Shakespeare in American Politics

I was delighted to receive Marjorie Garber‘s Shakespeare After All in the mail this morning. Garber’s book is a thousand page review of everything Shakespeare ever wrote, with each play claiming its own chapter length analysis. The introduction of Shakespeare After All is a fascinating tour of Shakespeare’s reputation though the centuries, describing how Shakespeare’s poetry has been perceived in the days since his plays were originally performed, which of his works were most popular during various eras, and how their presentation on the page and performance on the stage has changed with time. In Shakespeare’s lifetime Pericles was the most popular of his works; in the 19th century, lines from King John and Henry VIII, much neglected today, were the most likely to appear in the quote books and progymnasmata collections so popular then. Emerson bitterly lamented that Harvard, his alma mater, had no lecturer in Shakespearean rhetoric. His lament went unheeded; neither Harvard nor Yale included Shakespeare among their course readings until the 1870s. Yet for 19th century men like Emerson this really was no great loss. The American people of this era were so engrossed with Shakespeare that no one living in America could escape him: evidence of his place in America’s “pop culture in the nineteenth century [can be found in everything from] traveling troupes, Shakespeare speeches as part of vaudeville bills, huge crowds and riots at productions, [to accounts of] audiences shouting lines back at the actors. [1]

I am reminded of Tocqueville‘s observation that every settler’s hut in America, no matter how squalid or remote, had a copy of a newspaper, a Bible, and some work of Shakespeare inside it. [2] Tocqueville used this as evidence to buttress his claim that the Americans were more educated and cultivated than any other people on the Earth. He may have been on to something. One cannot read the diaries, letters, and editorials of 19th century America without wondering at their eloquence and erudition. What caused this, if not the many hours they spent as children on their mothers’ knee learning to read from the Jacobean English of the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare?

Garber also discusses the role Shakespearean rhetoric has played in American political culture since the founding. Quotes from Shakespeare have always been ubiquitous in American politics. They were used in the earliest days of the American republic. They are used with equal frequency today. However, the manner in which they are used has shifted  with time. This diversity may seem a small thing, but the different ways Shakespeare’s rhymes have been used through time reveal a great deal about broader and more important shifts in American political culture. This will become apparent as I describe these changes.

A good place to start is with the Webster-Hayne debate of 1830. Of all American oratory, only the Lincoln-Douglass debates can claim greater fame than the debate Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne held on the antebellum Senate floor. At that time there was a resolution before the Senate calling for all new federal land surveys to be postponed until all of the existing land already surveyed was sold. This struck the ire of the westerners, who pushed for federal land to be given to new settlers without charge or delay.

 In those days American politics was a sectional affair. Political outcomes often turned on forging an alliance between one region of the country and another to push through policies that might benefit both at the cost of the rest. Hayne, a South Carolina man, saw in this debate a chance to place a wedge between New England, whose delegates opposed free homesteading, and the frontier states of the West. A “coalition” (as he would call it) between Westerners and New Englanders had delivered the presidency to John Quincy Adams just a few years before. That coalition was formed in unusual circumstances, and thus was condemned in Southern circles as a “corrupt bargain” that threatened American liberties. Adam’s side denied these charges with greatest vigor, but all of the vigor in the world could not slow the democratic tide sweeping over American society. Andrew Jackson would ride this tide into the white house. Jackson, champion of mass democracy, reconfigured the landscape of American politics. His new coalition–which united men of the West, South, and the urban centers of the North–would dominate American politics for the next two decades. But Hayne and Webster had their debate only two years into this new era. It wasn’t clear that the revolution had been won; no one knew if Jackson’s coalition would prove transient or permanent. Any chance to drive New England further into the backwaters of national politics must be seized, and Hayne was eager to do the seizing.

Webster was a quintessential New Englander. He was also one of the cleverest men ever elected to the Senate. For Webster, Hayne’s speechifying offered a choice opportunity. By responding to Hayne instead of the Westerners, he transformed a dispute over land sales into a debate over more fundamental questions about the nature of the constitution, the relationship of state and federal governments, and the South’s attempts to defy the rest of the Union.

Hayne was indignant to be so attacked, and his reply to Webster was harsh:

The gentleman from Missouri, it is true, had charged upon the Eastern States an early and continued hostility towards the West, and referred to a number of historical facts and documents in support of that charge. Now, sir, how have these different arguments been met? The honorable gentleman from Massachusetts [Webster], after deliberating a whole night upon his course, comes into this chamber to vindicate New England, and; instead of making up his issue with the gentleman from Missouri, on the charges which he had preferred, chooses to consider me as the author of those charges; and, losing sight entirely of that gentleman, selects me as his adversary, and pours out all the vials of his mighty wrath upon my devoted head. Nor is he willing to stop there. He goes on to assail the institutions and policy of the South, and calls in question the principles and conduct of the State which I have the honor to represent.

When I find a gentleman of mature age and experience, of acknowledged talents and profound sagacity, pursuing a course like this, declining the contest offered from the West, and making war upon the unoffending South, I must believe, I am bound to believe, he has some object in view that he has not ventured to disclose. Why is this? Has the gentleman discovered in former controversies with the gentleman from Missouri, that he is overmatched by that Senator? And does he hope for an easy victory over a more feeble adversary? Has the gentleman’s distempered fancy been disturbed by gloomy forebodings of “new alliances to be formed,” at which he hinted? Has the ghost of the murdered Coalition come back, like the ghost of Banquo, to “sear the eye-balls” of the gentleman, and will it not “down at his bidding?” Are dark visions of broken hopes, and honors lost forever, still floating before his heated imagination? (Emphasis added) [3]

Hayne’s charge was that Webster was not attacking the South because he actually disagreed with their policies as a matter of principle, but because he hoped to resurrect the dead coalition of West and East by tearing apart the alliance of West and South. This was a devilish fantasy in Hayne’s eyes, a point he emphasized by alluding to the most devilish of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth.  

Webster was not going to let Hayne get away with abusing the Bard like this. His reply was masterful:

“But, sir, the Coalition! The Coalition! Aye, “the murdered Coalition!” The gentleman asks, if I were led or frighted into this debate by the spectre of the Coalition—“was it the ghost of the murdered Coalition,” he exclaims, “which haunted the member from Massachusetts; and which, like the ghost of Banquo, would never down?” “The murdered Coalition!” Sir, this charge of a coalition, in reference to the late Administration, is not original with the honorable member. It did not spring up in the Senate. Whether as a fact, as an argument, or as an embellishment, it is all borrowed. He adopts it, indeed, from a very low origin, and a still lower present condition. It is one of the thousand calumnies with which the press teemed, during an excited political canvass. It was a charge, of which there was not only no proof or probability, but which was, in itself, wholly impossible to be true. No man of common information ever believed a syllable of it……

But, sir, the honorable member was not, for other reasons, entirely happy in his allusion to the story of Banquo’s murder, and Banquo’s ghost. It was not, I think, the friends, but the enemies of the murdered Banquo, at whose bidding his spirit would not down. The honorable gentleman is fresh in his reading of the English classics, and can put me right, if I am wrong; but, according to my poor recollection, it was at those who had begun with caresses, and ended with foul and treacherous murder, that the gory locks were shaken! The ghost of Banquo, like that of Hamlet, was an honest ghost. It disturbed no innocent man. It knew where its appearance would strike terror, and who would cry out, a ghost! It made itself visible in the right quarter, and compelled the guilty, and the conscience-smitten, and none others, to start, with,
  • “Pr’ythee, see there! behold!—look! lo
  • “If I stand here, I saw him!”
Their eye balls were seared (was it not so, sir?) who had thought to shield themselves, by concealing their own hand, and laying the imputation of the crime on a low and hireling agency in wickedness; who had vainly attempted to stifle the workings of their own coward consciences, by ejaculating, through white lips and chattering teeth, “thou canst not say I did it!” I have misread the great poet, if it was those who had no way partaken in the deed of the death, who either found that they were, or feared that they should be, pushed from their stools by the ghost of the slain, or who exclaimed, to a spectre created by their own fears, and their own remorse, “avaunt! and quit our sight!”
There is another particular, sir, in which the honorable member’s quick perception of resemblances might, I should think, have seen something in the story of Banquo, making it not altogether a subject of the most pleasant contemplation. Those who murdered Banquo, what did they win by it? Substantial good? Permanent power? Or disappointment, rather, and sore mortification;—dust and ashes—the common fate of vaulting ambition, overleaping itself? Did not even-handed justice ere long commend the poisoned chalice to their own lips? Did they not soon find that for another they had “filed their mind?” that their ambition, though apparently for the moment successful, had but put a barren sceptre in their grasp? Aye, Sir,
“A barren sceptre in their gripe,
Thence to be wrenched by an unlineal hand,
No son of their’s succeeding.

Sir, I need pursue the allusion no farther. I leave the honorable gentleman to run it out at his leisure, and to derive from it all the gratification it is calculated to administer. If he finds himself pleased with the associations, and prepared to be quite satisfied, though the parallel should be entirely completed, I had almost said, I am satisfied also—but that I shall think of. Yes, sir, I will think of that.” (emphasis added) [4]

Webster’s response was twofold: his first point was that all talk of “coalitions” is nonsense: the “corrupt bargain” that gave Adams the presidency was a phantasm created by a tabloid press searching for controversy. Sober men could not believe in this sort of conspiracy. Adams won his election fairly, and it is irresponsible for Hayne to say otherwise. This is all well and good. Anyone on Webster’s side of the debate would have said the same thing—it was the party line. But then in a stroke of rhetorical brilliance Webster turns Hayne’s own allusion against him. Webster reminds his audience that in Macbeth it was only those who murdered Banquo who were haunted by his sight. The implication is clear: the scattered remnants that survived the death of the old coalition do not fear its ghost. The only people who could be haunted by its visage are those who stand to lose from its return–that is, those who labored for its destruction. Thus the devilish fantasy belonged not to Webster, but to Hayne. It was Hayne, Webster says, who built his politics upon an outlandish vision of alliance between New England and the West. The ambiguity of Macbeth‘s ghostly scenes (in the play it is not clear if Banquo is a hallucination of Macbeth or a true demon returned to haunt him) here becomes the perfect metaphor for Hayne’s conspiratorial report of Webster’s aims. Hayne’s choice to invoke Banquo’s ghosts reveals more about Hayne’s irrational insecurities than Webster’s true intentions.

Hayne: 0, Webster: 1.

These allusions to Shakespeare only occupy a normal portion of the two men’s debate–no more than a few paragraphs out of ninety or so pages of text. Nevertheless, the use of Macbeth‘s script in the debate is telling. Neither Webster nor Hayne thought it was a waste of their time to debate the finer points of Shakespeare’s plays in the halls of the Senate. The reader senses that Webster, in particular, did so in a positively gleeful fashion. Significantly, the play is not just used a source of pithy wisdom or quotable poetry. Webster discusses elements of its plot at length to drive home his meaning.

These speeches were given to a full standing audience. They were later printed and distributed in newspapers and periodicals across the nation. Webster and Hayne assumed, therefore, that the average reader of their words would understand the allusions made. You would be hard pressed to find an equal number of Americans today who would understand any talk of Banquo’s ghost.

Webster and Hayne were not alone in their use of Shakespeare. Garber does not reference their debate in her essay, but she does discuss a whole host of American politicians from the antebellum period to the early 1960s who used Shakespeare in a similar way. It is at this point she detects a change in the way politicians at the Capitol use the bard. She provides several examples from the last decade or so:

  •  “William Shakespeare once wrote. ‘For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.‘ Hundreds of years before the death tax was even conceived. Shakespeare captured the worries felt by thousands of Americans.”
  • “In sum, to paraphrase Shakespeare. which is not done very often on the Senate floor. adoption of the amendments will rob California of that which cannot enrich the northwest generators and yet will make California poor indeed.”
  •  “In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, the soothsayer warned Caesar to ‘beware the Ides of March.’ Caesar did not listen and Caesar perished. Today. on this Ides of March. I bring my colleagues fair warning. If we do not pass the Colombia aid package soon. our friends in Colombia could suffer the same fate as Caesar and our own children could be next.”
  •  “Shakespeare wrote. ‘What‘s past is prologue.’ And I believe no other phrase can quite describe both the achievements of the Republican Congress and its vision for America’s future.“
  • “The words of William Shakespeare‘s King Lear are ringing loudly in the ears of many Americans: ‘Fool me not to bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger.’ The old trusting king had just been grossly betrayed by two of his daughters. Collectively this nation has reason for an anger comparable to that of King Lear. In America the democratic process has just been mugged by the Supreme Court.” [5]

Garber comments on these statements:

In each of these cases Shakespeare plays the role of enforcer or up-lifter. The other lawmakers gathered in the chamber. and the constituents at home, are not asked to call to mind the specific circumstances of Hamlet: Iago; the Soothsayet in Julius Caesar; Antonio. the usurping Duke of Milan in The Tempest; or Lear’s reproof to his daughters about their stripping him of attendant knights—to give, in sequence, the sources of these quotations. Instead, Shakespeare is evoked, and invoked, as an eloquent coiner of eloquent phrases. The phrases, floating free of their immediate context, have become “Shakespeare.” [6]

She further adds that in the “21st Century… citing Shakespeare gives weight and heft to a political statement.” This is true; Shakespeare had a knack for saying things the best way they could be said. I can fault no one for using the Bard’s words in place of their own. But this way of using Shakespeare is not without its ironies: readers familiar with Shakespeare’s plays know that when the quotes above are placed in context, they mean something very different—even completely opposite—than what they are taken to mean at Capitol Hill. One suspects that if Daniel Webster were a senator today he would have a lot of fun responding to these speeches.

What has happened here? How have we gone from long discussions of Shakespearean drama on the senate floor to the shallow repetition of disembodied sentence fragments? The answers to this question tell us much about the American body politic:

1) The decline of public speaking as a vital part of American culture. Oratory is something of a lost art in modern America. It is hard to imagine just how vital it was to public life for most of America’s history. In Webster’s day public speaking was a central part of entertainment, education, civic life, and religious practice. He was elected in the midst of the 2nd Great Awakening, when American religious life was dominated by camp meetings  and church members were expected to preach and testify one to another. It was a time when every township had a lyceum at its center, and intellectual life was dominated by those who traveled the lyceum circuit. Collections of speeches like The Columbian Orator were the most common type of schoolbook in the antebellum era, while most American men actively participated in town assemblies and party caucuses. The mastery of proper political rhetoric was an essential social skill.

Add all this together and you are left with a population that found immense pleasure in listening to, reenacting, and reading the speeches of others. It was a prized art, and when masters like Webster or Lincoln displayed their talents, people flocked together to listen to them. There was thus a great deal of patience for the sort of rhetorical flourish inherit in the long discussions of Shakespeare seen above. Today’s Americans will not sit still and listen to a political speech for longer than ten minutes. The medium through which politicians communicate to the masses really doesn’t let them. Radio shows and news channels rely on the soundbite. If a politician’s message cannot be squeezed into a seven second slot it will not be heard.

2) The American people have less cultural literacy than they did in the past. The distinction we make between “high brow” and “low brow” entertainment was much fuzzier in America’s past than it is in America’s present. This was especially true for literary works. In Webster’s day, poets like Edgar Allen Poe were famous among both the elite and the masses. Few “average Americans” will be seen reciting lines from “The Raven” today! This mix of high and low culture was still true even in the 1950s:

In 1955, 15 million people paid to attend major league baseball games, while 35 million paid to attend classical music concerts. The New York Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcast drew a listenership of 15 million out of an overall population of 165 million. As the sociologist David White has noted, NBC spent $500,000 in 1956 to present a three-hour version of Shakespeare’s Richard III starring Sir Laurence Olivier. The broadcast drew 50 million viewers; as many as 25 million watched all three hours. White also went on to note that on March 16, I956, a Sunday chosen at random, the viewer could have seen a discussion of the life and times Toulouse-Lauflec by three prominent art critics, an interview with theologian Paul Tillieh, an adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s Hook, a documentary on mental illness with Dr. William Menninger, and a 90-minute performance of The Taming of the Shrew.” [7]

A paradox of the last fifty or so years of American history is that as the number of Americans with a university education has increased, the percentage of Americans who can claim any sort of familiarity with the poetry, verse, and literature past generations knew by heart has decreased. Explanations for why this happened are many, and none are simple. For the purposes of this discussion it is enough to say that since the baby boomers came of age, the strong voice of poetry and classic literature once heard in American pop culture has waned. There are a few exceptions to this–Jane Austen’s excellent novels come to mind–but very few.

3) American leaders no longer have a literary world view. This is true not only for American leaders, but for Anglophone leaders generally. Again, it can be difficult for people born in the last forty to fifty years to grasp just how a big a part classical literature, philosophy, and poetry played in the daily lives of past generations, especially those privileged enough to receive a liberal education. Privilege was a big part of this; men and women were driven to memorize and quote from the classics because in the eyes of their contemporaries this set them apart as a superior sort of individual. The man who knew his Milton, Pope, and Wordsworth was a civilized being. But this is only a partial explanation. You do not need dig far into the biographies of the leaders of that age to realize how thoroughly their understanding of the world was built around literature. Winston Churchill is a sterling example of the type. Books and poems defined how he talked about, and more importantly, how he thought about, the problems he faced. His thoughts were filtered through Shakespeare.

In the case of Webster and Hayne it is easy to dismiss their public displays of Shakespearean rhetoric as just that: public displays of learned affectation. It is harder to explain away the role Shakespearean verse played in more intimate settings. Garber narrows in on the love Abraham Lincoln had for the works of Shakespeare. He would often memorize long passages to recite to friends searching for consolation or amusement. Lincoln was a man who believed in the power of words. He sought them out. When he came across words beautiful or profound he treasured them up in his mind and his heart so that he could use them in a day of need. 

I cannot imagine any of the men or women running for president today sitting at a table with friends in need of counsel and reciting for them one of Shakespeare’s monologues. That simply isn’t the world we live in anymore. Ours is an age that has lost faith in words. We don’t value them—not as Americans once valued them. In such times what reason is there for our leaders to quote Shakespeare?

Edited (1 October 2015) to  correct several grammar and spelling errors.


[1] Majorie Garber, Shakespeare After All (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 35

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Other Writings, Trans. Gerald Bevan (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 544. See also the diary entry he excerpts on p. 869:

We went into the log house; the inside is not at all like the cottages of peasants in Europe; it contains more of what is not necessary and less of what is.

There is only one window over which a muslin curtain hangs; in the hearth of beaten earth crackles a huge fire which lights everything within the building; above the hearth thee is a fine rifle, a deerskin, and some eagle feathers; to the right of the mantelpiece a map of the United States is spread out which the wind catches and ruffles through the gaps in the wall; nearby, on a shelf made from a roughly hewn plank, there are a few volumes of books; I notice the Bible, Milton’s first six books, and two plays of Shakespeare; along the walls there are trunks instead of cupboards; in the center there is a crudely made table, the feet of which, being made from green wood has not been stripped of its bark, look as hough they are growing out of the soul upon which they stand.

[3] Herman Belz, ed. The Webster-Hayne Debate on the Nature of the Constitution: Selected Documents (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), p. 36

[4] ibid., p. 85-87

[5] Garber, Shakespeare After All, pg. 39 

[6] ibid

[7] Bruce Brendan, On the Origin of Spin: Or how Hollywood, the Ad Men and the World Wide Web became the Fifth Estate and created our images of power (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013); 249.

Leave a Comment


You left out a conscious decision for the last 60 or so years by the educational establishment to downgrade the curricula of all of our schools, K-12-colllege. An ideological rejection of any literary canon composed of dead, white, European males was a conscious decision, aggressively and relentlessly maintained fro decades. It was and is a policy. Three entire generations of Americans were cut off from their past, their heritage, the glories of their own language, in a conscious and intentional act of cultural warfare. Reducing the American people to a mass of semi-literate people lacking the intellectual capacity to govern themselves, so that they can be subjected to Gramscian programming and not understand what was happening to them, was and is a policy. The long march of the Left through the institutions is the most successful political campaign in American history. It has fundamentally transformed America, to use the words of one of its many toxic end-products. The America that knew Shakespeare and the Bible did not mysteriously disappear. It was killed off, intentionally.

@Lexington Green–

You are right. Though in many ways the effort has been self defeating, for the more "critical" the humanities have become the less relevant and treasured they are in the minds of the people writ large. Attempts to defund English departments are evidence of this.

But there is something deeper going on here. I think particularly of the decline of poetry in the English speaking world. This is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century—perhaps our greatest spiritual tragedy, second only to the loss of religion as a vital force in European and Chinese society. This decline was total. It affected both the upper and the lower classes (in contrast to the reading literature more generally, which is now an upper class endeavor). The decline has been too swift, too total to lay blame at the feet of progressive academics. Changing pedagogy in elementary schools and junior highs probably plays a part; so too does the proliferation of radio and TV stations as the channel through which pop culture flows. But I am not sure even this explains it.

At some point in the the early 20th century Americans and Englishmen decided that words don't have the power that they used to, and that beautiful language is not a glorious end unto itself. Perhaps WWI was the turning point.

I agree about the death of poetry as a living force in the lives of masses of people, but I disagree about the timing. The change occurred rapidly during and after the 1960s. Up to the 1960s poets treated as significant artists and intellectuals. Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost and W.H. Auden were all well known. Kennedy had Carl Sandburg visit the White House. Even the Beat Poets of the 1950s had a following, and their impact on poetry and the larger culture were taken seriously. Allen Ginsburg provoked widespread outrage with his poetry, which no one would pay attention to now. Poetry is an acquired taste, it is a cultivated taste. People have to be taught to appreciate it. They need to possess more than basic literacy to appreciate the allusions and the play of words. Poetry was precisely a casualty of the program of cultural warfare that began in the 1960s. It was swift, and total, and it is another crime that must be attributed to the work of leftist academics, and their capture of the teaching colleges and thereby the hearts and minds of the entire American population for three generations. I am old enough to remember the 1960s as a child. The older literary awareness had to be killed off. My grandfather never finished 8th Grade but he knew reams of Shakespeare by heart. The move away from compelled memorization hurt poetry. The move away from compelled recitation, to spare the child's ego, hurt poetry, since it has to be heard aloud to be truly appreciated. TV and Radio had an impact, but the conscious decision not to teach any canon, any classics, anything that was not "relevant" to ideological indoctrination, was what killed poetry off. The good news is that is still there, unkillable, and when the existing educational regime falls apart, we can start teaching it again, and the desire for it will be there among millions of people.

Note: A reader forwarded this NYT article on the role of Shakespearean rhetoric in the run up to the Civil War. It echoes some of my themes:

"Cry Havoc"

John Andrews and Dwight Pitcaithley. new York Times. 19 February 2011.

Lexington Green nailed it in one. The conscious decision to dumb down the curriculum; the decision to define educational success as keeping all children in school through 12 grade, if not beyond, regardless of their ability to profit from any additional schooling; the decision to keep children in the classroom even if they were a danger to other children or if they were so disruptive they made it impossible for other children to learn; all have the same root: like China's cultural revolution, the goal was the destruction of the existing culture.
Before the 60s, school in America was a pathway to a good education for anyone capable and willing to learn. Today, it is nothing more than warehousing of students, carried on in a manner that makes it impossible for any learning to take place at a faster pace than the lowest common denominator.