William Shakespeare makes it to the attention of Washington's chattering class only a little more often than Harold Stassen. But tonight at the Kennedy Center, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court will preside over the trial of Hamlet. Miles Ehrlich, a former U.S. district attorney, will press the state's case against Hamlet -- portrayed by an actor, who is not expected to take the stand -- for slaying Polonius. Abbe D. Lowell, a Washington superlawyer who defended superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, will make the case that the melancholy Dane was mad, and not responsible.
Justice Anthony Kennedy first created "The Trial of Hamlet" in 1994, staging it in a conference room at the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg served on the jury. This time, Justice Kennedy's trial is particularly fascinating in Washington because it follows so closely on the trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, with its complex questions of law, responsibility and how justice is properly measured. Shakespeare is an original source for insights into the interaction of politics and responsibility, guilt and innocence, ambition and the public good.
With the public-opinion polls showing the body politic already twitching as the early presidential campaign gets underway, we need all the help we can get to begin sorting out the issues and personalities. Macbeth, for example, has lessons in how personal ambition sometimes outruns considerations of what's good and bad for the country. Hillary Clinton has long been compared to Lady Macbeth, and her husband, like Richard III, is a reminder of how the exercise of public power can be abused in the pursuit of women for private pleasure. Nobody peers deep into the psychological motives of love and war -- measuring the heights to which humans can climb and plumbing the depths to which they can descend -- quite like the Bard. All the world's a stage, after all.
How Shakespeare influences politicians and their thinking is on special exhibition just now at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. We learn how devoted George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln were to his works. When Franklin D. Roosevelt contemplated seeking an unprecedented third term, one cartoonist depicted him pinning numbered bees to a wall over the caption: "To bee or not to bee." At the height of antiwar fever amid the struggle in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson was infamously portrayed in a popular parody called "MacBird."