In his bestselling volume “Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics,” Stephen Greenblatt, in a none-too-subtle jab at President Donald Trump, examines the characters of Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear and Coriolanus to illuminate how Shakespeare’s work probes the danger of narcissistic demagogues — and the self-destructive willingness of collaborators who indulge them — to tear at the fabric of a nation. I was intrigued by studying what Shakespeare says about politics through his characters and then finding the connector between contemporary politician and Shakespearean character. Which is not to say, for example, that Trump is Richard III but that each can help us understand the other in context.
As a Shakespearean scholar, I often go back to Shakespeare to interpret the world today. And as a director and actor, what I love about Shakespeare is that no matter how poetical the language or contrived the situation, his characters are resolutely human, recognizably us. Shakespeare knows us better than we know ourselves and shows us ourselves, warts and all. Here are 10 Shakespearean characters I see on the current American political scene (and, yes, I know these choices reveal as much about me as either the politician or the character). There are many others. In fact, you can find many Hamlets, Iagos, Malvolios, Edmunds, Dogberrys, Regans, Gonerils and Friar Lawrences wandering around our local, state and federal governments. Tragedy? Comedy? Let’s go with history and tragicomedy.
Kellyanne Conway as Buckingham
Counselor to the President
If, as Greenblatt asserts, Trump has much in common with Shakespeare’s Richard III (not just the negative qualities but the improbable rise to become the nation’s supreme leader), then Kellyanne Conway is his Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham (or Buckingham for short). Credit where credit is due: Conway is the first woman to lead a national campaign to victory in a presidential election, and her support for her boss was not only unwavering, it was vital to his success. In this, she is similar to Buckingham in “Richard III,” who teaches Richard how to appeal to the masses:
The mayor is here at hand: intend some fear;
Be not you spoke with, but by mighty suit:
And look you get a prayer-book in your hand,
And stand betwixt two churchmen, good my lord;
For on that ground I’ll build a holy descant. (III, vii)
Buckingham then speaks to the Mayor of London and the assembled people, telling them:
Two props of virtue for a Christian prince,
To stay him from the fall of vanity:
And, see, a book of prayer in his hand,
True ornaments to know a holy man.
Famous Plantagenet, most gracious prince,
Lend favourable ears to our request;
And pardon us the interruption
Of thy devotion and right Christian zeal. (III, vii)
Buckingham knows he is staging Richard to get him to power, not showing who he really is. Buckingham prefers to present “alternative facts” regarding the death of the two young princes and several other members of the royal family, in order to ensure Richard’s triumph:
Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian;
Speak and look back, and pry on every side,
Tremble and start at wagging of a straw,
Intending deep suspicion: ghastly looks
Are at my service, like enforced smiles;
And both are ready in their offices,
At any time, to grace my stratagems. (III, v)
In the end, Buckingham is disposed of, as is — eventually — everyone who works for Richard. But even as a ghost, Buckingham takes credit for being the one who “helped thee to the crown.”
Managing a Nation and a Rebellion
Nancy Pelosi as Henry IV
Speaker of the House
Shakespeare’s history plays might as well also be called Shakespeare’s political plays. Not only do they concern jockeying for power and the crown, they depict the struggles within the various groups. Speaker Pelosi, like Henry Bolingbroke in “Henry IV, Part I,” rises to the leadership of the government despite factions contesting her rules. And like Henry, who gets the nickname “the Fourth,” Pelosi faces not only opposition from Republicans but also from the younger, more progressive elements of her own party. She is the leader of the resistance to Trump, so to speak, but also must keep the rebellions in her own ranks under control. When Hotspur dies and the king is victorious, Henry concludes, “Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke.” Pelosi might seem to agree with the sentiments.
A Lean and Hungry Look
Stephen Miller as Cassius
White House Advisor
While Brutus is indeed honorable, as Mark Antony somewhat suspiciously notes repeatedly during his funeral oration, the one conspirator that seems universally disliked in “Julius Caesar” is Cassius. Caesar certainly does not want him around, noting, “Let me have men about me that are fat, / Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights. / Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous” (I., ii). Miller also has a “lean and hungry look.” Although Miller’s passion since he was an assistant to figures such as Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sen. Jeff Sessions has been to limit or end immigration, it is only through his role in the Trump administration that he has been able to put his ideas into policy. Like Cassius, he is practical, shrewd and politically vicious (“I think it is not meet, / Mark Antony, so well beloved of Caesar, / Should outlive Caesar.” (II, i)). Cassius, like Miller, is ambitious and scheming. Like Miller’s plans, Cassius’ initial plans go well, and he is able to effect the social changes he wants. After that, not so much. Both men bring about radical social change (and a backlash in response).
The Inside Reformer
Elizabeth Warren as Vincentio
I am a big fan of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, realizes the city has become a corrupt cesspool of vice (“the swamp”?) and so pretends to travel abroad, placing Angelo, his deputy, in charge, knowing he will clean up the town and the duke will be able to avoid being unpopular for finally enforcing the law (“draining said swamp?”). Things do not go as planned when Angelo falls in love with Isabella, a woman about to become a nun, who petitions him to spare her brother’s life. The brother is due to be executed for the crime of fornication. Angelo agrees to spare his life if Isabella will sleep with him. The duke, now in disguise, manipulates the situation so that all are exposed. Nothing in this story is near what Elizabeth Warren does, but I think of her as the inside reformer, part of the system that needs to be reformed. Also, like Warren’s enemies, the duke’s speak rather unkindly of him (“the duke is a great eater of mutton” — let’s bring back that insult!). In Act V, he reveals all and sweeps reforms through the city, pardoning Angelo for his hypocrisy but forcing him to marry his abandoned fiancée. The duke then informs Isabella that instead of becoming a nun, she will marry him. We are meant to like the duke. He is genuine and genuinely concerned about the citizens under his leadership. Yet there is also something about the way in which he does things that renders him suspect. I see in the polls that same sort of concern for Sen. Warren — what would she do if actually in charge. But you do have to like their style.
The Consummate Manipulator of Courts
Mitch McConnell as Cardinal Wolsey
Senate Majority Leader
I began by saying Shakespeare’s history plays are actually his political plays. In his final history, “Henry VIII, or All Is True” (co-written with John Fletcher), Shakespeare shows Cardinal Wolsey as the consummate insider who knows politics and how to manipulate the rules to create the nation he wants. The king’s right-hand man for getting things done in the nation, Wolsey engineers a truce with France, convinces the king to divorce his Spanish wife, and schemes with members of court to manipulate both the king and the nation in order to maintain his own power and create the kingdom he wants England to be. In this, I see Mitch McConnell, who has masterfully worked the rules of the Senate and works to make the (conservative) country he wants America to be. Wolsey convinces Henry to divorce Katharine but then writes to the Pope, asking him not to grant the divorce until Henry is no longer obsessed with Anne Bullen (Boleyn), demonstrating his hypocrisy to achieve his ends. When McConnell would not even hold a hearing for Merriick Garland, President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, but laughingly says if Trump nominated someone right before the election, he would move to have that individual seated on the Supreme Court, I think of Wolsey and admire the brazenness and skillful manipulation of the court (in all senses of the word).
The Old King With Some Fight Left in Him
Joe Biden as Cymbeline
Former Vice President
Most days my favorite Shakespeare play is “Cymbeline,” mostly because it is an insane story with a fifth act so improbable that George Bernard Shaw felt the need to rewrite it. Cymbeline was a pre-Christian king of Britannia. Long story short, his sons were kidnapped and lost to him (although they show up later in the story), his daughter, Imogen, marries a Roman, but her wicked stepmother conspires to have her own son, a clodpole named Cloten, marry Imogen so he can be king someday — all of which becomes a pretext for the Romans to invade Britain (told you it was crazy). Part “King Lear,” part “Othello,” part history, part comedy, “Cymbeline” was a play ahead of its time. King Cymbeline has been in the government for a long, long time. He’s a nice guy, but his age is starting to show, some of his past actions are questioned, and he makes the occasional gaffe. The younger generation seems ready for change. Joe Biden seems to display some similar traits as the monarch. Biden is no Lear, no foolish politician giving up his kingdom then complaining about his backstabbing kids for five acts. But Cymbeline has had challenges with and because of his children (although Imogen never had a job in the Ukraine). He does, however, have plenty of fight in him, despite his advanced years. And his experience in government indicates a strength in realpolitik. Don’t write off either Biden or Cymbeline — the ending is crazy no matter what and has not yet been written for the former.
The Passionate Rebel
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as Hotspur
While a valuable member initially of Henry’s army, Henry Percy (street name: Hotspur) is a young hothead who believes he knows better than the king and does not always bow to authority. I suspect both Republicans and more traditional Democrats see a lot of Hotspur in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (street name: AOC). While part of King Henry’s coalition at the beginning of “Henry IV, Part 1,” Hotspur nevertheless begins to pull away from the king and lead his own rebellion. Similarly, AOC is a rebel — hated by her enemies, and sometimes also by her allies.
Owen Glendower says of Hotspur:
For by that name as oft as Lancaster
Doth speak of you, his cheek looks pale
A rising sigh he wisheth you in heaven. (III, i)
Similarly, AOC’s name is a cause of both loathing and fear on the part of the conservative media. She is a boogeyman with which to frighten Sean Hannity. It is obvious she believes in the righteousness of her cause and speaks out against those she thinks are not being honest or accurate. In Act III, Scene I of Shakespeare’s play, Hotpsur tells Glendower:
And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil
By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.
AOC also uses social media quite effectively and knows how to spar, as does Hotspur (OK, not sure about his social media skills, but Henry Percy spars with the best of them). One of the preeminent exchanges in Shakespeare’s play comes when Glendower attempts to intimidate Hotspur with his occult knowledge:
Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them? (III, i)
Now that is an excellent clapback tweet if ever there was one.
Above the Fray
John Roberts as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester
Shakespeare doesn’t seem to think much of the judicial system. Justice Shallow, the judge in “Henry IV, Part 2,” lives up to his name. Trial scenes in Shakespeare tend to be filled with cruelty, prejudice and predetermined outcomes. For example, the tribunals in “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Merchant of Venice” and even Lear’s mock trial of his daughters during the storm are models of injustice. Of course, there’s also Dick the Butcher’s famous war cry during the rebellion in “Henry VI, Part 2”: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” (IV, ii)
Shakespeare does seem to have sympathy for those who try to hold a nation together as it is coming apart. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in the “Henry VI” plays, serves as counselor to young Henry VI, his nephew, and Lord Protector (the man actually in charge until Henry reaches governing age). The nation is divided between red and blue, I mean red and white roses, Lancaster vs. York, and a civil war is brewing in addition to the foreign wars already tearing England apart. Humphrey works hard to stop the factions from fighting and to promote the government as being above the fray — neither red nor white. He also holds the law above all, even when his own wife is convicted of necromancy (she tries to summon a spirit to learn the future). In this, he is similar to Chief Justice Roberts (although, to the best of my knowledge, his wife has never even been charged with necromancy or summoned any spirits). Despite being maligned by enemies on both sides, Humphrey still holds his allegiance to the law and the land higher than his own life, warning the king:
Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous:
Virtue is choked with foul ambition
And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand;
Foul subornation is predominant
And equity exiled your highness’ land. (III, i)
I hear in this echoes of Roberts’ speech asserting an independent judiciary (and the response from the president via Twitter, of course, that “Obama judges” are a danger to the country).
The Idealistic Old Counselor
Bernie Sanders as Gonzalo
Shipwrecked on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean (or is it the Caribbean?), the party of King Alonso wonders what to do and how they will escape in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Gonzalo, an elderly statesman, however, uses this opportunity to imagine a nation where everyone gets everything they need, and there is no ruling class, similar to Bernie Sanders’ vision of a more progressive America.
Had I plantation of this isle, my lord, —
And were the king on’t, what would I do?
I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty; —
[To which Sebastian, another nobleman, snarks, “Yet he would be king on’t.”]
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age. (II, i)
It sounds perfect — no crime, no work, everyone gets everything they need, no weapons, no leaders, and nature will produce everything we need. It is a lovely vision, and yet most would concede it is an impossible idealism. Sanders, like Gonzalo, dreams of a perfect nation, but does not actually state the mechanisms by which such perfection might be possible.
The One You Don’t Know
Katie Porter as Paulina
Poor “The Winter’s Tale.” It is one of Shakespeare’s last plays and not often performed, nobody’s favorite, yet it is a fascinating play, containing the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” A king suspects his wife of cheating on him with his friend. He is wrong, but his jealousy and fear drive the friend away, and he seemingly kills his wife. Only decades later will the damage of his poor stewardship be healed. Similarly, unless you are represented by Katie Porter or are a political junkie, you may not have heard, but she is a force with whom to be reckoned. I’m predisposed to like her since she was a professor, but now she sits on the House Committee on Financial Services, where she questions those who come before that committee. No grandstanding, no long speeches — Porter asks pointed questions and, professor-like, points out when people are in error. She reminds me of Paulina, the noblewoman counselor in “The Winter’s Tale,” who dares tell the king he is wrong and always speaks truth to power, standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. When told she should not confront the king, Paulina responds, “He must be told on’t, and he shall: the office / Becomes a woman best; I’ll take’t upon me.” (II,ii) And she does. Rep. Porter shows the office becomes a woman best, and she takes the questioning of fiscal malfeasance upon herself.
My advice for surviving the 2020 election? It’s the same advice I give to students reading Shakespeare for the first time: Pay attention, listen carefully, see what the characters say — and not just about themselves but what other people say about them — and make up your own mind about what it all means. In the meantime, I think I’m going to turn off the news and crack open “King Lear.” It’s the more cheerful option these days.
Kevin J. Wetmore Jr. is professor and chair of the theatre arts program in the LMU College of Communication and Fine Arts. An actor, director and stage combat choreographer, he has written on theatre, cinema, Shakespeare and Japanese culture.
This article appeared in the winter 2020 issue (Vol. 9, No. 2) of LMU Magazine.