Politicizing Shakespeare: Textual References in Editorial Cartoons
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Editorial cartoons have been fixtures in newspapers and magazines. In a simple illustration, a pressing topic can be summarized through the use of lines and limited dialogue.
It won’t come as a surprise that Shakespearean characters and themes have become convenient depictions of editorial cartoons. This near-universal acknowledgment that Shakespeare is that popular says two things: (1) That Shakespeare’s themes and characters have universal recognition and (2) That Shakespeare’s themes and characters are still present until today.
There is a massive body of work ‘immortalizing’ Shakespeare’s characters and themes but I’m limiting my topic to United States of America since they have a penchant for using Shakespeare whimsically. Despite this, editorial cartoons in America are usually spot-on, providing a deeper insight into seemingly daily political events by utilizing Shakespearean concepts.
Without further ado, here are some samples:
Harper’s Weekly, a short-lived news magazine published from 1857 to 1916 made generous references to everything Shakespeare. Noticeable is its habit of using antagonists to depict American political parties.
In this particular cartoon published in the 1866 during the time of the Reconstruction, Othello is depicted as a black man while Iago is the sneaky white man corrupting the black man. Faithful to the characterization of Iago, Harper’s Weekly turned Othello, Moor of Venice into a political criticism of Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies.
In another cartoon, Iago’s statements (see subtext) are used for depicting African-Americans freed after the American Civil War. It must be recalled that the American Civil War revolved around the idea of slavery with the North siding with freedom for African-Americans while the South wanting to maintain the status quo. In this editorial cartoon, Iago is used as a representation of the defeated South, hiding behind the pillars, whispering pejoratives at the free men.
This 1879 cartoon from the same magazine depicted America’s problems for the current president resulting to political death. Its most fitting interpretation of Julius Caesar not only highlights the demise of the American empire, but also the demise of the political figure. Although no such murder occurred, the way Julius Caesar was murdered by Brutus, the metaphor provided by the cartoon showed that everyone turned away from the current leader, leading to a political death.
Following problems in America, this 1879 cartoon from the same magazine depicted England as King Lear protecting America with whatever he has left. This editorial cartoon tries to depict America as receiving excesses or whatever England can simply pass on to the former colony. The symbolic King Lear in this cartoon promotes the idea that England, after giving treasures away to its neighbours and colonies, sends whatever it has left back to America.
In this political cartoon, a triumvirate of politicians was depicted as the Three Witches from Macbeth. Published in 1884, the triumvirate signified ‘political enchantment,’ the concept of creating a mirage that would manipulate individuals and figures to work for a particular end no matter what the cost.
After Harper’s Weekly ceased publication in 1916, other newspapers and magazines took the helm of using Shakespearean references in its editorial cartoons. Notable depictions of Shakespearean themes can be found in publications based in the state of New York. Publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker. This can be explained due to the presence of the New York-based Tammany Hall, a political machine controlled by the Democratic Party that journalists and columnists refer to as a tyranny and oligarchy. Given the richness of Shakespearean works embodying the fall of tyranny and oligarchy (i. e. Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear), publications of the time saw it fit to provide Shakespearean allusions to make opinions appealing, attractive, and forceful.
Contemporary Shakespearean adaptations on the other hand have become more skilful and creative. Throughout the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, Shakespeare’s themes have been categorized under serious political discourse that people have become used to allusions as pertaining to something negative.
In this particular cartoon from The Washington Post, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is reinterpreted in such a way that the administration is plagued with problems. Furthermore, this critique of Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War was satirized as being Caesar-like.
Despite the presence of negative portrayals, contemporary artists used Shakespearean references in satirizing issues and debates. In this depiction of Sarah Palin, Republican Vice Presidential Candidate in the 2008 elections, Shakespearean references were used as a caricature of the said political figure.
Plays were not the only works Shakespeare created, as depicted in the next picture. Shakespearean sonnets have been used to depict issues like global warming. In the next cartoon, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 is playfully edited to portray unusual weather conditions.
Shakespearean characters and themes have become subjective through the ages, especially in the hands of journalist and columnists. Still, it can be concluded that despite varying opinions and interpretations, Shakespeare is still relevant. We do not know much about the man but we definitely remember his works, often striking a cord that most of us cannot simply ignore.
Perhaps the reason why Shakespeare remains relevant is the fact that we simply cannot ignore the characters he created for us. That the strengths and flaws we all share came from him first. He established templates that we routinely follow. It’s just amazing that four centuries after his works, we still see the characters and themes he created as if Elizabethan England will forever be here.
Vincent Paul F. Ronquillo, BA Creative Writing
University of the Philippines-Diliman
English 198 – Transmedial Shakespeare