The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0053 Wednesday, 30 January 2008
Date: Tuesday, 29 Jan 2008 21:39:28 -0500 (EST)
Subject: WS & GWB
In a few weeks, I'll be addressing a lay audience-not at all
scholarly-and they've asked me to talk about the political uses of
Shakespeare. In the academy, we're accustomed to reading "political"
broadly, but this audience is thinking specifically about modern party
politics-and, since it's an American audience, American references will
I'll be grateful if members of SHAKSPER can direct me to any
particularly juicy examples that will play well before a non-specialist
audience. There's no shortage of material-LexisNexis turns up more than
a thousand hits for "George W. Bush and Shakespeare"-so what I'm looking
for is particularly striking examples that will work in this kind of
setting. It helps if the plays are familiar to modern nonacademic
The obvious place to start is comparisons between the current president
and Shakespearean characters, episodes, and quotations, though
references to recent US presidents or other high-profile politicos, any
of the current presidential candidates, or perhaps Tony Blair would fill
In my quick survey of some of those LexisNexis hits, two topics come up
again and again-both, oddly, to the same character, though they're
deployed to different ends. The first came in the aftermath of 11
September 2001, when Bush's supporters likened him to the dissolute
Prince Hal, now elevated to a newly serious Henry V. (One commentator-a
one-time speechwriter for Reagan and Bush I-was on NPR on 21 September
2001, declaring "In last night's speech, we saw the President go from a
callow Prince Hal to a mature Henry the Fourth." Give or take, I guess.)
The second is to compare GWB to Henry V not in his impressive accession
to political maturity, but as an invader of dubious moral authority. As
the New York Daily News put it in May 2003, "This year's Shakespeare in
Central Park production is about the leader of a country who diverts the
people's attention away from the dubious way he came to power by
invading another country. President George W. Bush? No, Henry V."
They're the two leitmotifs; other examples do show up. Nicholas Kristof
wrote a widely quoted essay in the New York Times in September 2004; it
goes through any number of comparisons, some obvious, some forced.
Shakespeare would have taught Bush about the inevitability of
intelligence failures, since Othello believes Iago's lies; "Mr. Bush
emulates Coriolanus, a well-meaning Roman general and aristocrat whose
war against barbarians leads to an early victory but who then proves so
inflexible and intemperate that tragedy befalls him and his people."
That kind of thing.
I also note without comment that LexisNexis turns up more than 300
articles under "Hillary Clinton and Lady Macbeth." (Cherie Blair
doesn't fair much better.)
For this talk I'm not interested in whether the comparisons are apt, or
whether the politics are left- or right-leaning, only in the fact that
the comparisons are being made.
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