“The time is out of joint.” —Hamlet, 1.5

These days, any American with a functioning moral compass knows exactly how Hamlet felt when he said that. It’s a bit of a cliché that Shakespeare has something to say about virtually everything. So it’s hardly any wonder that we turn to Shakespeare’s eloquence and stories for insights concerning the catastrophe we now undergo.

But which play to choose, the selection being so rich?

Julius Caesar, the story of a tyrant brought low by his own ambition, has been a popular choice lately. Last year in New York, a production by the Public Theatre controversially (and unsubtly) portrayed the assassination of “a petulant, blondish Caesar in a blue suit, complete with gold bathtub and a pouty Slavic wife.” Richard III, with its Machiavellian antihero rising to power by nefarious means, is also much in vogue. And Professor Eliot A. Cohen recently likened Donald Trump to Macbeth, whose nearest allies turn against him as his criminal reign collapses.

Nobody ought to push any of these analogies too far. Donald Trump does not have the makings or the stature of a Shakespearean tragic hero. He has none of Julius Caesar’s nobility, Richard III’s articulate wit, or Macbeth’s anguished inner torment.

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A watercolor of King Lear and the Fool in the storm from Act III, Scene ii.

Nor does our president much resemble King Lear, who learns humility and decency in the depths of suffering and madness. Even so, it seems to me that King Lear speaks more about the crisis of Trumpism than any other Shakespeare play. And that, I think, is because King Lear has less to say about Donald Trump himself than it does about the world that is crumbling around him—and around us.

The story is familiar and deceptively simple, almost like a fairy tale. An old king foolishly decides to abdicate his authority and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. To decide which daughter will receive the greatest share of his kingdom, he puts them to a famous test …

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most …”

Lear rewards two daughters, Goneril and Regan, for their elaborate flattery, but he furiously disowns and banishes his favorite daughter Cordelia for her honesty and bluntness. Chaos ensues as Goneril and Regan subdue their father into beggarly destitution; he spends much of the play wandering through his forfeited kingdom in a state of madness—a madness which sometimes graces him with paradoxical wisdom. For example, in a moment of crazed lucidity, Lear captures the very essence of Trumpism …

LEAR. Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?
GLOUCESTER. Ay, sir.
LEAR. And the creature run from the cur—there thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.

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King Lear mourns Cordelia’s death, James Barry, 1786–1788

Lear’s abdication of authority creates a moral vacuum much like the one we inhabit right now—a vacuum in which norms of decency are threatened and largely destroyed. Catastrophe after catastrophe unfolds, tearing the kingdom to pieces and leading inexorably toward the play’s ultimate horrifying tableau—King Lear carrying his dead daughter Cordelia onto the stage, literally howling with animal grief before his own heart breaks forever.

During that last scene, the surviving characters are stricken with such despair that they wonder whether the world itself can endure …

KENT. Is this the promised end?
EDGAR. Or the image of that horror?

We might well wonder the same, for our situation is similarly dire. A manifestly egotistical and unstable man now has the power to unleash nuclear war. And faced with the possibility that the planet may soon become uninhabitable to humanity, Trump brazenly enacts policies that will hasten climate change.

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Scene from Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 film adaptation of King Lear.

Is there any hope at the end of Lear? Is there any hope for us now? Shakespeare’s nihilistic vision offers no easy reassurance. But there’s a strange idea lurking inside this savage play that merits parsing.

Three men are left standing at the end of King Lear—all of them capable of moral decency. King Lear’s exiled ally, the Earl of Kent, has spent the whole play loyally serving his master in disguise. The young Edgar, having survived his bastard brother’s machinations against him, has escorted his brutally blinded father to a peaceful death. Even Goneril’s husband, the long-vacillating Duke of Albany, has at long last learned to follow the dictates of his conscience.

The task of rebuilding on the ruins of civilization finally falls to them.

Meanwhile—and I think this is terribly important—the evils that triggered and fueled the story’s chaos have been exhausted and destroyed. The Trump-like villains, duplicitous and opportunistic as they’ve been, have failed to stave off their own destruction. Obedient to their own vicious natures, they have inevitably turned their treachery against each other. Before they could quite destroy the frail, surviving goodness in the world, they have destroyed themselves.

The evil of Trumpism is already playing itself out in such a manner. Trump’s once-trusted allies—Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, David Pecker, and Paul Manafort among them—are turning against him one by one. How could they do otherwise, given that their illusory loyalty was always founded upon self-interest, never on honor or decency?

So perhaps the grim denouement of Trumpism is already underway. Meanwhile, we who have witnessed this terrible spectacle with morally undeluded eyes must look to the future; it will be up to us to build upon the ruins.

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King Lear, by an unknown artist.

Lear, in the depths of his suffering, may have a lesson to offer in this effort. Shorn of power, authority, possessions, and dignity, thrust out onto a storm-blasted heath to make his way like a beggar, Lear at last learns to empathize with those who suffer in oblivion …

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Like Lear, we have long “ta’en too little care of this,” leaving a moral vacuum in which Trumpism has arisen to run its ruthless course. To fill that vacuum, we must build a just and compassionate society.

It’s time to get started.

 

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The Throne and the Mirror: Elizabeth and Shakespeare after Essex’s Rebellion — a short play

Characters:

Queen Elizabeth I
William Shakespeare

The scene is the queen’s privy chamber in the Palace of Whitehall, February 1601. A table is scattered with books and papers. Queen Elizabeth sits at the table reading. Across the table from her is an empty chair. William Shakespeare enters.

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Elizabeth I, the Ermine Portrait; attributed to William Segar

ELIZABETH. Master Shakespeare.

SHAKESPEARE (kneeling). How may I please Your Majesty?

ELIZABETH. Arise.

(SHAKESPEARE does so.)

ELIZABETH. Who am I?

SHAKESPEARE. A lowly scribbler dares not to answer such a question.

ELIZABETH. I am Richard II, know you not that?

SHAKESPEARE. With due humility, I know no such thing.

ELIZABETH. No lies—not here alone with your queen.

(SHAKESPEARE looks around with surprise.)

ELIZABETH. My councilors were against it—Sir Robert especially. “Alone!” he cried. “With a man who aided a rebellion against you!” “Do not fear for my person,” I told him. “There’s such divinity hedging a queen, treason may only peep at what it wishes to do. We’ll have Will’s head soon enough.”

SHAKESPEARE. I did not aid a rebellion.

ELIZABETH (perusing some papers). The day before Essex tried to seize my court, did you not put on a show at his command?

SHAKESPEARE. A trifling play, Your Majesty, so old and out of use, I don’t know why he wanted it. A solid mass of turgid verse; too many end-stops, rhymes, and lockstep iambs; not a scrap of prose for relief, no comedy at all, nothing to please the groundlings but gardeners spouting homilies from some old morality play. Indeed, that’s all it is, a musty and intolerable morality play that—

ELIZABETH (interrupting him as she pores over the papers). Hush. (Pause) The Tragedy of Richard II. (Pause) The tragedy of me.

SHAKESPEARE. I don’t understand.

ELIZABETH. No lies, I said—not when you’re about to meet your maker. I have a transcript here.
(Reading)
Landlord of England art thou now, not king:
Thy state of law is bondslave to the law.

SHAKESPEARE. Exquisitely read. But what have these lines to do with Your Majesty?

ELIZABETH. The story of the righteous deposition of one vulgar landlord by another, of one usurper by another—the story of Essex deposing me, the bastard daughter of King Henry. Surely you knew what your employer wanted with it.

SHAKESPEARE. Who were we humble players to refuse?

ELIZABETH. Especially when he paid you forty shillings for it. Ten more silver pieces than even Judas got for betraying our Good Lord!

SHAKESPEARE. The play is only a play.

ELIZABETH. A monarch is God’s anointed substitute on earth, else he—or she—is nothing. If one monarch was ever a vulgar landlord, then so are all the rest, and so am I. Was Richard a vulgar landlord?

SHAKESPEARE. I cannot say.

ELIZABETH (pointing to the page). You say right here —

SHAKESPEARE. Not I, the dying John of Gaunt.

ELIZABETH. You wrote his words.

SHAKESPEARE. I merely held the pen for him.

ELIZABETH. False.

SHAKESPEARE. Mayn’t I put treason on the stage without standing accused of it?

ELIZABETH. Only if you take care to call it treason.

SHAKESPEARE. And hang signs around my actors’ necks? “Anointed King,” “Treacherous Usurper,” “Vulgar Landlord”?

ELIZABETH. Instructive.

SHAKESPEARE. It’s not my trade to judge—rather to hold a mirror up to nature.

ELIZABETH. Do you suppose nature wishes to look upon her own twisted carcass, her countenance wrinkled and pockmarked, a mangy wig upon her scabby scalp? Paint a flattering portrait—fair, blooming, and buxom. Show it to her. Tell her it’s a perfect likeness.

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First Folio, 1623

SHAKESPEARE. I’d be a shoddy playwright then.

ELIZABETH. You’d be a live one.

SHAKESPEARE. I implore Your Majesty —

ELIZABETH. No.

SHAKESPEARE. If I have offended —

ELIZABETH. Betrayed.

SHAKESPEARE. I sincerely repent that I —

ELIZABETH. Fear, not love, begets your penitence.

SHAKESPEARE. May I not save myself?

ELIZABETH. Not if you must be yourself.

SHAKESPEARE. I may be no one else.

ELIZABETH. Then we’re done.

(Pause)

SHAKESPEARE. Well. I owe my God a death. If it be not to come, it will be now. I don’t feel especially well. (Indicating a chair by the table) May I?

(SHAKESPEARE sits.)

ELIZABETH. Impudence!

SHAKESPEARE. Your Majesty, if your executioner is half as good at his trade as I’m at mine, I’ll see my cut-out heart bloody and beating before my still-living eyes. Forgive that I’m no longer daunted by your sovereign rage. And now, won’t you indulge a dead man’s whimsy? Let’s chat away these precious moments.

(ELIZABETH glares at him.)

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Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

SHAKESPEARE. What are you reading? (Picking up a book) Ah—Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince.

(ELIZABETH snatches the book away from him.)

SHAKESPEARE. “Hatred is acquired as much by good works as by bad ones,” he says. And, “A prince wishing to keep his state is very often forced to do evil.” And, “A prince ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty.” How shocking to find you reading such stuff.

ELIZABETH. You seem to know it by heart.

SHAKESPEARE. It’s my trade. What do you think of our Italian friend?

ELIZABETH. The wickedest of men.

SHAKESPEARE. No lies—not to a man about to meet his maker. We both know what we’re supposed to say. I’ve done my own dutiful best to make his name the same as Satan’s, to render him a man of plots, drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams, murdering men and then wooing their widows, his hands dripping with the blood of babes. I even gave him a frightful shape:
His mother felt more than a mother’s pain,
And yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformèd lump;
Teeth had he in his head when he was born,
To signify he cam’st to bite the world.
But all that’s stale and false. So just between the two of us—the truth. What do you think of him?

(Silence)

SHAKESPEARE. When I was apprenticed into the players’ art and mystery, I learned to sing, fight, fence, tumble, dance, and—oh, yes, to conjure: make flowers bloom from the palm of my hand, send sleeping maids floating upon the air, snatch a man’s head off his shoulders and put it back again. How I feared that some rival conjuror would go among the crowd, telling the secrets of all my illusions! And that’s what Machiavelli did to you, isn’t it? Exposed your trade, the art and mystery of princehood, revealed your trapdoors, wires, and mirrors.

ELIZABETH. Revealed that God had nothing to do with what we are.

SHAKESPEARE. Your words, Your Majesty.

ELIZABETH. Clever fellow.

SHAKESPEARE. Me or him?

ELIZABETH. When I was apprenticed, my tutor made me learn much of him by memory. Tell me—is it better to be loved or feared?

SHAKESPEARE. To be feared, of course.

ELIZABETH. Ay, “for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage — ”

SHAKESPEARE. “ — but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

ELIZABETH. And yet—whether he is feared or loved, a prince must always avoid being hated. “Learn this lesson well,” my tutor said, “for it shall be your doing or undoing.”

SHAKESPEARE. He would be well-pleased.

ELIZABETH. Oh, no—for as I near my grave, hatred grows against me, and also justly-earned contempt. This late rebellion proves it. I failed to follow Machiavelli’s advice. I made myself loved rather than feared.

SHAKESPEARE. All of your subjects fear you.

ELIZABETH. Why so? My tyranny touches but a handful of them. I am a lone woman, and old. How many commands are mine to give? But put Machiavelli’s book into the hands of every Englishman who can read, and each of them becomes a tyrant. Then blossom too many commands for all the generations of Adam to obey, and bloody oppression waxes infinite. The tyranny of the one is not worth fearing; the tyranny of the many, of the all—now that’s a tyranny to terrify any sane soul. (Pause) I summoned you to take off your head. Instead, I’ll put something on it. Approach.

(SHAKESPEARE rises and steps toward her, then kneels. As she speaks, ELIZABETH lifts an imaginary crown from her head and holds an imaginary scepter.)

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Richard II

ELIZABETH. Now mark me, how I will undo myself:
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy scepter from my hand,
The pride of queenly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear.
Make me, that nothing have, with nothing griev’d,
And thou with all pleas’d, that hast all achiev’d!

(She places the imaginary crown on SHAKESPEARE’s head, the imaginary scepter in his hand.)

ELIZABETH. Hail, William Rex—Stratford Glover’s Son, Student of Machiavelli, Tyrant Among Untold Multitudes of Tyrants. I, humble Elizabeth, the sole remaining subject in all the realm, do kneel before you.

(ELIZABETH kneels.)

END OF PLAY

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Panorama of London by Claes Van Visscher, 1616

THAT Soliloquy — Is It About Suicide?

“To be, or not to be—that is the question …”

… but what is the question, really? What is Hamlet actually talking about? I was pretty slow as a teenager, so when I asked a high school English teacher this question, of course he told me, as teachers always do …

Hamlet is contemplating suicide.”

The trouble was, I couldn’t quite make sense of it. Yes, I understood what all the words meant—that “quietus” was a settlement of a debt, a “bare bodkin” was a dagger, “fardels” were burdens or loads, the “undiscover’d country” was death, and all the rest of it.

First Folio, 1623

First Folio, 1623

But wasn’t taking “arms against a sea of troubles” a rather odd way of describing suicide? And what about those “enterprises of great pitch and moment” that “lose the name of action” that Hamlet talks about at the end? Surely, I suggested, Hamlet wasn’t talking about suicide there.

I succeeded only in convincing my English teacher that I was a great deal dumber than he already knew me to be. And who was I to argue? I let the matter rest for a long time.

It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered the 1982 Arden edition of Hamlet, edited by the late Shakespeare scholar Harold Jenkins. Thirty years in the making, it was so exhaustively (and exhaustingly) annotated that Jenkins couldn’t fit all of his annotations on the pages of the text itself; he added another 150 pages of notes at the end. It was a dream for a Shakespeare geek like me. I devoured every word.

And when I got to that all-too-famous soliloquy of Act III, scene i, I was in for a special treat. The speech was annotated first with about a page and a half of footnotes, then with another eight and a half pages of endnotes—a total of around 10 pages of annotation altogether.

To my delight, I found that Jenkins devoted most of those notes to proving my high school teacher (and just about everybody else) wrong …

It is impossible … to say that Hamlet ever contemplates suicide for himself or regards it as a likely choice for any man.

For one thing, this is the only soliloquy of Hamlet’s (out of seven in all) that never once uses first person singular pronouns like “I” and “me.” Nor does he mention his father’s murder, his uncle’s usurpation, his mother’s remarriage, or anything else having to do with the story of the play. Hamlet isn’t talking about his own specific situation at all, but about what life is like for all of us.

And his “question,” as Jenkins sums it up, is simply, “Is life worth living?” Hamlet goes on to give us a lot of reasons why life might not be …

… the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes …

And of course, right then Hamlet does mention the possibility of suicide—after all, one could always do oneself in with a “bare bodkin.” But according to Jenkins,

this is a rhetorical question, which already presupposes its answer, a hypothetical question brought in only to be dismissed.

It’s the same with just about any positive action we might take. We don’t wind up doing much of anything about life’s “sea of troubles.”

And according to Jenkins, that “sea” is a richer image than we may have realized:

Edwin Both as Hamlet, ca. 1870

Edwin Booth as Hamlet, ca. 1870

The metaphor appears to be based upon well-known instances, notably that of the Celts, who, as described by various ancient authors, rather than show fear by flight, would draw their swords and throw themselves into the tides as though to terrify them.

A desperate and futile gesture, certainly. You could even call it suicidal, since it’s surely not going to end well. But suicide isn’t really the point. It’s about doing something—anything—against the manifold torments of existence. It’s also about accepting the fact that you’re doomed to lose—or at the very least to die in the attempt. Hamlet learns this bitter truth himself at the end of the play.

Most of us don’t dare undertake any such endeavor, in no small part due to our fear of the “undiscover’d country” of death …

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

As Jenkins puts it,

we come to the end of life’s “troubles” not when we put an end to them but when they put an end to us.

The Fair Youth of the Sonnets

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“The best response to a poem is another poem.”

I don’t know who first said that. But I try it out myself every now and then, whenever a poem leaves me with nagging questions. Consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII …

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

I’ve often wondered just how the fabled “Fair Youth” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets felt about this bit of flattery. Is it even flattery? If so, just who is being flattered, the subject or the poet? And how might the youth have responded in lines of his own? Here’s my own best guess …

Who cares if I am lovely and serene?
Your summer’s day is all they shall recall:
Rough winds, wracked buds, the sky’s sweltering ball—
Nothing of me in all your torrid scene.

What of my blest and tantalizing dimple
Which you have likened to a sylvan lair
Wherein you dedicate yourself to prayer?
Fine figure—so felicitous, so simple!

Such words alone would grant the lasting fame
Of that fat knight who from all havoc flees,
That gypsy queen of wild varieties.
Why not at least have written down my name?

The deathless days you promised for all time—
You’ve granted them to nothing but your rhyme.

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