Home > Multimedia Essays > Politicizing Shakespeare: Textual References in Editorial Cartoons

Politicizing Shakespeare: Textual References in Editorial Cartoons

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Note: I do not own any of these images. Instead of copy-pasting, I uploaded them via their respective URLs to ensure that you can retrace the images from where they come from. On a more personal note, I suck at layouting since I’m not familiar with WordPress tools so apologies if all pictures are ‘centered.’ Thanks and have fun reading!

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.

Iago - the White Man and Othello - The Black ManIn 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.

Iago hides behind the pillar, scornfully looking at the black man

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.

Julius Caesar as a symbol of political death

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.

Link: http://staging.thomasnast.com/asp/GetImage.asp?img=HW\188480284505m.jpg

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.


Shakespeare in the New York Times

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.


Julius Caesar used as a reference for then-US President Lyndon Johnson

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.


Sarah Palin referencing Shakespeare

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.


Line from Sonnet 18 used to depict global warming

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

Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. March 11, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    That’s scary! to have Elizabethan England here forever! Remember the mass murders of many Catholics during her time? Whew… sayang I liked the essay though it lacked pictures. Where’s the King Lear and the Macbeth editorial cartoons? It seems like you were saying the strengths and flaws we have today came from him. How? We are Filipinos with a different cultural background. Shakespeare is British (very Imperial, Colonial) and we hate them don’t we? Now, how do we get the same strengths and flaws he had? We were colonized by Spanish, American and Japanese. Please do not stereotype Shakespeare. He is in the hearts not of the masses but of us intellectual elites (bourgeoisie) of this university, the enlightened individuals.

  2. March 12, 2011 at 12:42 am

    Hi Leihmar,

    To answer your comment regarding the pictures, I am trying to find the direct URL again. I’ll get back to you when I find them.

    Regarding the strengths and flaws – I was commenting on the general body of “Literature in English,” not necessarily Filipino writers. It would have been more convenient to use “English Literature” but that simply pertains to UK, eliminating writers in English from America, Australia, and the Philippines. I was making a relevant comment on templates/motifs of characterization/conflict-setting that Shakespeare started – structures that continue to endure in Fiction and Theater, rather than the idea of Shakespeare writing about The Empire and us sharing the idea of “The Empire.”

    In 198, we often argue about “Why Shakespeare is still relevant” and this is my personal take. That we can do away with the Language but we can never do away with the characters or the templates he established. 🙂

    Ronquillo, Vincent Paul F.
    English 198, UPD-CAL

    • March 20, 2011 at 10:03 pm

      “we can do away with the Language but we can never do away with the characters or the templates he established”

      about that:
      yeah, but only a small number of readers read Shakespeare, know the characters by heart. Some only know Sonnet 18. More staggering, some only knoe Shakespeare by the balcony scene or the first line of Shakespeare’s third soliloquy, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” I don’t think Shakespeare is universal by heart. =D

  3. March 20, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Hi again,

    I’m no longer a formal or official part of the class, but I like these discussions so I’ll just indulge. 🙂

    My idea of ‘universal’ stems from the assumption that writers, or those who can create and produce Literature have enough cultural capital to gain access to Shakespeare’s body of work. Universality, after all, has been contextualized to the idea of “General Body of Literature.” The General Public probably knows Sonnet 18, and even that is debatable, which is why I specifically pertained to “Literature” only, not necessarily general public consciousness.

    On the level of public consciousness however, it can be argued that some (or maybe all) of Shakespeare’s works have been transformed into new characters, making the public relate to Shakespeare’s templates and motifs without necessarily recognizing that they are enjoying something/someone/whatever that originally came from Shakespeare.

    Thanks and have a great night! 😀

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