SHAKESPEARE AND AMERICAN POLITICS IN 2016
One of my favorite plays is The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus (1593/94?), which is one of the least celebrated and most despised examples of dramatic art among the guardians of William Shakespeare's legacy. My favorite character within the play is Aaron. I agree with the Renaissance scholar Frank Kermode's remark in his headnote for The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997) that it is Aaron's "brazen vitality that endears him. His terrific self-sufficiency, an acceptance of the Machiavellian homo homini lupus, makes him at once a matter of wonder and a dangerous joke; he rages round a society ostensibly governed by law and custom, a black among the whites. Even Tamora, herself a monster of lust and cruelty, seems in the end to belong to the tamer white world" (1068).
Seeking the legitimacy of the ancient and the modern in constructing a revenge tragedy, Shakespeare took liberties with his Latin sources, with what was known in the Elizabethan period about Roman imperial politics. How clever of him to appeal to a spectrum of base emotions in audiences where class distinctions were more important than they might be for 21st century spectators. The aesthetic blurring of politics in Titus Andronicus is germane for detecting parallels in American political confusions during the hot summer of 2016. The play magnifies the long history of white-on-white crime and passion, enabling anyone who is not physically blind to see that American politics in 2016 is a revenge tragedy of white on white crime. In this context, Aaron's brazen and bracing vitality is a moral compass with many ethical fractures.
Aaron's plight inspires some use of cultural literacy and common sense; it invites vibrant social constructions of reality as buffers against the fear of actuality. Within the constraints of Elizabethan imagination, great chain of being and all, Shakespeare finessed his color/race cards, leaving Western thinkers of now ample possibilities for grasping how the rules of political discourses are modified by time. His text can be forced to bespeak the multicultural and the global. Yes, it is impossible to recuperate many of the emotional dynamics of Titus Andronicus for audiences in 1594, but it is likely we can recognize contemporary equivalents of those dynamics. For the purpose of identifying crucial differences in how roles are constructed and acted out, one can contrast Aaron with Iago. As a white among whites, Iago operates with greater stealth in plotting revenge as a subtext in The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (1603), successfully manipulating the human foibles of Othello and other characters to effect ruin. Transposed into the drama of contemporary American politics, Iago trumps Aaron as an agent of evil.
By imitating Shakespeare's taking of liberties with historical fact to achieve ideological as well as artistic ends, we become aware that Aaron has no equivalent in the American dramas of political reality. Iago does. He is the fictive surrogate for the great white hope created in large measure by those American citizens whom Republican rhetoric designates "The People." Note the theatricality of translating the proletarian language of the 1930s --the masses -- into the unified liberal/conservative buzzwords of 2016. Aaron has no role, but Othello still plays a major one as Iago's target. One does not need a doctoral degree in political science or literary theory to grasp that President Obama is Othello. Aaron has no role or place, because his warrants for being were erased in the discourses of the American Revolution. The inscriptions of the founding mothers and fathers of what became the United States of America ensured that our nation's social and racial contracts would "disappear" the likes of Aaron. It is tantalizing to imagine Donald Trump as Iago, but then one is imprisoned in the trick bag of a deadly joke. From the vantage of Democratic counter-rhetoric, Hillary Clinton can be neither Desdemona, nor, in the terms of Titus Andronicus, the cruel Tamora or the hapless Lavinia. By stretch of critical imagination, she must be Lady Macbeth. We have the impasse of NO WIN/NO WIN.
I was led to renew my interest in Shakespeare and politics by ideas that occur as I find comfort and pleasure in a leisurely reading of
Parkinson, Robert G. The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
Parkinson's exacting scholarship provides grounds for a trenchant re-examination of the idea of "common cause" and current operations of social and racial contracts. The scripts or narratives that "patriot publicists broadcast," according to Parkinson, "blocked policymakers…from pursuing political or diplomatic agendas that opened the door for friendly Indians to enjoy citizenship. African Americans, free and enslaved, suffered a similar foreclosure" (398). Let a swath of the final paragraph of Parkinson's Chapter 5 nail Martin Luther recognitions on the doors of American political imagination:
Because the patriots emphasized some stories but not others, not only did the previously hated French become the Revolution's saviors but the German mercenaries, men who were sent to America for the specific purpose of crushing the rebellion, became sympathetic fellow victims of monarchical tyranny. This did not occur for African Americans or Indians. When patriot publicists loudly denounced Indians' slaying of Jane McCrea but not Virginians' slaying of Cornstalk, when they did not substantiate how many blacks served in the Continental army but exchanged stories of slaves running to the British, they rescinded any opportunity for the sort of redemption enjoyed by the French and Germans. Moreover, when those stories became codified in the Articles of Confederation, the Massachusetts state constitution, or Congress's proclamation announcing the French alliance, they became foundational to the new republic. Spurning Great Britain's best offer of reconciliation meant that the common cause would continue. This invited further opportunities to proved that African Americans and Indians did not deserve to be part of the newly recognized United States. (399)
The patriot publicists of 2016 must be informed that they do not deserve to be a part of a nation where LIFE MATTERS.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. August 5, 2016