Moby Shakespeare

     When we say “Shakespearean” — and I have heard people say it — we mean tragedy, people crushed by fate: Lear in the storm, MacBeth’s disintegration, Hamlet and Brutus wrestling with empire and reality, Othello realizing too late what he has done.
     No one is using that word to describe this year’s presidential campaign, for an obvious reason: The people in our cast are so petty. There is no grandeur in them. Shakespeare never wrote plays about people like this.
     Or did he?
     In a recent column about “Richard III” for The New York Times, Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt explained “how a great country could wind up being governed by a sociopath.”
     Greenblatt said there were many ways by which “this loathsome, perverse monster actually attained the English throne.” It was “a fatal conjunction of diverse but equally self-destructive responses from those around him.”
     Greenblatt offered five reasons: None of the rich and powerful people believed Richard could pull it off; none believed he was really that bad; all were afraid of his “bullying and the menace of violence;” too many believed they could take advantage of him if he seized the throne; and “perhaps strangest of all,” they enjoyed “the open speaking of the unspeakable.”
     Well.
     Ahem.
     Four days after that column appeared, the world imitated Shakespeare again, when King Bhumipol Adulyadej died in Thailand, leaving the kingdom to his despised, profligate playboy son — a Falstaff without wit.
     That would be “Henry IV,” parts I and II.
     Shakespeare, where art thou?
     The United States is living through another tragedy today, but not a Shakespearean one — because our players are clowns.
     Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and their underlings are not tragic figures. They are small men.
     Could anyone but Shakespeare write a tragic play about any of them? About the struggle of a noble hero who refuses to call a hearing to confirm an appointment to the Supreme Court?
     What would Shakespeare call that one? “All’s Well That Ends”?
     Fortunately for the United States, unfortunately for the rest of the world, few Americans other than our soldiers had to suffer through the millions of tragedies we’ve inflicted upon people far away: in Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq …
     That’s tragedy.
     Immigration to the United States is not a tragedy. Quibbling about immigration policy is not just dishonest, it’s not even real.
     Whining about rigging a national election to defeat a proud white male majority is not just dishonest, it’s lunatic.
     Allow me to drag Herman Melville into this — perhaps the closest writer we’ve had to Shakespeare.
     Bartleby the Scrivener was a faithful worker who spent his life doing his job, copying things. Then one day Bartleby stopped doing it.
     He sat at his desk, staring at a wall, and when asked to do anything, Bartleby said: “I prefer not to.”
     Bartleby refused to keep copying things.
     I’m with Bartleby here.
     As a news editor and reporter, my job is to bring you news about the state of our country, about this tremendously exciting, and — One Time Only! — idiotic presidential election.
     But I’m with Bartleby now. I prefer not to.
     “Have ye seen the white whale?”

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