This year's GOP race all seems straight out of Shakespeare, both comedy and tragedy. Michele Bachmann's verbal gaffes are the stuff of Shakespearean comedy, while Rick Perry's death from self-inflicted wounds could be compared to those Shakespeare characters that seal their own fate with acts of political (or physical) suicide.
As the next round of voting approaches, four characters (in every sense of the word) remain in the hunt for the nomination: Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul. This has left me wondering how would these four very different competitors do in Shakespeare's world, and where would they feel most at home?
Newts and Knights
Newt Gingrich, lover of fame, women and food, could be the twin of Shakespeare's Falstaff. In Henry IV and the Merry Wives of Windsor, the fat knight Falstaff steals scene after scene with his ability to tell tall tales, manipulate words, and call attention to his own glories. Falstaff is perhaps one of the greatest storytellers in Shakespeare, turning a cowardly retreat and failed robbery into a story of swashbuckling heroism; an expansive imagination, Falstaff is someone who would also dream of life on the moon-colony.
In his search to expand his reputation and his waistline, Falstaff inflicts a large amount of collateral damage on the people in his orbit: He takes credit for killing a rebellion leader, he steals money from religious pilgrims and widows, he attacks women who have fed and clothed him. Women often suffer at Falstaff's hand, dumped and forgotten when they no longer prove useful to his needs.
Though he may appear the jolly fatman, Falstaff's verbal wit and cruelty lays low his opponents, and he seems a figure that would prove a strong rival to Newt in the debate arena. These are both clever men, but they keep getting hindered by their appetites; Falstaff's Achilles heel lies in his constant desire for alcohol, while Newt's lust is broader, including women, revenge, power... you name it. Of course, Falstaff had a playwright dictating his fate; for better or worse, Newt is captain of his own.
Discipline and Punish
Rick Santorum casts himself as many things (outsider, "true conservative," blue-collar kid), but his most powerful persona is as culture warrior. Angelo, the interim governor of Vienna in Measure for Measure, is also a culture warrior, outlawing numerous forms of sexual expression in the name of public morality.
During his brief reign as Duke, Angelo orders all brothels in Vienna to be closed and torn down, as if the buildings themselves were stained by the sin. Angelo also outlaws premarital sex, sentencing the young man Claudio to death for impregnating his girlfriend. This desire to police sexuality is something a President Santorum might approve of; while he admits he is not "running for pastor," he considers the sex lives of individuals to be an "important public policy issue."
In Angelo's case, the desire to control others bodies results in a perverse act of hypocrisy; the man who criminalizes sex outside of marriage is willing to spare Claudio's life in exchange for the virginity of the young man's sister, Isabella. The fact that Isabella is about to take her vows as a nun makes Angelo's desires all the more villainous.
Angelo's sanctimony reminds me of Santorum's calls to outlaw abortion under any circumstances while choosing to induce labor (with full knowledge that the fetus could not survive) when his own wife's life was at risk. These are Catholic peas in a pod, sharing a "do as I say, not as I do" mentality that would undoubtedly make them bosom buddies.
All By Myself
Ron Paul, the ultimate GOP political outsider, finds his Shakespearean counterpart in the figure of Malvolio from the romantic comedy Twelfth Night. Malvolio is a man without friends, the chief whistleblower in the household he serves. Malvolio longs to be in the inner circle, to be given the opportunity to ferret out the wrongdoers (in his eyes) and achieve the status to which he feels destined. Of course, his penchant for tattling only prompts others to reject him even further, resulting in a very public humiliation. By play's end, Malvolio has been subjected to public ridicule and storms off stage vowing revenge.
While Ron Paul's strong primary showings have staved off the prospect of humiliation, it is clear that he will never be part of the in-crowd, perhaps best symbolized as a speaking position at this summer's convention. In 2008, Paul held a shadow convention because the powers that be would not let him take the stage; will 2012 be a repeat rejection, despite the large number of delegates the Texas congressmen will amass?
On a sillier note, the men share another similarity in their total lack of fashion sense. Malvolio's embarrassment is capped by his absurd costume of bright yellow tights featuring crossed laces that run the length of his legs. Though Ron Paul is not going to strut onto stage similarly attired in light bondage gear, his refusal to wear a suit that actually fits makes the fashionistas gasp.
Pennies and Penance
Mitt Romney is known for many things, but two of his most prominent characteristics are his money and his Mormonism. Shylock, a Jewish moneylender from the Merchant of Venice, is similarly associated with faith and finance. Shylock is a cutthroat, or more accurately, cut-flesh, man who pursues his profit at any cost.
Shylock demands a pound of flesh as a bond, and is eagerly willing to take it from a defaulting creditor. This act of dismemberment for fiscal gain, the sense that the parts are greater than their sum, is seen in Romney's own dismantling of corporate bodies, his so-called vulture capitalism. Shylock's financial success is intimately connected to his Jewish faith, and this identity is something that continually renders him an outsider, the same way those with anti-Mormon bias insist that Romney is not a Christian.
Sustained through no physical labor of their own, these men have found success putting the money of others to work. This is a dangerous practice; Shylock's greed results in him being forced to disown his faith, a man ultimately left without money and without his daughter. While Romney won't have to disown the angel Moroni, those who follow his political career can point to numerous flip-flops on issues he once held dear. How far he will have to go, and what other values he will have to surrender, in order to win the nomination?
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