Friday, July 1, 2016
Seven Shakespeare Quotations To Get Us through the Election Year
1. "All may be well, but if God sort it so, / 'Tis more than we deserve or I expect."
An anonymous citizen -- he's just called First Citizen -- says this in Richard III, just before malevolent Richard of Gloucester manipulates himself onto the throne. It's striking that Shakespeare would put this confession of personal responsibility for the shape of his country in the mouth of a fifteenth-century commoner, who would have had far less choice than the average American citizen over who governed him. This line has always interested me. An English Everyman suggests that if the highest
political seat in the land ends up occupied by a horrible person through whom everyone can see, well, that's what we'll deserve. By successive acts of cowardice and, in some cases, misplaced party loyalty, we'll have put him there. Think on it.
2. "Take physic, pomp, / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, / That thou mayst shake the superflux to them / And show the heavens more just."
King Lear has lost his kingdom but, in the storm, he's starting to gain some wisdom. He sees that governors who have never experienced financial hardship -- rooflessness, for example -- yet insist on preaching morality to those who have, are pompous asses. They're ill. The only moral cure for them is what Lear is experiencing in this moment -- the shock of others' unkindness, including physical suffering from lack of the basic amenities. Pain, a radical remedy, engenders the only human quality out of which justice can arise: compassion. This is one scary quotation.
3. "He would be crown'd: / How that might change his nature, there's the question / . . . we put a sting in him / That at his will he may do danger with. / Th'abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power . . . ."
Actually, if Donald Trump is elected, we should be concerned about power not changing his nature. It would also be helpful if someone would tell him the presidency does not carry with it the rights of the Roman imperium, even if you're known in Caesar's Palace.
4. "Thou art a villain." "You are a senator."
Of course, we should always take what Othello's Iago says with a grain of salt, since he's such a liar. But in his reply to the Venetian senator Brabantio's insult, he does -- however mock-respectful his formal "You" -- hit on an equivalence here that always pleases audiences. If you've gotten far enough in politics to become a senator, you've probably pulled some shenanigans along the way. Let's not be blown away by that fact. Let's evaluate the nature of the shenanigans.
5. "Let them assemble; / And on a safer judgment all revoke / Your ignorant election."
Sorry, no can do. Well, okay, the Supreme Court sort of did it in 2000. But let's put that event behind us, and assume we'll be stuck with the person we elect. Let's use our "safer judgment" beforehand. (This is from Coriolanus, by the way.)
6. "His promises so fly beyond his state / That what he speaks is all in debt: / He owes for every word."
Apply quotation number 6 as you see fit. It's from Timon of Athens. And to conclude:
7. "You sad-faced . . . people . . . / O, let me teach you how to knit again / This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf, / These broken limbs again into one body."
It's a rare leader who can teach a people not to be "divided in their dire division." (That last is a line from Richard III which proves that even great plays commit some clunky phrases.) Still, the sad-faced-people quotation above perfectly illustrates our eternal hope for such a leader. It also shows that even Titus Andronicus contains some great lines. (What? You don't knit corn? Well, for Shakespeare "corn" meant "wheat sheaves," and maybe he did.)
I did say seven, but I'm going to add just one more. It's also from Coriolanus, Shakespeare's greatest political play about elections and governance in a republic (as opposed to a monarchy). In the midst of angry public exchanges, a citizen pleads, "On both sides, more respect."