The Bard and the Ballot Box

Where each candidate fits in Shakespeare's worldview.

I've been on vacation this past week, visiting family in small-town New Hampshire, with the greatest excitement of the whole trip being a drive up to the White Mountains to see the leaves change color. (It was worth it—every mountainside covered with a stunning calico of red, orange, yellow, and green, in hundreds of shades.) For a week I've seen no theater, heard no theater, and spoken of no theater.And really, who needs theater when we have the nightly news? (That's going to be my Halloween costume this year: the Nightly News.) A perfect storm of disasters—financial, cultural, and political—has actually made a campaign worthy of 24-hour TV coverage for a change. This election story has had so many reversals, re-reversals, bizarre plot twists, and over-the-top characters that it makes a telenovela look linear.But if this campaign is theater, what sort of theater is it? I think we jettisoned any sort of coherent dramatic narrative about the time McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, making the last few weeks an unholy collision of tragedy, melodrama, and farce.But those of us who love Shakespeare certainly recognize several of his key roles. When John McCain talks about his POW experience, we inevitably think of haughty Coriolanus standing in the village square, snarling at the ungrateful citizens of Rome who demand to see his war wounds before they'll elect him consul. Meanwhile, George W. Bush's TV appeal for a Wall Street bailout hit a plaintive and pathetic tone that reminded me of the weak-willed Richard II, who collapses in defeat and pleads with his men to treat him like a man, not a ruler. "For God's sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings," indeed. (Oh, and capitalism doesn't work. Sorry about that.)As for Obama, an easy comparison is to Prince Hal in Henry IV, the unlikely ruler-to-be with a roistering past and associations with some unsavory characters. Like Hal, Obama's a brilliant watcher of others, retaining a certain coolness of character that to some seems like cunning. While Obama's Reverend Wright was no Falstaff (though both say some pretty funny stuff, come to think of it), his public denouncement of his pastor had the similar air of small tragedy. And like Prince Hal, Obama's qualities of leadership have been steadily emerging through battles, setbacks, and crises. Who knows what sort of president he might be, but he's proven to be one hell of a candidate.Of course, such comparisons won't hold much water with plain folk who complain about Obama's "high-flown rhetoric," but they're accustomed to Branson, Missouri, not Stratford-on-Avon. And I'll admit the analogy's far from perfect. There's not a lot of Shakespeare in Biden, for example, the daily rail commuter to Delaware whose experience and smarts don't conceal the fact he's an occasional loudmouth. His gruff intelligence makes him seem more like a character from one of those fine social dramas of the 1940s and '50s by Maxwell Anderson or Robert Sherwood, characters who are fluent, human, flawed, and usually played by Henry Fonda.Then there's Sarah Palin, who isn't Shakespearean in the least—so put away your ridiculous Iago and Lady Macbeth comparisons. She's a character from an entirely different genre, one that fits her charm, her sparkly smile, her effervescent energy. I refer, of course, to musicals. With her spunky up-and-at-'em grit, her obscure beginnings, and her plucky red jacket, she's a dead ringer for the heroine of Annie, complete with her own grouchy Daddy Warbucks whom she's determined to cheer up, along with the rest of the nation. Thankfully she hasn't resorted to singing "Tomorrow," though she still might. (Look for that on YouTube, along with her flute recital.) McCain's campaign resembles one of those big-budget, high-concept musicals that never quite comes together, despite the extra musical numbers added at the last minute to distract from the muddy plot.After my week off, I miss theater, partly for escape, but mainly for enlightenment. When I come out of certain shows, the world makes a little more sense. During the present season of cheap campaign theatrics, that's something I'm pretty hungry for right now.

 
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