Public Shakespeare: The Bard in the 2016 American Presidential Elections

This chapter explores Shakespearean appropriations for the purpose of political commentary in the 2016 American presidential election. Many of these appropriations amount to what Scott Newstok and Harry Berger, Jr. have called “citational opportunism” – the exploitation of Shakespeare’s cultural capital for tendentious political analogies – but in 2016 there was also an unprecedented pattern of well-informed literary scholars going outside academia to write substantive Shakespeare-inspired cultural criticism in public venues. Why did these “public Shakespeareans” feel compelled and indeed qualified to comment on the election? Drawing upon interviews with these public Shakespeareans, I argue that the rhetoric, characters, structure, and outcome of the 2016 election were reminiscent of the same in Shakespearean tragedy, positioning Shakespeare scholars as legitimate authorities on a modern social event which was confusing and troubling to many traditional political commentators. The chapter arrives at this conclusion by tracking the development of Shakespearean appropriations from the citational opportunism of young students and bloggers in the early days of the election to the public Shakespeareanism of scholars (such as Andrew Cutrofello, Charles McNulty, Paul Hamilton, Peter Herman, and Stephen Greenblatt) during the later days. Readings are situated amidst the rise of Shakespeare as “required reading” in U.S. high schools, and the rise of digital media as a resource for unconventional political commentary. Both the crisis in the humanities and the discourse of “presentism” in Shakespeare studies are considered as motivating forces. And the suggestion is made that public Shakespeareanism in argumentative essays may grow to supplement modern dress performances and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays as a venue for thinking about the ongoing relevance and explanatory power of Shakespeare’s art.