What Shakespeare Can Teach Us About Campaign 2024

Michael A. Genovese holds the Loyola Chair of Leadership and serves as President of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University. The author of over 50 books, he frequently appears as a political commentator on CNN and elsewhere.

No writer has had a deeper insight into the human psyche that William Shakespeare. He fully understood our strengths and weaknesses, our follies and our triumphs. And while he lived and wrote over 400 years ago, his insights remain as fresh and relevant as if they appeared yesterday. He reminded us that hubris and arrogance lead to tragedy; and that love and kindness, while always fighting an uphill battle against the forces of evil, just might lead to joy and happiness. Shakespeare’s insights into the deepest and sometimes darkest parts of our humanity provide lessons if only we will listen, and we would be wise to use him as a guide in this complex and confusing presidential campaign. How might the Bard view the 2024 presidential campaign and those comic and tragic figures who offer themselves as our leader?  What can Shakespeare teach us about the warning signs and the possibilities of honor and glory buried in the characters of today’s leading contenders? A brief examination of some of the key players in Shakespeare’s plays might help provide a guidepost as we ponder the choices ahead.

JULIUS CAESAR   Almost every American high school student was expected to read JULIUS CAESAR, and there are several key characters that might be useful in our evaluations of today’s contenders. Caesar is presented as a bold, confident (perhaps over-confident), man of action and decisiveness. And yet, he is also seen as a tyrant and threat to the Roman republic. Here, we are immediately drawn to the conclusion that Donald Trump represents today’s Caesar, big, bold, arrogant, and dangerous.

BRUTUS    Who is Brutus? Who stands up against Trump and for the rule of law? Perhaps today’s Brutus in Cassidy Hutchinson, the former Trump staffer who saw how Trump had been degrading the republic, could take no more, and turned against her former boss in defense of the rule of law. Or is it Mike Pence who resisted Trump’s demands and allowed the Congress to certify Biden’s election?  After Caesar is assassinated, a civil war breaks out as several prominent figures vie for control. Caesar’s autocracy did not give way to a new republic, but to chaos and violence. Might this be the fate of the post-Trump Republican Party as various would-be leaders engage in a series of bloodlettings and recriminations, all in the hope of taking control of the Party? Trump paved the way with his rules-be-damned practices. Should we be surprised if his acolytes follow the leader and in true Shakespearian form, end up destroying the thing they covet? His friend Brutus is recruited into a plot to assassinate Caesar but Brutus is conflicted: support my friend and mentor, or defend the republic against Caesar’s tyranny. Brutus agonizes over this choice. He loves Caesar and recognizes the many things he has done for Rome, yet also sees the arrogant and authoritarian side of Caesar that posed a threat to the republic.

KING LEAR draws us to the possibility that President Biden, now 80, might hold the same tragic fate as Lear, the elderly King who goes mad and destroys his kingdom. While Lear is undone because of his vainness, Biden is unlikely to fall to this weakness, but his age does raise questions about his ability to be mentally alert and fully functioning as an 82, or 83 year old president. 

HAMLET presents problems of a different sort for us. The uncertain Dane, faced with a fateful choice, seems paralyzed. When he finally does make the decision, it is too late to salvage his kingdom. Vice President Mike Pence, a man who claims to be devout Christian, served a man who repeatedly violated his oath of office and the standards of decency one expects of a president. Why did he support the bad behavior of Trump? And when finally he did the right thing on January 6, it was too little, too late. Mike Pence demonstrated that character is a 24/7 job, not something you wheel out when it is convenient.Regarding Hamlet’s indecisiveness, we may see Governor Chris Sununu, who went through a very public agony, trying to decide whether or not to enter the fray and take on Trump. In the end, he demurred, hoping that his day might occur in 2028.

MACBETH   Some see in Hillary Clinton a LADY MACBETH, a power behind the throne. A bit of a stretch, true, but it is a character-type that for centuries revealed a sad truth: the only way women could gain power was as the spouse of a powerful man.  RICHARD III     Perhaps Shakespeare’s most odious character is RICHARD III, the deformed outsider who, to gain power, kills off a series of rivals until he is made King. This Richard is power-hungry and will stop at nothing to get his way.  Many will see in Donald Trump a watered-down version of Richard. Trump’s insistence that he won the 2020 election against all evidence, and his underhanded (and possibly illegal) activities designed to gain the presidency through fraudulent means, brings to mind the single-mindedness of Richard who is obsessed with “winning”. 

HENRY V    Few can forget the powerful and inspiring St. Crispin’s Day speech from HENRY V, where Henry, faced with the odds against the English, nonetheless inspires his outnumbered troops with his “band of brothers” speech. Shakespeare offers us this example of inspiring leadership and it is just such a figure we seek every four years. Sadly, there is no one on the horizon who rises to the level of Henry. 

CORIOLANUS   And if there are Henry-like politicians out there, like the title character in CORIOLINUS, they refuse to submit themselves to the circus spectacle of our primary system that has candidates traipsing through Iowa in January begging for votes as they spend hours on the phone each day begging for money. Honorable men and women just would not put themselves through such a degrading process, and our democracy is all the poorer because of this. There are several figures of presidential stature who “might” be considered. General Stanley McChrystal, Robert Gates, several former College Presidents such as Thomas Cronin (Whitman College), a select few business leaders and heads of non-for –profits might also be considered. But our two-party monopoly on the nomination process eliminates these highly desirable  candidates before they even get to the starting gate. 

MALVOLIO   In TWELFTH NIGHT, Shakespeare gives us a memorable and disturbing political animal in the form of Malvolio, (the name means “ill will”) who is arrogant, authoritarian, vain, and pompous. He is a Ron DeSantis figure who thinks so highly of himself that he recognizes few boundaries and sees himself above the law. Robert Kennedy Jr. might also have these qualities. Other memorable Shakespearian characters intrude into the 2024 race. Vivek  Ramaswamy reminds us of FALSTAFF as he plays the fool and clowns with the audience, never really making a serious argument and relegating himself to the sidelines. Marianne Williamson has a bit of the PORTIA, from Merchant of Venice in her. Strong-willed, independent, and a bit of a gender-bender, Portia defies the rules of a male society and grabs what she wants despite the accepted rules of the game. 

As we face our choices in 2024, we would do well to remember that William Shakespeare points the way. We ignore his wisdom at our own peril. 

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