Happy Election Eve from William Shakespeare!


As seemingly unprecedented and wild as this election season has been in the U.S., the perspective from the long arc of history tells us this has all happened before.  If you don’t believe me, you need go no further than my favorite oracle, William Shakespeare.  Many of his plays were about history and politics, and through his long career of playmaking, he created Kings and Queen, rakes and rogues, saints and saviors, all professing service to the state. 

In preparation for tomorrow’s Election Day, I’ve culled together a few choice quotes about politicians and politics.  Looking at all of them together, one might be tempted to say Shakespeare was pretty cynical and open-eyed about politics.  But not everything here is negative.  Take a look and see if you can match quotes to specific events and people from this past year. 

I am disgraced, impeached, and baffled here,

Pierced to the soul with slander’s venomed spear.

Richard II, Act 1 Scene 1

Woe to that land that’s governed by a child

Richard III, Act 2 Scene 3

Tis much when sceptres are in children’s hands,

But more when envy breeds unkind division:

There comes the ruin, there begins confusion.

Henry VI Part 1, Act 4 Scene 1

The commonwealth of Athens is become a forest of beasts.

Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene 3

The caterpillars of the commonwealth,

Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away.

Richard II, Act 2 Scene 3

Why, look you, I am whipp’d and scourg’d with rods,

Nettled and stung with pismires[nettles], when I hear

Of this vile politician, Bolingbroke.

Henry IV Part 1, Act 1 Scene 3

Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician,

seem to see the things thou dost not.

King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6

That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder! It might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o’erreaches, one that would circumvent God, might it not?

Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1

When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom,

the gentler gamester is the soonest winner

Henry V, Act 3 Scene 6

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4

This image is of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s ruler, circa 1588.  This portrait is called ‘The Woburn Abbey’ portrait, possibly painted by George Gower.  The painting celebrates Elizabeth’s triumph over the Spanish Armada.  As you can see, she holds the whole globe of the Earth in her hand. 

Sunday Shakespeare – Easter 2016


Easter in Shakespeare? It barely exists. Rare are the Shakespearean references to Christianity: yes, members of the clergy are characters, and characters often invoke God, and use events from the Bible as poetic imagery, and as metaphor. Beyond that the Bard largely avoids the issue of Christian Theology.

Was this a reflection of Shakespeare’s own belief? It’d be a mistake to believe that; we really can’t know for certain. But what we do know is that Queen Elizabeth’s flavor of Protestantism was strictly enforced by her government, and it was not a good idea to be Catholic, Jew or Muslim. The other thing we know is that Shakespeare was a savvy businessman and for his own benefit avoided political controversy. Religious theology in Elizabethan England was extremely political.

So if some fool, like Yours Truly, is going to post some Easter blog about the beautiful things Shakespeare wrote about the Easter holiday, he’s going to come up quite short.  There’s a one-line reference to the holiday in Romeo and Juliet, and then perhaps some oblique references in other places. That’s about it.

There is, however, one delicious tidbit related to Easter: it’s a reference to the nasty business that went on after the Last Supper and on Good Friday.

In Shakespeare’s history play Richard II, written about 1595, King Richard, near play’s end is facing the end of his Machiavellian reign and dares to compare himself with none other than Jesus Christ:

Yet I well remember

The favours of these men. Were they not mine?

Did they not sometime cry “All hail’ to me?”

So Judas did to Christ. But he in twelve

Found truth in all but one; I in twelve thousand, none.

Richard II, Act IV

That’s not enough. The disposed Richard takes his bold comparison one step further, from Judas’ betrayal to Pilate’s prosecution:

Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands,

Showing an outward pity, yet you Pilates

Have here delivered me to my sour cross,

And water cannot wash away your sin.

Richard II, Act IV

It was dangerous to put anything religious in print, but in the play Shakespeare could get away with these powerful images invoking Judas, Pilate, Christ and the crucifixion because they were words spoken by a character Shakespeare had managed to make villainous by play’s end. History paints a more ambivalent picture of King Richard II, but for generations, Shakespeare’s play skewed opinion. The powerful evocation of Judas’ betrayal and the Savior’s crucifixion would probably have shocked audiences in the day, all carefully exploited for the purposes of creating exciting drama.

And so while Shakespeare’s works are full of tales and imagery about things destroyed and then coming back to life (i.e., the Easter story), his only direct references to the Passion and Resurrection are the Last Supper betrayal and the Good Friday crucifixion–used to great effect in an impassioned speech by a King who knows he’s doomed.

The image is the definitive painting of Richard II, anonymous, now housed in Westminster Abbey.

Sunday Sonnet – 06 December 2015

sonnet 14

Astrologers enjoyed good business in Elizabethan times. We can never know if Shakespeare ever employed one or even believed in their powers of divination, but he certainly knew of them and knew something of the prognosticator’s art.


Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.

In this sonnet the Poet compares the Young Man’s eyes to stars, and claims, like an astrologer, to be able to read in them the future: ‘But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive’. This sonnet comes so close to being a more traditional Elizabethan sonnet: a vivid metaphor, evocative of all of creation–thunder, wind and rain, the fates of princes, the constancy of stars–all kinds of romantic mush. It’s all here. But rather then simply comparing the Young Man to the beauty of heaven, or to the mysterious arts of astrology, the sonnet has a specific agenda: to urge the Young Man to procreate, lest his beauty be lost: ‘If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert’….to…’Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.’

In these early sonnets, the Poet was still trying to convince the Young Man to marry and sire children. There’s circumstantial evidence that Lord Burghley, guardian to the Earl of Southampton and Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, commissioned Shakespeare to write sonnets to the Earl, urging him to marry. If that’s true, Burghley’s best intentions eventually changed The Poet and the Young Man into something more romantic and more provocative.  This vivid and romantic sonnets certainly shows signs of that growing change.

The image is of John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer.

Weekly Shakespeare Quote – 09 July 2015


This week Shakespeare gives us a lesson on how to deliver a brilliant take-down.   John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II unreels as a powerful and poetic testament to all that makes England great. But…

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

–from Richard II, Act II Scene i

In the end, however, at ‘Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it’, Gaunt turns his brilliant evocation of England’s beauty into a condemnation of Richard–to the King’s face. Gaunt delivers this speech from his deathbed, and after finishing it shambles off stage to die–before the infuriated Richard can have him killed.

More than just a turning point in the play, this speech is a great example of Shakespeare’s ability to set up expectations and then turn them on the audience. But rather than frustrate us, it surprises and delights.

Richard II was a risky play for Shakespeare. In Elizabethan times, any hint that a playwright might be criticizing the monarch could be taken the wrong way. In fact, years after the play was first produced, supporters of Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, arranged for a repeat performance of Richard II in connection with Essex’s attempted coup of Elizabeth’s throne. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, including Shakespeare, had to do some fast taking to exonerate themselves, pleading ignorance of Essex’s plot. Eventually, Essex was executed for treason.

The image is of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.