Shakespeare, Trump, and radical experiments of self-government: The Winter’s Tale

All politics is personal.

I’ve been preoccupied with two people this year. The first, of course, is William Shakespeare. The other, alack, is Donald Trump.

I’ve avoided writing about the latter. It’s not that I don’t see the man everywhere in Shakespeare’s plays. I see him in Richard III’s Machiavellian machinations. In Richard II’s incompetence, overreach, and rashness. I see him in Iago’s Janus-faced manipulations. In Timon of Athen’s extreme egotism. In the glib sexual presumption of Falstaff as he appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

It’s that I’ve wanted to keep the two separated. Maybe because I’ve felt the connections were too pat, that discussing today’s politics would be such an obvious, unoriginal move. Maybe because I haven’t wanted to talk about him – because he’s all we ever talk about anymore.

You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.

Or maybe it’s because, in spite of my efforts to make sense of my mundane life in 2016, I’ve ended up seeking escape in the Bard, trying to locate, somehow, even my self-divulging, self-indulging reflections in a kind of sacrosanct timelessness I want unsullied by the small, groping, orange hands of the 45th president of the United States. You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Shakespeare, it’s that all politics is personal.

***

I’m shocked. I’m angry. I’m scared. I’m eager for action – no,  this middle-class white guy isn’t pretending this essay on Shakespeare makes a meaningful difference. But I’m also longing to understand. To understand my country. To understand people I know – family, for God’s sake – who cast their vote for a bigot. To understand “what happened,” as we’ve been widely referring to Trump’s election.

And it’s this “what happened” that I’ve been stuck on when it comes to Trump and Shakespeare. “What happened?” we ask, bewildered, when Othello kills Desdemona. “How the hell did this happen?” we ask when Lear cradles a dead Cordelia. “Why in God’s name did we end up here?” when ask, beholding Macbeth’s bloodbath. “What happened?” millions of America’s are asking, dazed and gobsmacked, since November 9. The aftermath all seems so unlikely, so improbable, so dramatic. Too dramatic. Laughably dramatic.

What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary.

Like in The Winter’s Tale. In this romance play, Leontes, King of Sicilia, sees his wife, Hermione, innocently clasp hands with his lifelong friend and King of Bohemia, Polixenes. He becomes paranoid. He silences his advisers. He plots to kill Polixenes. He imprisons his wife, who is pregnant and gives birth while jailed. He wants the newborn burned until deciding to have her abandoned in the wilderness. And, oh my, the ways he talks about women: hag, harlot, callat, hobby-horse, thing. (I’d like to say I’m fishing for Trumpian comparisons here, but no. It’s all there.) And Leontes causes so much terror and stress it ends up killing Leontes’ dear son and Hermione.

How did this happen?

The events are so hyperbolic that we tend to attribute it to larger-than-life personalities and passions, to outsized faults and flaws. Celebrities and Shakespearean villains – they’re just not like us. But we confound the outcome with the cause. What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary: “I have too much believed mine own suspicion,” Leontes plainly sums it when he first reckons with the death of his wife and son (3.2.149).

Shakespeare, in that extraordinary way the playwright takes us into that interior stage of the mind, lets us glimpse how ‘it happened’ for Leontes. As he works himself up into a frenzy, Leontes rampages:

…Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh? – a note infallible
Of breaking honesty. Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift,
Hours minutes, noon midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would be unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia is nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings
If this be nothing. (1.2.286-98)

What happened? How did we get here? It was a whisper. It was nothing.

***

We read Shakespeare, we often say, because of how profoundly he probes and depicts human nature. We try to distill his characters down to raw elements: jealousy, ambition, power, hesitation, arrogance, suspicion. Yes, these, but I think Shakespeare ultimately strikes a deeper vein: irrationality.

It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.

We, as humans, like to think we’re rational actors. That we make decisions based on the best available evidence. That we weigh choices based on risk and reward. Which is why Shakespeare’s Lears and Macbeths and Leontes evoke so much outrage, pity, and pathos. Why wouldn’t Lear just listen to what Cordelia was saying to him? Why did Macbeth carry out his assassinations in spite of his persistent moral reservations? How could Leontes let his suspicions get so out of hand and so quickly? If only they could see what they were doing, all the suffering, all the loss, all the grief, all the blood and gore would have been avoided. I would never act like that, we tell ourselves as Lear roves the heath and Macbeth talks to imaginary daggers. This is not what I would have done, we say as Leontes, foaming with self-feeding, despotic jealousy, justifies his anger.

Which is precisely why Shakespeare’s tragic figures are so horrifying. Because we do act like them. Because we’re irrational. We turn petty grievances into catastrophes. We let slights fester into disease. We take revenge on others because we are small, broken, needy beings. All for appearing right, to be recognized, not thinking ahead to, and never actually really wanting, the wreckage our egos leave in their wake. We feel guilty when we finally get what we say we want.

As Paulina, Hermione’s faithful attendant, stands up to Leontes:

…Thy tyranny, together working with thy jealousies –
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine – O think, what they have done,
And the run made indeed, stark mad, for all
Thy bygone fooleries were but spices of it. (3.2.177-82).

We’re Leontes, ruled by the petty, childish tyrannies of our unreason – and our blind insistence otherwise – that bemonsters, Hulk-like and Hyde-like, whispers into so much woe. It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.

***

Leontes repents. Sixteen years later, magically, it turns out his baby daughter, Perdita, had survived and was raised by a shepherd in Bohemia, where Polixenes’ son, Florizel, has fallen in love with her. But Polixenes will not have his son marry some country girl and responds with all the tyrannical violence of Leontes. The lovers flee to Sicilia, where Leontes reunites with his daughter and discovers Paulina, Hermione’s attendant, has been keeping the queen alive as a statue all this time.

It’s romantic idea, America, but is it a Romance play, where what’s lost is found, what’s divided is reunited? America’s going to need some repentance. It’s going to need some time. It’s going to need a whole lot of self-government, and that starts with checking our inner, irrational autocrats.

Some fairy-tale magic wouldn’t hurt, either. “It is required / You do awake your faith,” Paulina tells Leontes’ court when Hermione’s statue comes alive (5.3.94-95). But we should remember that while Leontes cried in the chapel everyday for 16 years, Paulina was attending to the statue of her Queen every day. That doesn’t just take faith. It takes commitment  and discipline – which require self-government.

And it’s not lost on me that the person who stands up to the tyrant, who puts in the work, is a woman.

Author: John Kelly

I write about everyday etymology at mashedradish.com & @mashedradish. I am reading Shakespeare in 2016 at shakespeareconfidential.com & @bardconfidensh.

89 thoughts on “Shakespeare, Trump, and radical experiments of self-government: The Winter’s Tale

  1. Reblogged this on moving in time and commented:
    An interesting read – I was hooked by the handle of Shakespeare – my hero of a long time!! America appears to have shot itself in the foot in the manner that Britain did with the Brexit vote – and how did we get here is a common reprise I hear over here. It is strange how much closer we can arrive at realisation by visiting the plays of Shakespeare, he really does cast a light on the vagaries of human nature. Thank you for this – and consider how he reminded us about the chaotic nature of living, bet on the unlikeliest outcome!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Donald Trump … a President .. a father, a grandfather .. .. at age already twilight (70 years) should lead the first major country and plural .. prowess as a businessman, he may be able to create such a policy for the welfare of the American People expectations. , a wise leader, decisive, intelligent and precise in taking policy measures .. the proof is the dream of the visionaries and monitors .. let Donald Trump to prove his promise .. God Blessed you. God gives you opportunity. Congratulations Fighting & Always grateful for the success .. God Blessed..

    Liked by 8 people

  3. Thanks for this point of view! I want to check out some of these plays and right on about Machiavelli. Yes that is how Trump won. What really breaks my heart is what example are we showing our kids. Recently I was in a conversation with a kid about how you will get no where in life with a bad attitude and being mean. She said it works for TRUMP and look at him he’s rich.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Trump is rich because he invested the money that he inherited from his parents. American people voted for him as their president except those few who didn’t vote for him. Sometimes our eyes and ears deceived us regarding of what we see and hear regardless of anything bad or good. But in my own opinion, politics is the dirtiest game of all game.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Very nicely written article. Very good point at the end about the contribution of women. I think the advance of women’s rights and liberation is fundamental in finding and progressing the “self-government” you speak about. However, I think the term self-government needs to be adapted (and is being adapted) by Americans on a level which is broader and more progressive than the founding fathers had intended such concepts. Irrationality?… perhaps you are right on this. But let’s not be too reductive. Irrationality may contain a certain logic too. Where has this “irrationality” come from? What was the logic of poor black, hispanic, latino, female – even white male voters – in choosing Trump? To many of us who are horrified by Trump’s ideas, their choice may seem irrational and counter-productive. It seems reactionary even. But for those who voted for him, there was an emotive and powerful logic behind it.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. The world’s eyes are now focused , without blinking, on America. Speculations abound and it of course is somewhat scary. But we can never really be sure what will come out of this presidency. Hope it is for the better for if not then it will be nothing short than catastrophic. Coach Pop of the Spurs likened America to Rome, once a superpower, but now all that remains are acçounts of that golden age. Nothing’s wrong with maintaining optimism though. Most nations depend on America to succeed. So lets look at it in a positive light.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Next to yours my Shakespeare looks a bit thin ; only the well known stuff. I think your mistake is in the phrase ‘rational actors ‘ that fails miserably to describe human nature. It rather smells of Mr Pinkers Blank Slate which he rips pieces. We carry a huge evolutionary baggage as well as our intellectual abilities. We have not escaped survival of the fittest that religion struggles to cure us of. So we act just as we are mixed up and as Freud said at war with ourselves.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Wonderful, thought provoking piece comparing the drama of Shakespeare’s powerful/disturbed characters to Trump and to America for voting for him. Of course the situation is more complex than that since many did not vote given the usual apathy plus poor choices available, and those that did vote for Trump IMHO often did so on economic grounds more often than not, and not as much due to racist beliefs, though of course that was not absent. Now we have to deal with Trump’s often inflammatory choices for his cabinet etc. and those who think its just fine now to be racist, misogynist etc. Was wondering if it would be OK to share your article on Eos: The Creative Context (http://eosthecreativecontext.com), or not? Please let me know.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Thanks! Interesting connection to Coriolanus. In some ways a kind of reverse Trump, at least in terms of Trump-on-campaign, the populist with no experience, while Coriolanus was the accomplished patrician with utter disregard for the plebeians.

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  8. I love your link to Shakespeare! Great choice of quotes. However, you’re looking at the whole thing from the wrong angle, the same one that made Clinton lose sth she thought she was entitled to (she wasn’t, no one is). When regarded from Hollywood, white-collar Manhattan or Washington, it does seem like “petty grievances”, but it’s not-millions of disenfranchised Americans have decided they no longer wanted to be a part of a game they’re bound to lose, and not just their jobs. There actually are people in America who don’t drink frappucinos and can’t afford a weekend in the Hamptons or an Ivy League degree. Until now, everyone just chose to ignore them and now they’re taking their revenge. As someone wonderfully said about Clinton: “you can’t preach social equality in a 12,000 $ Armani jacket”. There you go, this is how you “got here”, and you deserve it. An underdog getting into the White House, that’s what I call a true American dream. Donald Trump is certainly the wrong trigger for the overdue social catharsis, but he now has a chance to remind the USA what caused the French Revolution. The political beheading of Hillary Clinton is an excellent start in that direction.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Seems that he already softened on some issues he talked about during the campaign. It would be hypocritical to say that this is not a regular occurrence with all elected presidents. Politics is all about big money and these elections proved that this system needs to be abolished and rebuilt from scratch. As long as Trump doesn’t hire all of his relatives at the White House, you’ll be fine. The point is to trust no one, whoever gets elected, you’re the one getting screwed. Anarchy might be the only way to go.

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  9. A really interesting piece, John, thanks. I’m currently teaching Richard III to a class of Y12 (UK) students, and I’ve been unable to keep Trump out of the picture. The way he continually dangles the truth in front of people and they ignore it or fail to understand the dangers – Clarence, for example. Or in his ‘post-truth’ comments about the little princes. Or, indeed, the fearful misogyny of “I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.”

    From my perspective, the thing that most worries me is the notion of ‘collateral damage’ in Shakespearean Tragedy. When the tragic hero comes down, he brings so many people with him. And in the case of Richard, his downfall is so quick and abrupt.

    Let’s hope life doesn’t imitate art too much in this case, for all our sakes. The collateral damage from Trump crashing and burning could be truly terrible.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much. The connection to Richard III are many – and alarming. Did you read, perchance, Stephen Greenblatt in the New York Times re Trump and Richard III? I think your comment on “collateral damage” is quite compelling and important. Let’s hope Trump doesn’t bring democracy down with him…

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  10. The people voted for him and I try to understand. Don’t they see what I see? Or do I not see what they can see? Who is wrong and who is right. Is it me, or is it them?

    Personally, I wish the popular vote would count. It does stand for, “We the people…”

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  11. Thanks, John, for this highly commendable piece of writing. What crossed my mind, though, when reading it, was that, to my mind, Shakespeare’s characters, in spite of all their faults, have a certain greatness. This President-Elect doesn’t.
    P.S.: Would you allow me to link to this post on Twitter?

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