Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose

The phrase “[to] campaign in poetry, [and] govern in prose” has long been a popular saying amongst the politically inclined, and was brought back into vogue by Hillary Clinton when she uttered these words at the CNN Democratic Town Hall event in Des Moines, Iowa this past January. So in the spirit of rhyme & reason, we consulted the ultimate poet — the Immortal Bard — to see if there’s anything to be found in his plays that might inspire one of the 2016 U.S. presidential candidates in their efforts to govern in prose come next January.

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - Candidates

If You’re For Hillary…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - Hillary Clinton as Portia

The beautiful daughter of a rich man, Portia is one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent and well-developed female characters. Though bound by the demands of her late father’s will, she uses her wit and charm to pursue her own desires, to the point of disguising herself as a man and impersonating a lawyer despite no formal training. In doing so, she saved her lover’s best friend’s life. Her most famous speech against the vindictive Shylock extols the strength and value of mercy in justice — perhaps a poetic echo to the diplomatic and restrained way Hillary conducted herself throughout the exhaustive hours of the Benghazi hearings.

If You’re Against Hillary…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - Hillary Clinton as Lady Macbeth

The female half of a prominent political dynasty, Lady Macbeth is widely considered as one of Shakespeare’s most villainous and conflicted characters. Ruthless in her pursuit of the throne and lethally pragmatic in her efforts to get there, Lady Macbeth provides the cold-blooded rationale that drives all of Macbeth’s murderous activities. This appetite for power proves to be her downfall, as her descent into madness is most famously captured by the iconic soliloquy in which she hallucinated blood on her hands. These blood-soaked hands, though imaginary, reveal her immense guilt — a sentiment those in the anti-Hillary camp would say was never shown by Hillary throughout the exhaustive hours of the Benghazi hearings.

If You’re For Bernie…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - Bernie Sanders as Brutus

The man considered by his own enemy as the “noblest Roman of them all” (despite committing cold-blooded murder as one of Caesar’s assassins), Marcus Brutus is the perfect idealist — both his virtue and his downfall. While the other conspirators were motivated by power, Brutus was motivated only by a profound sense of honor and love for his country. It was not until after a great personal and moral debate did he decide that what is best for Rome is, to his sadness, worst for Caesar. Like Brutus, Bernie is motivated by a profound sense of socialist morality towards creating an America worth believing in. Like Brutus, he may end up on the losing side — but never once can you question his commitment to the cause.

If You’re Against Bernie…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - Bernie Sanders as Jaques

The doom and gloom of this vibrant comedy, Jaques is the consummate comedic foil: a melancholic misanthrope whose sole purpose is to rain on people’s (and an unfortunate stag’s) parade. His favorite pastime is to criticize and judge others’ happiness in the belief that the world is — as his most famous speech puts it — “a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” His deep cynicism and disdain for others is evident when, offered a life in the royal courts, he refused in favor of a solitary life as a hermit, deep in the woods of Arden. Bernie’s critics would probably argue that, having lived the majority of his political life as an Independent, Bernie’s Democratic Party-backed run for the White House is merely a platform for him to deliver his denunciations against capitalist America, before slinking back into the deep woods of Vermont.

If You’re For Trump…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - Donald Trump as Falstaff

So outsized a man that Shakespeare wrote him into not one, not two, but three plays (and whose death is mentioned in a fourth), the character of John Falstaff is at best buffoonish and at worst lecherous. This larger-than-life individual — in both size and ego — parades through town boasting of his great wealth and influence (all of which questionable in origin), but cowers at the first sight of displaying honor and commitment. Yet, strangely, in spite of all these misgivings in character, Falstaff proves to be very popular with Shakespeare’s audiences, which might explain why he appears in so many plays. This logic makes sense for Trump supporters, who’d say that for all of the controversies he’s courted, Trump speaks the truth about the deteriorating state of America and presents a picture, however unsavory, of what needs to be done to make it great again.

If You’re Against Trump…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - Donald Trump as Caliban

Half-man, half-monster, Caliban is one of Shakespeare’s most imaginative and malevolent characters, created by an unholy union between witch and devil and raised under the cruel slavery of a vengeful magician. He is vulgar in every sense of the word and evil runs deep in his blood. Yet, strangely, in spite of all these misgivings in character, he is often witty and sensitive in his speech — as if he knows more than the other characters or even the audience. It is this potent mix of brutality & eloquence that makes him such a dangerous prospect; that behind the foul mask is an ever fouler mind. The fact that his vile nature, which was apparent from the very beginning, was left unchecked by his master Prospero provides a telling parallel to the way the Republican Party refused to attack and curb Trump’s words and actions until it is much too late.

If You’re For Cruz…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - Ted Cruz as Hotspur

Driven by an unwavering spirit and desire for success, Henry ‘Harry’ Percy — more famously known as ‘Hotspur’ — earned his nickname through his military successes and impulsive nature. He is the outsider rival to Prince Hal, the current King’s son, for the throne of England. Single-minded and extremely passionate, he acts with great rashness and impetuous fervor, much to the detriment of those around him. Though many consider him unfit to lead a rebellion because of this hotheaded and alienating attitude, many also admire him for his courage and unwavering focus towards glory. In his own trailblazing way, Ted Cruz has played the role of the anti-establishment, Tea Party outsider/contender to perfection — the “courageous conservative” who dares to draw the ire & hatred of establishments Republicans in order to spark a revolution.

If You’re Against Cruz…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - Ted Cruz as Richard III

Never one to hide his deep disdain for and distrust of those around him, Richard III is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s most famous villain. Calculating his way to the throne, Richard’s strength comes from his brilliantly devious mind and immense sense of pride in his own intellect. Yet one also get the feeling that his thirst for power is in part motivated by the mistreatment he has received because of his hunchback (a physical deformity exaggerated by Shakespeare for dramatic effect). Similarly, as we witness the way Cruz deals with the disparaging remarks made against him — from questioning his citizenship to making jokes that compared him to the Zodiac Killer — we have to wonder whether these comments become a source of strength rather than a chink in his armor, thereby fueling his intolerant campaign all the way to the highest seat in American government.

If You’re For Kasich…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - John Kasich as Octavius
The elder statesman of Shakespeare’s Roman Empire plays, Octavius is best known for his ability to stay calm and pragmatic while passions are erupting all around him; whether it be the chaos that followed Caesar’s assassination in Julius Caesar or the power vacuum left behind by the deaths of both Antony and Cleopatra in their eponymous play. Using his age and experience, he stays out of the limelight and emerges only after everyone else is defeated. By refusing to engage emotionally, Octavius plays to his greatest strength — his calculating shrewdness. By refusing to engage in vitriolic name-calling and vulgarity in past Republican debates, Kasich also plays to his greatest strength — his logical & diplomatic temperament, which is furthered bolstered by his conservative record as governor of a swing state. That said, do not make the mistake of assuming that just because Kasich is stoic on the outside, there is no fire stoking his desire for power on the inside; like Octavius, he’s been around long enough to know how and when to play the long game.

If You’re Against Kasich…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - John Kasich as Petruchio

As the stereotypical suitor to the “shrew” Katharina — also known as Kate — Petruchio sees her strong and independent character as a challenge to overcome and control. Though many have treated the relationship between Petruchio and Kate as Shakespeare’s clever commentary on Elizabethan male-female relationships, let us not forget what the underlying foundation of this relationship is: Petruchio’s profoundly sexist view that drive his pursuit of Kate. What he calls noble and admirable is frankly a perverse attempt at justifying his misogynistic actions and behavior; in fact, it is this misguided sense of honor that proves most insulting. For anyone who has ever been to any Planned Parenthood in Ohio and made use of their support & services, they know far too well the damage John Kasich can do as a male politician in power, not least because he seems to think his female voters are leaving their kitchens just for him.

And what could have been…

If You’re For Marco…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - Marco Rubio as Prince Hal

Before he was Henry V, Prince Hal was a youthful and free-spirited teenager, whose shoulders bore the hopes and dreams of his father Henry IV. Almost destined — and perhaps burdened — with these expectations, Hal makes a meandering journey to the throne, often acting in contradictions. Yet throughout the Henry IV saga, one realizes that beneath all that youthful exuberance is a clever and cunning leader, fit for the monarchy. In contrast to the hotheaded Hotspur, Hal is favored by his countrymen and is supported by many within the existing government. This same treatment was given to Marco Rubio, who has been touted as the GOP’s “Obama,” ready to reclaim the executive branch in the name of the Republican cause. Rubio’s experience, intellect, and eloquence sets him apart from the other candidates — but whether he has the drive to follow through remains to be seen. Guess he did not.

If You’re Against Rubio…

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose - Marco Rubio as Edmund

The illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund is the quintessential jealous younger brother, who seeks vengeance via the path of usurpation and destruction. Motivated by jealousy and a profound sense of indignation, Edmund utilizes his formidable intellect to scheme and deceive his way into positions of power. One can never trust the words and actions of Edmund, for fear of his true intentions. Those who are against Rubio would point to his many deviating positions on conservative issues — such as flip-flopping over immigration — as proof that he cannot be trusted as the establishment candidate, for fear of his own personal political agenda.

So What Now?

As a playwright, Shakespeare is admired not only for the virtuosity of his poetry but also for his commentary on contemporary events through the use and reference of past stories & histories (thus escaping any potential reprimand from the Elizabethan monarchy). Thus, having made the comparisons, what inspiration can we take from the Bard and his plays regarding the fate of this motley crew?

Who will win the Republican nomination?

As of March 25th, Donald Trump is leading this race by quite a distance, having claimed 739 delegates so far. Behind him is Ted Cruz with 465 delegates and Kasich with 143 delegates. Rubio has dropped out following a poor performance in his home state of Florida, despite having secured 166 delegates.

If we were to consider the best-case scenarios for Trump, Cruz, and Rubio (before he dropped out), then we’d have the iconic triumvirate of Falstaff, Prince Hal, and Hotspur at play here. All three are a little impulsive, all three are obsessed with appearances, and all three want some form of glory. Yet when push comes to shove (or, in the case of Hotspur, stab), Henry IV Part 1 reveals that for all of his reckless and youthful behavior, Prince Hal eventually becomes the triumphant king by putting an end to Hotspur’s valiant rebellion as well as leaving behind the deceitful advice of the cowardly Falstaff. But Shakespeare probably never expected that somebody as outright duplicitous and ridiculous as Falstaff could not only convince others to join his ranks but also outwit and outshine the heir apparent Prince Hal in his home turf!

What then, does it say, about the dissatisfaction of the American electorate, whether with the GOP or with the Obama administration, that honor and integrity are thrown out the window in favor of the sweet nothings of the ultimate Shakespearean fool?

The alternative scenario would be that should Trump win the party nomination — as it is increasingly likely he would — the establishment Republicans would push for a brokered convention, whereupon the lurking Kasich will be ready to pounce as the logical choice, given the choice between a Caliban or a Richard III. He is putting his money on the rest of the Republicans to realize that the leading candidates — with their increasingly vulgar and violent campaigns — stand no chance at defeating the Democratic candidate in November. But even after drinking the poisoned chalice of bigoted remarks and childish jabs at one another, neither Trump nor Cruz has fallen the way of Antony or Cleopatra yet; so the question is, how long will Kasich play the long game, and whether it’ll even matter come November?

Who will win the Democratic nomination?

As of March 25th, Hillary is leading Bernie by 1,690 to 946 delegates respectively. It is looking increasingly likely that Hillary Clinton will secure the party nomination, much to the disappointment of those who “feel the Bern.” That said, the Sanders camp is not going down without a fight.

Bernie supporters would be keen to remind voters that as a Washington insider, Hillary would likely continue the Obama administration’s existing policies and strengthen its current interpretation of the Democratic agenda, rather than examine its flaws and missteps in representing the liberal cause. As the idealistic outsider Brutus to Hillary’s insider Portia or Lady Macbeth (both daughters of dynasties), Bernie would continue to push for greater reform & changes in the name of true liberalism. Whether his appeal towards honor under the banner of a more socialist society is compelling enough to win him the nomination (let alone the presidency) remains to be seen; for as popular as Brutus’ speech was to the Romans, Mark Antony’s famous counter-speech eventually won the crowd and Brutus’ idealistic vision of a better future for Rome died out with him. That said, if Bernie continues to outperform expectations, it would truly be the ultimate coup d’état.

This Above All: To Thine Own Self Be True…

Even though the campaigns (and the media) love to make the primaries a big deal, they are but a skewed representation of what America is really like. The real show comes in November, with the general elections. So, as the audience, if you don’t like one of these players, go out and make yourself heard; if you don’t like one of these players, go out and vote. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action. As we look upon that first Tuesday of November, remember the Immortal Bard’s words:

It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.


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