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Shakespeare and American Politics

* All of the audio tracks are taken from The Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare in American Life. www.shakepeareinamericanlife.org. Check out the site for more.

Charles Lamb wrote that Shakespeare’s plays are “strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honourable thoughts and actions, to teach you courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity…” in his preface to the Tales from Shakespeare, a book written for children. However, Shakespeare does not apply to children only; his works are also read by politicians. There are American presidents who are familiar and or”fans” of Shakespeare. Among them are George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Regan, Bill Clinton, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy to name a few. Apparently, Shakespeare’s works can be used as a guide to leading a country. Let us listen to some American politicians as they discuss the importance of Shakespeare in their lives.

Shakespeare is used by Simpson sometimes, as a joke. Mondale talks about Shakespeare analysing human nature. Reno talks about how Shakespeare understands human nature. In fact, Janet Reno, Attorney General of the United States from 1993 to 2001 had her staff read King Lear when they complained that they didn’t know what to do with the problem at hand. Listen to her as she narrates the event and why she made them read King Lear.

Janet Reno is not the only one who used Shakespeare in political agenda. Jane Addams’s “A Modern Lear” sympathizes with the 1894 Pullman Strike. According to her:

In the midst of these discussions the writer found her mind dwelling upon a comparison which modified and softened all her judgments… Her attention was caught by the similarity of ingratitude suffered by an indulgent employer and an indulgent parent. King Lear came often to her mind. (Cartelli)

Jane Addams saw a parallel between Lear’s family and the industry. This was because George Pullman had a paternalistic relationship with his workers. He was known for his application of enlightened management to modern industrial conditions. He built a town for his workers to inhabit, adjacent to the work places. This town was complete with facilities, parks, hotels and a library. Addams wrote:

The relation of the British King to his family is very like the relation of the president of the Pullman Company to his town; the denouement of a daughter’s break with her father suggests the break of the employees with their benefactor. (Cartelli)

Addams’ approach to Shakespeare was more inventive and wide-ranged than her contemporaries.  She puts together Shakespeare and social justice. Shakespeare is enlisted in the debate for movement in the world of labour in order to put the ethical content of political and social conflict into a more refined state. (Cartelli)

Based on these, politicians use Shakespeare’s plays because of their moral aspects or as Cartelli puts it for the refinement of their political agenda. It seems that Shakespeare’s works enlightened intellectuals.

Ronald Reagan also used Shakespeare in his speech, entitled Creators of the Future on March 8, 1985:

I believe we conservatives have captured the moment, captured the imagination of the American people. And what now? What are we to do with our success? Well, right now, with conservative thought accepted as mainstream thought and with the people of our country leading the fight to freedom, now we must move.

You remember your Shakespeare: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.” I spoke in the — [applause]. It’s typical, isn’t it? I just quoted a great writer, but as an actor, I get the bow. [Laughter]

I spoke in the State of the Union of a second American revolution, and now is the time to launch that revolution and see that it takes hold. If we move decisively, these years will not be just a passing era of good feeling, not just a few good years, but a true golden age of freedom.

In this context, Shakespeare is used not for the morality of his play but as a rhetoric device. Shakespeare has also been used in a most unacceptable way by Sarah Palin: (just watch until 2:10)

Many Americans were angry at Palin for using Shakespeare at such a way. Their reactions are testimonies to how important Shakespeare is in American life.

In the end, Shakespeare is used by American politicians in a number of ways. Is Shakespeare important to Philippine politics as well?

Works Cited

Cartelli, Thomas. Repositioning Shakespeare: National Formations, Postcolonial Appropriations. London: Routledge, 1999.

by 2007-06408

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Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. Gian Velasco
    January 17, 2011 at 5:40 am

    The United States is usually depicted as unnecessarily daunted by Shakespeare, tracing back to their feud with the British, but by quoting his lines in politics, especially democratic politics, I say there you go: instant Americanized Shakespeare! If only there’s a way to un-see that Sarah Palin clip >:c

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