Having quoted Freddie Blassie of professional wrestling fame in a recent column critiquing Donald Trump’s debate performance, and having still been accused of elitism, I consider all bets off. So let’s consider William Shakespeare’s view of the 2016 election.
—Michael Gerson, the Washington Post
Let's do. And Gerson, for one, has done a splendid job. He concentrates on Julius Caesar, which is hauntingly proleptic:
In the decisive first debate between Brutus and Marc Antony, Brutus employs careful arguments in the expectation that reason will prevail over passion. He is public spirited yet boring. He has an emotional range that reaches from A to B. You make the comparison. Marc Antony, in contrast, is emotive and deceptive. He moves in a cloud of chaos. He promises bread and circuses. He has considerable gaming assets in Pompeii and promises to build a wall across Gaul. You get the picture.
Notes Gerson: "Shakespeare is arguing, according to Allan Bloom, that 'the corruption of the people is the key to the mastery of Rome.'" Gerson meant to write Harold Bloom, although Allan might well have agreed. [Correction: Oh my, that was Harold Bloom quoting Allan Bloom. My sincerest apology, Mr. Gerson.] I'm not aware of any Shakespeare reading list, but as a reasonably well-educated middle-class lad, he had probably read his Aristophanes, who brimmed with contempt at the ease of successful demagoguery (see, e.g., The Knights). Speaking through Antony — who later, in Antony and Cleopatra, observes Bloom, "is hopelessly outclassed by the first imperial bureaucrat," Octavius Caesar, as well as by Cleopatra; so much for the feminist critique of Shakespeare as a misogynist — the Bard revealed an unmistakable dread of The People, the rabble, the Trumpeteers.
They were as John Locke's tabula rosa, on whom any competent firebrand could write whatever he wished. The more simplistic the better. This morning Gerson's Post colleague, Charles Krauthammer, distills Trump's wretched campaign to its knuckledragging essence: "Things are bad and [Clinton's] been around for 30 years. You like bad? Stick with her. You want change? I’m your man." That 40-some-odd percent of the American electorate would embrace both the message's crudeness and the crook hustling it suggests just how close to the lightly scratched surface the people's intellectual corruption is.
The mob's shallowness horrified Shakespeare. Of course there was no little cunning in what he wrote on democracy. He was the ultimate pragmatist who understood that his life lay in the hands of royal, anti-democratic power; he had seen what that power could do — to fellow playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd, for instance. Hence taking a fundamentally anti-democratic stance was, for Shakespeare, smart politics of the exceedingly personal. Still, what the play-writing non-elitist wrote on democracy comes through as historical conviction, even though Shakespeare was also the ultimate skeptic (along with Montaigne).
Nonetheless, Shakespeare just as cunningly gigged the dynastic powers that were. "He was," writes Gerson, "consistently drawn to questions about leadership — examining the inner struggles of men (and, here’s to you, Lady Macbeth, women) who seek power, and exploring how that thirst elevates or debases them." In the latter cases, the Bard's high genius — and rudimentary sense of self-preservation — led him away from modernity. He substituted the tawdriness of reigning powers with those of yore: Well, gee, Elizabeth or James, I was writing about the scurrilous Richard III, not you. Through historical example, metaphor and allegory Shakespeare could highlight the baseness, deformities and intrinsic corruption of monarchic power. And even given his self-preserving constraints, he did it like no one else — not then, not before, not since.
The literary critic Bloom doesn't care much for Richard III (he sees too much of Marlowe in it; Shakespeare hadn't yet flowered in his own genius), but it's one of my enduring favorites, especially now. In some ways, Richard was Trump personified: ruthless, possessing a love of power for power's sake, and utterly without principles. Yet in another way Richard was the anti-Trump: he was magnificently self-aware; he knew his insecurities were what led him to thirst for power — and absent that power, his life was worth nothing. This, he eloquently conceded to the audience.
Gerson: Trump is "without eloquence. Thank God for that. And thank Shakespeare for clarifying the democratic threats to democracy."
Note: The placing of "Shakespeare" in this post's title was a test to see just how low I can bring my readership numbers. I don't know why I do this to myself, but I do. I wonder if there's some sort of psychiatric therapy that treats chronic readership alienation?