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."
Shakespeare was popular everywhere earlier in our history. His plays toured mining camps, and bound copies stood next to the Bible on bookshelves in frontier homes. The letters of Civil War soldiers, many unlettered beyond three or four years in a rude one-room schoolhouse, were laced with references from Shakespeare's works. Not until the late 20th century would university professors demote him, applying the arcane jargon of literary criticism known as deconstructionism. Instead of recognizing the greatness of his universality, the professors treated him merely as a "cultural construct," specific to his times but not to ours.
In "The Appropriation of Shakespeare: Post-Renaissance Reconstructions of the Works and the Myth," bombast becomes the tool to deny that Shakespeare wrote any masterpieces at all. In language that would draw rebuke from a backwoods high-school English teacher, one university "scholar" typically reduces his significance with this barely intelligible gobbledygook: "Veneration of an author has as much to do with his or her potential as a cultural hero who can be appropriated to observe our non-literary needs as with literary 'greatness.'" King Lear is regarded as no more profound than Batman or Robin.
When Paul Cantor, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, attended a World Shakespeare Congress in Tokyo, he was shocked by how many English-speaking scholars from Britain, Canada and the United States had reduced Shakespeare's works to mere examinations of "sexism" and "masculine" points of view. Others obsessed over "power relations," demonstrating how Shakespeare reflects only Western imperialism and literary "colonization." But scholars from countries once behind the Iron Curtain testified to the liberating power of Shakespeare's universal insights. They recalled that Josef Stalin banned the Shostakovich opera, "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," because he didn't want anyone getting ideas from seeing the depiction of a tyrant murdered on stage.
The greatness of Shakespeare lies in his extraordinary language and insight into the human condition, portrayed in complex characters who breathe life into art. Many high school and college students never any longer discover his plays, or learn to appreciate how many of his words have become embedded in the common culture. It's an injustice beyond the jurisdiction even of a Supreme Court.