And now, a word from Shakespeare…
Raymond Ramirez | Monday, November 21, 2016
In the post-election haze of hopes dashed, unexpected victories and false prophets (I’m looking at you, Nate Silver), it is helpful to seek the wisdom of the great thinkers of the past for perspective and context. The first source of insight is the observation of Antonio to Sebastian in “The Tempest,” that all the crazy unpredictable events that have led them to commit murder also can be looked at as a way to put their act in context and give it meaning: “We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again, / And by that destiny to perform an act / Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come / In yours and my discharge.” The past is prologue not in the sense that it is not important, but rather that it is crucial to understand and appreciate what led to these apparently unexplainable events.
Numerous pundits and academicians are busily dissecting the events that led to the election of Donald Trump in an effort to understand the deeper meaning of the event, and to place a context around this seemingly seismic shift in politics. Yet, as time has proven, unexpected results, such as the election in 1968 of Richard Nixon, are explainable, perhaps even inevitable, given an appreciation of the events leading up to Nixon’s election. The ‘Southern Strategy’ of tapping into lightly veiled racism (using recently resurrected tropes of “law and order” and “taking our country back”) along with fear of a rapidly changing world, gave Nixon enough of a boost to defeat the mainstream and popular Hubert Humphrey. Nixon, who had been dismissed as a “loser” in his sweaty, nervous, televised debate performance only eight years before, flashed victory signs at the narrow election results, though the message sent really only needed a single middle digit.
So to get back to Shakespeare, we could scan the various history plays or the tragedies for weighty commentary on the recent election, or perhaps look to the comedies for observation on the farcical aspects of politics. I’ll leave that low-hanging fruit to others; as for me, I think the sonnets are the best place to find some context for recent events. For those who think of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a collection of syrupy love poems, it may come as a surprise that Shakespeare never really intended these works to be widely distributed, but rather treated them as a personal exercise in expressing difficult and conflicting emotions. A number of experts deduced that the subject of many of the poems was a young man on whom Shakespeare doted. Many of the poems are highly erotic, with bawdy double entendre, but subtle enough to have kept the relationship deniable, especially given that the consequences for Shakespeare, if discovered, could be grave indeed.
The conflicted nature of Shakespeare’s love, which gave him great joy but also placed him at risk, is apparent in Sonnet 144:
“Two loves I have of comfort and despair, / Which like two spirits do suggest me still: / The better angel is a man right fair, / The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill. / To win me soon to hell, my female evil / Tempteth my better angel from my side, / And would corrupt my saint to be a devil, / Wooing his purity with her foul pride. / And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend / Suspect I may, but not directly tell; / But being both from me, both to each friend, / I guess one angel in another’s hell: / Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt, / Till my bad angel fire my good one out.”
I can almost see the potential Trump voter, ballot in hand, cocking his or her head to listen to the “better angel” of Trump’s promises of jobs and winning and greatness, then turning slightly in shame to acknowledge the “worser spirit” (of course, a woman) that spouts racism, pettiness and misogyny. As the voter marks the ballot for Trump, he or she is set on a course to empower the bad angel to fire the good one out. Will the decision provide the comfort that the poet hoped for, with the choice driven by despair? As was the case with Shakespeare, one can only hope for the best.
And what to do with the outcome of the election? For those who currently see themselves as victorious, as well as those who despair at the results, Shakespeare set out a sophisticated approach to dealing with the uncertainty, fear and self-doubt that may have led some to vote for a given candidate, or that others now feel as a result of the election. Rich in wisdom, hope and perspective, I present Sonnet 29:
“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, / I all alone beweep my outcast state / And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries / And look upon myself and curse my fate, / Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, / Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d, / Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, / With what I most enjoy contented least; / Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, / Haply I think on thee, and then my state, / Like to the lark at break of day arising / From sullen earth, sings / hymns at heaven’s gate; / For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
While many of us may be feeling “bootless” (useless and ineffective) right about now, you are not alone in losing sleep over recent events. A brief excerpt from Sonnet 27 reminds us the Bard felt the same way:
“Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed, / The dear repose for limbs with travel tired; / But then begins a journey in my head, / To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired.”
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.