More gentles a mob raging against immigrant workers, by appealing to their compassion were they too immigrants. What if you were banished:

whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,/
Should give you harbour. Go you to France or Flanders,/
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,/
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England:/
Why, you must needs be strangers

Interspersing other lines, delivered by Sir Ian McKellen, Mondello guided listeners to consider their relevance to “immigration reform.” Thus by aligning calls for immigration reform with the cries of an Elizabethan mob, NPR did not need to actually name those they would have us rebuke as meanies.

Throughout, NPR assumed that More speaks for Shakespeare. There is some reason to, for More shines in the play, so dangerously that though the cause of his losing his head is not mentioned, the Master of the Revels was not wrong to warn about any performance without revisions: “att your owne perilles.” And in support of the identification of Shakespeare with his More, it might be added that Shakespeare boarded in London on Silver Street with an immigrant Huguenot family, and boarded so agreeably he furthered the marriage of their daughter to the apprentice, as one might expect from the author of so many comedies in which he matched handsome Jacks with intelligent Jills.

That apart, the sentiments in More’s speech that NPR presented are noble, the end of peace worthy, and the argument for it strong, for who would contradict the Golden Rule (“let us do as we may be done by”)? However, what policies accord with the sentiment, what selection of immigrants to make, what recompenses to provide those displaced, and how Christian solace for fugitives is to be squared with the integrity of a nation, are not specified by More. Still, NPR and Mr. Mondello did not exhort, did not insist, only asked us to consider what Shakespeare’s More says, and by quoting Shakespeare, did invite us to read more.

And if one does read more, what does one find? Not what one expected. More’s discourse is not about “immigration reform,” or any reform, at all. The compassion More urges the mob to feel for strangers is not a policy, not common law, or legislation; it is a passion grounded in the love of oneself intelligently understood; it warns: Since life is filled with changes, chances, adversities, imagine yourself a possible future immigrant. And More’s appeal is introduced by the threat of banishment by the King: What if he banished you, made you an immigrant? Compassion and fear are alike invoked to persuade the destructive mob to obey the King, to lay down their arms, to stop rioting, and disperse now. More’s words could, then, be cited to pacify mobs like Occupy destroying businesses, mobs in Fergusson supporting thugs, crowds in Baltimore assailing the law, and cowardly snipers in Dallas murdering police protecting a peaceable assembly.

But wait! Could NPR be more than usually subtle, super subtle, beneath its “Minnesota nice” demeanor? After all, Shakespeare’s More is actually urging the mob to obey a King, beg forgiveness from Him, and if they do, More promises to seek pardon for them. Could NPR, centuries after our Declaration of Independence, be recommending a repentant return to the British crown? More likely they prefer a modern version, the collective monarchy of enlightened experts, anointed by “History,” call them Royal Progressives, turning us citizens back into subjects, and extinguishing our self-governing Republic?

NPR did cite some worthy words, but not the whole speech that framed, subordinated, and governed that part. Shakespeare’s More may well speak for Shakespeare, but what Shakespeare would think of our recent election will never be discovered by those who cite words without taking the trouble to examine them.


A month from the election, sterner stuff was supplied from another orifice of the main-stream media. On October 8, in the New York Times, Prof. Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard reminded us voters how a ruler, such as ugly Richard III, though declaring his evil intents, even brazening them, and despite being reviled for them, can nonetheless out-maneuver selfish rivals and overwhelm a frightened people. In pointing to Shakespeare’s exposure of democratic acquiescence to tyranny, the language Prof. Greenblatt uses to describe Richard—‘entitled,’ ‘wealthy,’ “psychopath,” ‘bully,’ of someone who when soliciting votes, slanders opponents, displays ‘fraudulent religious piety,’ and exaggerates a “threat to national security”—all suggest who as well as Richard III, Prof. Greenblatt would have us not vote for in this presidential year of 2016. (Even more to his purpose might have been the outrageous Jack Cade with his ‘kill all the lawyers’ and his love of the Latin-less ‘poorly educated,’ but Cade was not trying to be elected, and Richard III does trump up a kind of election [3.7].) Prof. Greenblatt ends with an appeal: ‘Do not think it cannot happen, and do not stay silent or waste your vote.’

Of course, this appeal would be good to heed, though perhaps not his nudge about against whom to vote. After all, Shakespeare is so very large.

Shakespeare said everything. Brain to belly; every mood and minute of a man’s season. His language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and moon. He wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like heart-beats. He speaks to everyone and we all claim him but it’s wise to remember, if we would really appreciate him, that he doesn’t properly belong to us but to another world; a florid and entirely remarkable world that smelled assertively of columbine and gun powder and printer’s ink, and was vigorously dominated by Elizabeth. (Orson Welles)

It should not surprise us, then, that so large a sweep as Shakespeare’s includes more than one form of political corruption. In truth, he knows them all, both the strong like Richard III and the weak, like Henry VI, and all the causes people fail to oppose them. His portraits of tyrannical souls, of Iago and Edmund and Iachimo, and of tyrannical rulers, of Claudius, Henry VIII, and Richard III, are among the greatest gifts ever bestowed upon a people, so that they might recognize their mortal enemies and resist them. Would that the German- and Russian-speaking peoples had such, though through translation all peoples everywhere can acquire Shakespeare’s gift.[i]

Shakespeare is also deep. As Dryden said, “Shakespeare was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul.” Thus, from the same human condition, that we are born, and born children, not adults, born innocent, vulnerable, promising, and lovable, from this condition spring both Richard III’s evil and the good English resistance to him, and might distinguish our presidential candidates. All his life, even from a child, Richard was reviled for his misshapen body, even by his mother; that he swears by St. Paul five or more times, as no one else in Shakespeare ever does, points to the Divine damnation, even from birth, he feels condemning his innocent self; from such misery and his recoiling rage spring his general misanthropy and specific hatred of all well-formed human beings, and in particular the spritely boy princes he has smothered somewhere in the Tower. But from a similar solicitude for the innocent child also springs the overthrow of Richard. In their hearts, the English abhor the murder of those spritely boy princes. Indeed, Shakespeare stands out from all his co-rivals in presenting children, and even babies, on stage, as no other of his confrere dramatists do. That it is this “pro-life” indignation at the slaughter of these innocents that, together with young Richmond’s army, ousts the tyrant, suggests Shakespeare would frown upon any “pro-death” presidential candidate. Certainly to favor the partial infanticide of exposure is to join the insanely jealous Leontes in The Winter’s Tale.

Another warning one might take away from spending time with Shakespeare is that the correspondences to evil are much richer than any single one. Consider Richard III’s treatment of women. In but a matter of minutes Richard seduces Lady Anne, whose father-in-law he has murdered, whose husband he has murdered—and it is her husband’s corpse she is escorting! This is surely abuse. And of soul more than body. It is rape of the will, and yet like all seduction, it has the seducee as an enabler. So we have what we now call an abuser of women, and, in Lady Anne, what we now call an enabler. Which direction might that point in our recent election? If not… two ways?

In the same Henry VI plays in which swaggering Richard emerges, Shakespeare gives us more than one villain for us voters to shun. The ever hooded, ever grasping, mis-educator of the young king, Cardinal Beaufort, always opposes the Lord Protector of the commonwealth, the good Duke Humphrey, whose murder he contrives. And the motive of all the Cardinal’s striving, Shakespeare exposes in his fevered end. He does not confess, like Cardinal Wolsey: “Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my king, he would not in my age have left me naked to mine enemies” in Henry VIII, 3.2.455ff. (That these words were recited by Senator Sam Ervin near the beginning of the Senate Watergate Committee means they were heard by all the staffers, including the young Hillary Rodham Clinton.) No, facing his end, Cardinal Beaufort confesses nothing, regrets nothing, and reveals everything about his whole life. Facing God’s agent, Death, he offers all he has ever valued most:

If thou beest death, I’ll give thee England’s treasure
Enough to purchase such another island,
So thou wilt let me live and feel no pain. (2 Henry VI, 3.3)

In the Cardinal, who all his life sought wealth, appropriated the donations of the faithful, who would now give it all, nay would give the whole commonwealth, to live a little more, in such a mercenary soul, Shakespeare warns any electorate of those consumed with the lust for wealth. But again, would this point to one candidate, or both? And that a disqualifying lust for wealth might include the poor, Shakespeare portrays in Jack Cade and all the ressentiment he stirs up to tax the wealthy, or murder them, like that villainous one-percenter, the gracious Lord Say (2 Henry VI, 4.7).

And the measure of all souls consumed with lust, lust for wealth, lust for honor, and lust for power, is the man who slays the fleeting Cade, namely yeoman Alexander Iden, who simply enjoys in life what he has:

Lord, who would live turmoiled in the court
And may enjoy such quiet walks as these?
This small inheritance my father left me
Contenteth me, and worth a monarchy.
I seek not to wax great by others waning,
Or gather wealth, I care not with what envy
Sufficeth that I have maintains my state
And send the poor well pleased from my gate. (2 Henry VI. 4.10)

Reading that, we might ask, who among our candidates in 2016 is not in public life for gross unjust gains?[ii]

Why is cupidinous Cardinal Beaufort not recognized as unqualified and opposed? The answer in the Henry VI plays seems to be because every nobleman, except Duke Humphrey and for a time the Nevilles, is just like the Cardinal, all for themselves and not the commonwealth. Accordingly, just as it is hard for the English in the play, or we viewing the play, to choose who, after Humphrey is strangled, we would support, so it might, for Shakespeare, as for us, be hard to choose between ambitious rivals in our time.

In all the uses of Shakespeare during our election, Mr. Trump was most often cast as Richard III, while the fewer attempts to characterize Secretary Clinton almost always come up with Lady Macbeth, for being cold, contriving, vengeful.[iii] Yet, so far as I have seen, though some comparisons to Lady Macbeth allude to her willingness to bash her own babe to death (I.7.54 ff.), none recognizes in it the militant preference for career over motherhood, and to that end, the sacrifice of children, out of the womb and a fortiori in. Nor, on the other hand, from her speaking of greatness (I.5.11), has anyone felt warned by Shakespeare that those who speak of greatness are usually up to no good.[iv] With more than thirty works and 900 characters, the points of comparison are multitudinous, and inviting a thousand foolish stretches—even about global warming, yet to be noted is that Shakespeare’s giving a seacoast to Bohemia and making Delphi an island (in Winter’s Tale) means he recognized in rising oceans the effect of global warming in antiquity, or maybe just his own poet-made contribution. Since ‘Falstaff, he is dead,’ where is Joseph Epstein when we need him to write a spoof of all weak humans crutching for authority?

Most significant is that all the characterizations of both candidates are negative. Both the “deplorables” and the “adorables,” or the slobs and snobs, were more apprehensive about their opponent than elated about their candidate. No one calls their candidate as good as Good Duke Humphrey, as gentle as King Duncan, as sagacious as Thomas More, as noble as Henry V, as great as Caesar, as conscientious as Brutus, as intelligent as Hamlet, or as jovial as Falstaff. Surely some Nate Silver, set to the task of scouring all the news and social media, would show that for split America, the election seemed a choice between Richard III and Lady Macbeth.

To a student of Shakespeare and Great-bookie such as myself, it is gratifying to see Shakespeare included by our public in an imaginary Electoral College, along with our Founders and our eminent Presidents, and even when portions of our public urge him to “vote his conscience.” What might the conscientious Elector Shakespeare have voted on “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December” after a Presidential election? Perhaps nothing pleasing to all sides.

Perhaps Shakespeare might, with his brave poet Mercutio, call down “a plague on both your houses,” and foresee, whoever wins, a civil strife, like that of the War of the Roses, the loss of our empire of allies, sinister powers gathering, and the collapse of our republic of separated powers into a plebiscitary tyranny.


Verily, “It is a strange-disposed time, [and] men may construe things after their fashion, clean from the purpose of things themselves,’ as Shakespeare has his philosophic Cicero say (Julius Caesar1.3.33-35). In such a time, surely Shakespeare might help us. One impediment, however, is that he never speaks in all his works. He is so perfectly the dramatist, letting his 900 characters speak so like themselves and no one else that we can recognize them by single lines and phrases, that he, Shakespeare the dramatist, is utterly hidden behind them. Invisible and silent. Moreover, as our Emerson observed, “Shakespeare is inconceivably wise, others [only] conceivably.” And if he is that wise, unfortunately we will surely construe him, after our persuasions, clean from his purposes themselves. Nevertheless, though our attempts fail, we cannot fail to see things better, see them for ourselves in our own times, because we made the attempt to see them in his plays, both in his times, and for all times.

Political contests are partisan things; a sign of this are the proper names, of parties and of persons, and the heat of loyalty, of love and hate, the names generate. There are proper names in literature too, but no one reading Shakespeare is for the Lancasters or the Yorks, for Henry VI or Richard Duke of York, the way we are for Secretary Clinton, or Mr. Trump, or Senator Sanders or Senator Rubio. (And even in Shakespeare’s time there were no partisans for the houses of Lancaster and York whose bloody but past contention he chose to put on stage.) And the absence of that heat, when one is reading, seeing, and studying such a poet as Shakespeare, makes it possible to think about politics a great deal more clearly, searchingly, and wisely, and especially when we, now in America, after a decisive election, are quite heatedly, angrily or distressedly, split. If a random twenty Americans were chosen to discuss the election, after a round of bad looks and a swell of bad-mouthing asides, the meeting might end in a deafening melee, or an icy silence. But if twenty such Americans, so split, were for a season, to study together Shakespeare’s History Plays, the power of literature, certainly of Shakespeare, is such that they might well come to understand many things better, and dislike each other less. “The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men,” says General Mattis; and it was by reading Shakespeare that General Marlborough, Commander-in-Chief Lincoln, and Prime Minister Churchill learned statesmanship.[v]

Who might best lead such a peace-keeping discussion? If I could not have Jonathan Haidt, if I were limited to well-known close observers of our election, Brooks, Shields, Will, Krauthammer, Dionne, Hanson, Mead, Galston, Friedman, Barone, etc. I would choose Frank Luntz. He of all others is the most Shakespearean in this respect: In those focus groups of his, everyone at the table feels at ease speaking, even in the presence of “mine enemies.” Shakespeare was a great listener, thus a great learner, and, accordingly, with much to teach us, if we listen.

Once during our Civil War, when he was visited by those sure of God’s word (Sept. 1862), President Lincoln politely reminded all bearers of divine advice that God might better advise him directly, and perhaps in the Emancipation Proclamation’s timing and in the Second Inaugural’s reminder of the mystery of God’s judgments there is evidence of such advice. What is sure is that during that great civil slaughter, Lincoln listened to Shakespeare, as he recited passages to his telegraphers awaiting word from his sluggish generals, when he sometimes treated a visitor to the White House to readings from Shakespeare, and when he told a famous actor that the best soliloquy in Hamlet is by the penitent Claudius.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

[i] Solzhenitsyn thought nothing in Shakespeare comprehended the Gulag, but Theodore Dalrymple has made a good argument that Macbeth’s tyranny is total, and to me it does seem that a metaphysical hatred of God and the Good itself animates both Iago and the Soviet Gulag.

[ii] In the Huffington Post (29 Feb. 2016) Prof. Brian Leiter likened Mr. Trump to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, a man made by wealth and nothing without it, and yet never considers whether Mrs. Clinton would be much without the Clinton’s insatiably amassed wealth. In a commercial republic wealth will define “success,” confer authority, but because it will rouse democratic envy in the many (e.g. Leiter), incline most of the wealthy to shun elective office.

[iii] For example, Cane Pence, (Washington Examiner, 15 November), who was nonetheless moved by Sec. Clinton’s concession speech. When asked by WBUR who fits Mrs. Clinton? Tina Packer (founder of the Lennox Shakespeare) offered someone other than Lady Macbeth, namely Margaret of Anjou, the fierce queen in the Henry VI plays, but then quickly pivoted to characterize Margaret as the victim of York’s sexism.

[iv] Other comparisons to both candidates, of some interest, were offered by Michael Gerson, Sean Keilen, Charles McNulty, and John Kelly. Perhaps because of the disparity in wit, no one compared Mr. Trump to Falstaff, though both play the entertainer with outrageous, immoral, and dishonorable remarks”.

[v] Saager Enijeti, “Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis Once Wrote a Letter on the Importance of Reading, and It’s a Must Read” (The Daily Caller, 2016).


All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email