A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Borrowing the Bard: Using Shakespeare for Validation in US Congressional Rhetoric

[Presented at the British Graduate Conference, June 2012] 

‘We need a leader, not a reader.’ – Herman Cain, Republican presidential candidate. It’s a statement that almost harkens back to the days when medieval Kings were illiterate, but ruled absolutely.

There is a movement in American politics that can be hard to define. We see it, but we don’t know what to call it. Some have tried ‘reverse elitism’ or ‘anti-elitism’, but the essence of it is a cultural rejection of those things perceived as ‘elitist’ be it education, life style or cultural tastes. Isaac Asimov saw it, writing that ‘anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ More than just the rejection, though, it is the belief that those who are not ‘elite’ are in fact superior, that it is the ‘ordinary, man-on-the-street’ individual whom we should aspire to be. This is what makes the use of Shakespeare in United States Congressional rhetoric an interesting point for analysis. There are few things that say ‘elite’ like the great Bard of Western literature, covered casually in high school English classes, and even fewer university courses but for those who seek him out. Not that Shakespeare is the only writer employed by legislatures in their remarks before Congress. But as Kim Sturgess explains in her work, Shakespeare and the American Nation, despite America’s desire to start fresh following their break from Europe, ‘the works of William Shakespeare, an English playwright, were embraced by citizens throughout the United States and the stories contained within the plays are today accepted as part of American cultural heritage.’ So how has this piece of ‘cultural heritage’ come to infiltrate legislative affairs?

Richard Posner has released three editions now of his landmark study of Law and Literature, in which he examines the influence of literature, stating that ‘literature has fascinated and even inspired not only the occasional judge and lawyer but also academics who claim that a knowledge of literature can improve the understanding and administration of the law, as well as provide a rich stock of quotations’ (pg. 5). Or to put another way, in the 1995 Supreme Court decision of Plaut v. Spendthrift Farms, Inc., two Justices of the court argued over the meaning of the Robert Frost poem ‘Mending Walls’. Here, I am extrapolating from the Judiciary to the legislative branch, though with good reason: on average, over 30% of Senators and Representatives are lawyers by trade, the single largest represented profession by a wide margin. In the introduction to Shakespeare and Law we are told that ‘the law offered Shakespeare not just an analogy for the interpretative opportunities and perils facing his own literary art, but a rich and apt language in which to posit and test these insights’ (pg. 3) – now we have come full circle, and the lawyers use Shakespeare to posit and test their own insights.

What is gained by quoting Shakespeare? Why use his words when it comes to debating legislation? There are a few points of rhetorical practice that we can deduce from this.

1)      The use of Shakespeare imbues the speaker with some of the power and presence of Shakespeare, seeming to ‘borrow’ his weight and prestige.

2)      The use of Shakespeare spares the speaker from having to employ their own metaphors, as they can draw on centuries of cultural meaning given to lines from Shakespeare.

3)      It is more difficult to attack the right or wrong of Shakespeare’s words, which are hundreds of years out of context, than a Senator’s own language.

4)      As Oscar Wilde once told us, ‘Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit’.

We also must ask how it is Shakespeare is being used. Who is speaking? What is the context? How are they interpreting Shakespeare? And are they even doing it correctly. I can tell you now than in several cases, the answer is definitely no.

In the search for Shakespeare in the US Congressional record, there are three kinds of results given, and only one of which I am concerned with. One is the incidental reference to Shakespeare, i.e. The Folgers Shakespeare Library. Another is the most common kind of Shakespeare reference, and that is in honouring or celebrating an individual, be they in the military, public service, teacher, etc. Their names and comments about them are entered into the public record via a member of Congress, but the comment is in no way related the legislative process. It is this third variety, those quotations of Shakespeare’s, and the use of his name, concerned directly with Congressional debate that I want to examine.

This is a basic chart outlining the number of occurrences of quotation from each listed play, quotes mistakenly attributed to Shakespeare, and the general invocation of his name to make a point.

There is one pervasive pattern I found in scanning these congressional speeches: they are incredibly disparaging and negative in context, used primarily to argue against legislative measures. And  Julius Caesar is popular. Extracts from that play appear over two dozen times, with Hamlet trailing behind at 18 references. This should make any US President wandering onto the floor of the Senate inclined to watch his back. Of course, we have to wonder how many Congressmen have actually read Julius Caesar given the abundance of misinterpretations to the lines, especially Antony’s funeral oration, which even Richard Posner weighs in on, calling it ‘concrete, vivid, personal, colloquial, versatile, dramatic, eloquent, blunt and emotional. It is a model of forensic oratory, though obviously not one to be imitated slavishly by lawyers in an American court’ (p. 454) – and hopefully not in a session of an American Congress either.  Nicholas Brooke called Antony’s speech ‘an exhibition of the destruction of reason by rhetoric’ – not an auspicious recommendation for its employment. The facetious delivery of ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’ is lost on Senator Kohl , who stated in 2002 ‘I come to the floor today to bury the stimulus package, not to praise it’. Then we have the hyperbole of Mr. Gohmert of Texas, who stated that because of government issued student loans, ‘Come not to praise this country. Apparently we’re coming to bury it and start with a new country where the government controls everything.’ It is highly doubtful that Shakespeare, or Antony, had anything of the sort in mind. Only by reading the entirety of Antony’s speech would a Senator know that Antony is speaking ironically. It is far more likely that there is only a passing pop culture familiarity, both on the part of the speaker and the listened. However, on more than one occasion we find the sarcasm of ‘they are all honourable men’ used for particular members of the press or opposing party for whom the speakers hold a particular ire, with the dubious (and insulting) implication that these are anything but honourable men. However, because Shakespeare is being quoted, rather than the speaker calling them dishonourable in his own words, it seems to offer a layer of protection for the accuser; ‘I didn’t call you dishonourable, Shakespeare did.’

Another popular line from Julius Caesar is ‘Et tu, Brutus, yours is the cruellest cut’, coming into play with regard to budgetary cuts, especially for health care and civil servants, as it is seen as a betrayal of those who rely upon the government. At least we can see that this is a quotation not employed entirely off base.  Lastly, we have ‘The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars but in ourselves.’ Even the official report of the Congressional Inquiry into the current financial crisis appropriates this in their concluding statement: ‘We conclude this financial crisis was avoidable. The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire.

The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand, and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public. […] To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault lies not in the stars, but in us.’ It strikes one as odd to be using poetic license in a report issued to other government bodies and the public at large, utilising one of the Bard’s more obscure plays, to explain why Wall Street went tits up. Surely the committee’s own words, facts and figures should have been enough.

Hamlet is the second most popular play to draw upon, paraphrasing everything from ‘There is something rotten in the state of Denmark’ to ‘the lady doth protest too much’ and ‘to be or not to be’. Too often we find issues before Congress distilled down into a black and white argument of ‘to legislate or not to legislate’, ignoring that democratic governance is often done on the basis of compromise. But as has been pointed out to me by other great students of Shakespeare, Hamlet is second probably only to Romeo and Juliet in its absorption into popular culture, removing those certain iconic phrases and moment from the whole of text and bastardising them into easy moments of rhetoric and irony. And if any members of Congress took a single high school English class, it is likely they read one of the two, and proceeded to forget almost everything but those elements parodied every day.

While Romeo and Juliet is another favourite, it is always the same quote, modified to express disdain of some sort: ‘a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. And dung by any other name stinks just as much’ as Mr. Bishop of Georgia stated in 2005 with regards to a spending bill that made several cuts to public programmes. Or as Mr. Enzi put it a couple of years later with regards to the State Children’s Health Insurance programme, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But the so-called new SCHIP plan is essentially the same as the old one, and it still stinks.’ Associating the antithesis of the odour of roses seems to be a popular theme, and it is the only phrase, or paraphrase, in the ten years I researched that Romeo and Juliet made it into the Congressional linguistic fray. Too bad this was meant to be a great statement of unconditional romance, not an implication of contrived deception.

 Macbeth is next in our head count, in what we might call the most honest of all Shakespearian appropriations, the repeated use of the moral of Macbeth, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, a tale of sound and fury signifying nothing. The very men and women responsible for legislating the country’s affairs seemed rather exasperated with their own debates and rhetoric, and never seeming to accomplish anything. ‘Too often, the Senate reminds me of Will Shakespeare‘s words: Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day’ and that in a record on Homeland Security.

Henry VI is very popular, but only as it relates to the murder of lawyers. And few seem able to accurately credit Henry VI, as I have found the quote ‘kill all the lawyers’ attributed to everything from Henry VIII to Richard III. Unfortunately, no one has understood that this was intended not as a remark in jest, but as a plot to subvert the law by removing all those capable of practicing it in order to establish dominion. However, since it is only used in jest these days, the misinterpretation may be forgiven.

The implied danger of using Shakespeare as rhetorical justification can be found in a Senate hearing before the invasion of Iraq, in late 2002: ‘[We] have to probe Saddam Hussein’s intentions, as well as his capability, to determine the threat. In that regard, if, as Shakespeare tells us, the past is prologue, the history of Saddam’s regime gives us great cause for concern.’ I don’t think Shakespeare intended anyone to start a war on the basis of what occurred in a country’s past, and only with the capability of hindsight can we see just how wrong this was. If anything, the Senator should have been quoting Henry V’s ‘awake remembrance of those valiant dead’ if he wanted to rally troops to reinvade a country with whom there were past animosities. But that moment is not as well known as ‘the past is prologue’, bringing popularity, rather than relevance, into the debate.

Even in the case of debating the legality of abortion, Shakespeare is not spared. In standing up against the law of the land as defined by the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania compared those who would stand with him against abortion as ‘We few, we band of brothers’. King Henry V was rallying troop to stand against the French, not trying to defund Planned Parenthood.  But including Shakespeare in his speech lends Santorum more validity than he could claim with his own argument.

On the point of anti-elitism that I referred to in the beginning, I offer into evidence a marked bit of sarcasm in discussing the Cut, Cap and Balance measure before the House in July of 2011. A Republican representative from Arizona commented that Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar a quote which applied to cutting, capping and balancing the US budget: ‘On such a sea are we afloat / And we must take the current when it serves, / Or lose our ventures’, to which Mr. Young of Indiana responded: ‘I thank my colleague from Arizona for his learned words and eloquent words, quoting, Madam Speaker, Shakespeare. I’ll begin by quoting Yogi Berra, the great fount of wit, wisdom, and good old American common sense’. In an un-academic way, allow me to say that my first reaction to reading this was ‘ooo, burn!’ Academically, how can we even begin to dissect the meaning of this short exchange? A Congressmen has employed Shakespeare to make his point, an English writer from four hundred years ago, whose words generally require a moment of reflection to distil their metaphorical implications. In rebuttal, we have another Congressman sarcastically dismissing the use of Shakespeare to follow on with the words of an American baseball player who quit school in the 8th grade, known for his malapropisms and broken use of the language. Arguably, neither an old playwright nor a professional ball player is a suitable influence for discussing the nation’s budgetary woes.

The last item to consider is the appropriation of Shakespeare’s name without even a properly attributed quote. Mr. Gordon of Tennessee, on the deterrence of importing radioactive materials in 2009 stated, ‘Shakespeare also says ‘don’t rope a dope me’. Out of curiosity, to see if I missed something, I did indeed search to see if Shakespeare said this at some point. He definitely did not, which leaves us wondering what in the world Mr. Gordon of Tennessee was thinking.  Mr. Larson of Connecticut missed the mark with ‘as Shakespeare said, more truth is said in jest than not’ – too bad the phrase is far older than Shakespeare. And Shakespeare never espoused a rule that in public speaking that one should ‘stand up to be seen, speak loudly to be heard, and sit down to be appreciated’ – his actors likely never sat, and surely their only public speaking was to act; to stop speaking would not be appreciated by the audience. This is an unattributed axiom taught to lawyers. Nor did Senator Byrd get The Merry Wives of Windsor quite right when he said of a fellow Senator: ‘He’s a man after my own kidney’- not once, but thrice. As if the honourable Senators to which he referred were organ thieves rather than colleagues. But perhaps my favourite misuse of Shakespeare’s name comes from Ms Norton of DC, who credits Shakespeare for writing the sonnet ‘let me count the ways’; poor Elizabeth Barrett Browning. What do these misappropriated quotes tells us about Shakespeare’s name? That if it seems a wise, witty old adage, then Shakespeare is as good as anyone to credit for it, because it’s not likely anyone else will know any better, making you sound all the wiser to your constituents and fellow Congressmen and women.

Some of these quotes are so well known they should not even have to include the mention of Shakespeare at all, and yet the speakers have, because they are trying to weight the validity of their argument with not just the words, but the spirit of one of the greatest writers of Western literature. And this is from a government chosen by an electorate that has seen a marked increase in anti-elitist sentiments (lest we forget the recent criticism of Mitt Romney for being able to speak French, or the dripping sarcasm every time someone refers to the ‘ivory towers’ of ‘ivy league’ education). But they make Shakespeare a target as well. Twice this year, the US tax code has been sarcastically referred to as longer than the works of Shakespeare, as if the Bard is as long and confusing as tax law, thus making us step back a minute to consider what Shakespeare really means; his words are both a useful rhetorical tool, and a metaphor for tedium. During a hearing on the incorporation of financial education into public schools, Mr. Cleaver of Missouri argued that he hated Shakespeare, detested the teacher to who taught him Shakespeare, but could still quote some of it by being in the classroom, and thus students exposed to financial lessons in the classroom would absorb information in the same way. In a Congressional investigation into private medical health plans, a study is quoted as stating ‘A recent survey of insured adults found that 52 percent thought that reading Shakespeare was easier than reading their health insurance policy.’ Who does that speak less favourably towards? Insurance providers or Shakespeare? But he has become one of the de facto measures of linguistic artistry and linguistic convolution.

Let us be clear: Shakespeare is a tool – and no, I don’t mean it in that vulgar modern sense. We all love the Bard, but his use is rhetorical, perhaps detrimental, to making valid, reasoned arguments from which to govern the United States. As Mr. Hoyer of Maryland put it in a discussion on deficit reduction: ‘Now, let me tell you something. Economic performance, these are facts. This is not Dickens or Chaucer or Shakespeare or anybody else. These are facts from your budget book.’ The lessons and poetry of Shakespeare still hold sway, and their own truths, but these may not be best reflected in political discourse four hundred years later. He is being appropriated, and words misused, for political ends, making lawyers who once took an English class and possess a book of quotes appear as if they know what they are talking about. They use the parts of Shakespeare that have become common to appear elite, while at the same time distancing themselves from such appearances. But the name of Shakespeare is meant to imbue a Congressman’s arguments with as much validity as facts and figures, until someone calls them on it.


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One thought on “Borrowing the Bard: Using Shakespeare for Validation in US Congressional Rhetoric

  1. Not what I was thinking but awesome anyway! Well done!

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