Why Obama along with Shakespeare? Well, Barack tells us that Shakespeare is one of his five favorite authors. Our President especially loves Shakespeare’s Tragedies.
By the way, another president of this our country – one against whom Barak Obama is sometimes weighed – was the greatest Shakespeare lover ever in the White House. “No writer appealed more to Abraham Lincoln,” writes biographer Charles Strozier, “than William Shakespeare. Some of the plays - King Lear, Richard II, Henry VI, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hamlet - Lincoln knew virtually by heart.”
Lincoln often read Shakespeare to those with whom he felt comfortable. Carl Sandburg noted that President Lincoln was particularly comfortable with the staff of the War Department’s telegraph office. “The President was more at ease among the telegraph operators than amid the general run of politicians.” And with these telegraph operators Lincoln read Shakespeare.
Bates noted that Lincoln carried in his pocket well-worn copies of Macbeth and the Merry Wives of Windsor from which he read aloud. Basler observed that after the Battle of the Wilderness, Mr. Lincoln found solace in reading out loud the famous soliloquy from his favorite Shakespeare play Macbeth. Lincoln after the Battle said of the passage that “it comes to me tonight as a consolation.”
We all know this passage that was such a favorite of Lincoln’s. Yes, we too practically know it by heart:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Well, that is a very depressing speech, bleak – nihilistic, in fact! But to President Lincoln it was, in that war situation, a deep consolation.
Now President Obama also finds himself in a war situation. And Obama is also a great lover of Shakespeare. What consolation does Obama take from Shakespeare? What has he learned from the plays?
Let’s look at a few of the plays and ask what wisdom could come to Obama if he does indeed share Lincoln’s deep feeling for and profound understanding of Shakespeare.
Obama says he loves the tragedies. The greatest of all the tragedies, most will agree, is Hamlet.
Young Hamlet is a beautiful guy – a student of philosophy, a lover of the arts, especially the theater. And he is exchanging valentine cards, we might say, with a fine young woman. His prospects are very good for a happy and fulfilled life.
But suddenly a most severe shock knocks him to his knees. His father dies under the strangest circumstances, and his mother... – why, his mother remarries almost immediately after the funeral. And she marries her husband’s brother!
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark! An apparition appears to Hamlet:
I am thy father's spirit.
If thou didst ever thy dear father love,
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder
Murder! Revenge! Oh, the poor prince! What is he to do?
The time is out of joint. O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right!
He must kill his uncle Claudius, right? Everybody insists that he do so; the whole world blames him for dragging his feet for so long. “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.”
Hamlet himself hates himself for his miserable procrastination. He falls into a suicidal melancholy: “To be or not to be...” He wants to kill himself.
Why cannot Hamlet kill the king straight away without all these acute misgivings? Two other sons in the play whose fathers are murdered – Laertes and Fortinbras – do not hesitate for a second. But Hamlet’s better nature, apparently, will not allow him to so. Hamlet was made for finer things.
“To be or not to be..?” “To kill or not to kill – that is the question.” In fact, we might call today’s talk “To Kill or Not to Kill: Shakespeare and Obama.”
For what after all is the spirit of Hamlet’s father? It is the spirit of war! The ghost of Hamlet’s father was fully clad in complete armor – cap a pie, from head to foot! Hamlet’s father was a warrior as bloody as Macbeth. That ghost was a brutal big shot, the commanding father imposing his will upon the son. It is the older generation sending the younger generation off to war.
Love or war? There was a small chance that Hamlet might have chosen life and art... - chosen to love Ophelia instead of driving her to insanity and suicide. But the demands on Hamlet were enormous: authority, peer pressure, custom, and so-called honor. He struggled mightily against all these, but in the end he caved in. Many people died as a result – Hamlet’s mother, his sweetheart, his friends, and he himself. A true tragedy!
Same thing with Romeo - again a choice between love and war, between the path of peace and the road down to violence.
Juliet said to Romeo “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee the more I have, for both are infinite.”
Romeo’s love was almost as deep – almost, but not quite. In a crucial moment Romeo makes a critical choice. He had tried to embrace Tybalt and the Capulets. In his love for Juliet he was ready to accept all her relatives – yes, even Tybalt.
But when Tybalt killed Romeo’s friend Mercutio, then honor, custom, authority, the will of the father – the very same devils that ensnared Hamlet – triumphed in Romeo’s heart and mind.
“O sweet Juliet, thy beauty hath made me effeminate!” cries Romeo when he sees his friend lying in a pool of blood. He picks up a sword and in a frenzied rage pursues Tybalt, fights with him and kills him.
“O, I am Fortune’s fool!” Romeo cries when he realizes what he has done. He has crushed the beautiful bud of love that was his and Juliet’s. In killing Tybalt Romeo put to death his love, his life, his happiness.
But he had to do so; what else could he do? Honor made him do so, loyalty to a friend, the fierce Italian temperament on a blistering hot day... Romeo had no more choice than Hamlet.
Or did he? Look at Brutus, another Italian: a noble Roman, a senator, a friend of Caesar – perhaps even his son. And look how Caesar loved him: Give Marc Antony your ears:
If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle: I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on;
'Twas on a summer's evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii:
Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made:
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd;
And as he pluck'd his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow'd it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knock'd, or no;
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty heart;
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey's statue,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.
Brutus was much like Hamlet – a man given to philosophy. He had a lovely and a loving wife in Portia. (She actually killed herself when she learned later that things were going badly for Brutus.)
And this man, like a cutthroat in a dark alley, pulled out a dagger and stabbed and stabbed Julius Caesar.
Why? Why for honor, for the approval of his friends, for fear Caesar would prove to be a tyrant.
Think him as a serpent's egg
Which, hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.
How’s that for a preventive strike? The doctrine put into operation in Iraq was not new with Bush: it’s in Shakespeare. (Everything is in Shakespeare.)
And so Hamlet, Romeo, Brutus... - all turned to violence. But perhaps the best example of a man who turned away from love to violence is Hal.
As a young prince Hal was somewhat like Hamlet: he liked to play. But whereas Hamlet played at theater, Hal played practical jokes, played in taverns, in bawdy houses... - even played at highway robbery!
But he is charming and we love him, even when he tells us that he is playing at playing – that his friendship with the common folk is not sincere.
And indeed what a change comes over him when he ascends the throne! Hal’s father, Henry IV, with his dying words had advised his son to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” Why were minds “giddy” or excited? Because the people were troubled at the way in which Hal’s father had usurped the crown. He had pushed the rightful king, Richard II, off the throne. He had Richard imprisoned in chains in Pomfret Castle and had him killed! Yes, Hal’s father did this and it troubles Hal. His title to the crown is questionable.
But immediately upon mounting the throne, Hal – now King Henry V – embarks upon imperial conquest. And he does this on a pretext! High church officials supply him with enormous amounts of money. And (see if this doesn’t sound familiar) provide him with a phony justification for invading another country. War is kicked off all on a pretext, and Henry falls upon another country like a beast in the night. Does that sound familiar? Granted, the analogy here is to Bush again, not to Obama.
But listen to Henry at the gates of Harfleur in France threatening its citizens:
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh'd soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.
What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
In a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds.
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid,
or guilty in defence, be thus destroy'd?
He orders the hanging of his old tavern buddy Bardolph for filching a relic from a church. He orders his men to cut the throats of all the French prisoners!
But the worst thing Henry did was to break the heart of Falstaff, the old fat man who loved him. Here is Falstaff among the crowds in a London street as the new King Henry passes along in his coronation parade:
Falstaff: God save thy Grace, King Hal; my royal Hal! God save thee, my sweet boy! My king! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!
Henry V: I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
I banish thee, on pain of death,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
Wow! The friends of Falstaff (and all in his circle loved the fat old scoundrel) – Falstaff’s friends all believed that he died of a broken heart, that Henry killed his father-figure Falstaff.
To kill or not to kill – that was the question for Hamlet, for Romeo, for Brutus, for Hal, and yes - for Obama too!
Shakespeare’s tragic figures all succumbed to the fathers, to authority, to so-called honor, to pride. They all feared looking weak.
Obama too fears looking weak. “Not on my watch!” he declares, speaking of far-off threats. And so he complies with custom, with the way things are done in Washington. He surrenders to the generals. The speech announcing an escalation of 30,000 more soldiers in Afghanistan he made before all the assembled military brass at West Point.
But what else could Obama do? President of the United States is not his only title. Barack Obama is also CEO of the American Empire. 1,000 military bases in 135 countries around the world? That’s the most incredible empire ever. The Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Russian Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Portuguese Empire, the Japanese Empire, the Ming Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire...all these together did not make up one-hundreth of the American Empire!
Is Obama going to pay heed to Shakespeare and dismantle the American Empire? If all four of these Shakespeare characters were sitting in this room with us (and Shakespeare’s characters are so real they could very well be here) - and if Obama were in this room too - why, Hamlet, Romeo, Brutus, Hal would all agree: “Don’t do it, Obama! It’s not worth it. Revenge begets revenge, war breeds war.”
Here – let’s listen to them: “Beware, Obama,” says Romeo. “In my soul I knew I should have taken Juliet in my heart and loved her relatives as well. But my father and the family feud insisted that I kill Tybalt.”
“Beware, Obama,” says Brutus. “My wife Portia and my own soul counseled me not to kill. But my friend Cassius claimed that my father would expect me to kill Caesar.”
“Beware, Obama,” says Hal. “My heart told me to cling to Falstaff and his love of life. But instead I rejected the spirit of Falstaff and - obeying my father - invaded France instead.”
“Beware, Obama,” says Hamlet. “My heart and soul told me to give my life to art, to love, to philosophy. But my father demanded that I kill, kill, kill...”
Sure it is almost unachievable for any of us - for me more than anyone! – to attain to the moral heights of Shakespeare. Harold Bloom says “the worship of Shakespeare ought to be more a secular religion than it already is. The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement. They abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go. If any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare. He has become the first universal author, replacing the Bible in the secularized consciousness.”
Well, we need not go as far as Bloom. But Shakespeare is the greatest of poets and it is the function of a very great poet to move us, to motivate us to do, to reach... – yes, the impossible. To perform a miracle!
That’s what Obama – and all of us - might learn from Shakespeare on this, Saint Valentine’s Day.
I dedicate this essay to the memory of Harold C. Goddard, chair of the English Department at Swarthmore College from 1909 to 1946 and author of “The Meaning of Shakespeare.” Goddard is my favorite Shakespeare critic and to him I owe the argument developed here.