Observing Washington politics close-up has given me a new appreciation of Shakespeare. Now I see where he got his ideas.
“Today, you could say that almost all of our political rhetoric, comes from two books from the 16th and 17th centuries: the King James Bible and Shakespeare’s plays,” Michael Witmore, director of Folger Shakespeare Library, told me last year.
I recently talked to Witmore again at the 71-year-old independent research library and theater, which sits only a block east of the Capitol.
What, I wondered, would Shakespeare say about today’s era of government shutdowns, debt-ceiling showdowns and Obamacare website meltdowns? He wouldn’t be surprised, Witmore said with a smile, “After all, he wrote the script.”
Indeed, after perusing some of the Bard’s most famous quotes, it is not hard for me to look at today’s headlines and imagine, say, President Barack Obama confronting congressional Republicans with, “Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” (Hamlet).
Or Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reporting on job growth: “We have seen better days.” (Timon of Athens)
Or House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) looking over his shoulder at Tea Party rivals: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.” (Julius Caesar).
Or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) defending his ill-fated push into the partial government shutdown: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” (Hamlet).
Or maybe Health and Human Services Secy. Kathleen Sebelius as Lady Macbeth dealing with Obamacare’s website woes: “Out! Out, damn glitch…!”
But Witmore called my attention to As You Like It, a comedy that in Act 5, Scene 4, delivers “one of the great comic treatments of the politics of brinksmanship (that) we in the capital know well.”
In the scene, a jester named Touchstone instructs us in the etiquette of giving “the Lie with Circumstance,” a gesture to soften disputes — of which today’s Capitol Hill has many.
To express disagreement, he recommends the little word “if” in a way that almost sounds like you are conceding agreement — as in, “If you said so, then I said so.”
“Your If is the only peace-maker,” Touchstone concludes. “Much virtue in If.”