Everybody’s calling Eliot Spitzer’s fall “Shakespearean.” I’ve seen the comparison made in The Wall Street Journal, on blogs, even on Fox News, and I wonder if other Shakespeare scholars find this as cringe-worthy as I do. Even if he did quote Hamlet in his high school yearbook, Spitzer’s story is in no way Shakespearean and he certainly is nothing like a Shakespearean hero. Not even a little bit.
Characters like Hamlet or Macbeth are destroyed by the virtues which lifted them to greatness in the first place. The most remarkable feature of the whole Spitzer debacle, his extreme hypocrisy, is maybe the one characteristic all Shakespearean tragic heroes lack. Macbeth may be a sociopath and Othello may be vicious, but they live out the consequences of their own characters with dignity. Exactly unlike Spitzer. His destruction is far more mundane--the guy who couldn’t keep it in his pants.
The Shakespearean character who most resembles Spitzer comes not from tragedy but from comedy: Angelo in Measure for Measure. As the prosecutor of Vienna, Angelo sets about cleaning up the vice-addled city, all the while trying to seduce a would-be nun, Isabella. But Angelo is a much deeper character than Spitzer. He wants Isabella because she’s virtuous; it’s her virtue that arouses him. This is a much more complicated emotion than the one Spitzer must have felt when he called the Emperor’s Club. And when Angelo is eventually confronted with his crime, his response is fascinating: “I crave death more willingly than mercy; / ’Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it.” The hypocrite prosecutor, when called to judge himself, is true to his ideals. The lines are brilliant and original. Spitzer, in his initial press conference acknowledging his misbehavior, and then when he announced his resignation and said goodbye, just piled one useless cliché on top of another and called it a day.
Few, if any, of the commentators who have been using the term “Shakespearean” are thinking about Angelo, of course. All they are saying is that something dramatic has happened. “Shakespearean” used to mean a situation of extreme emotions in high politics mixed in with a measure of the unfathomability of fate. Now it is shorthand for any situation in which somebody becomes powerful and/or loses power. The whole range of Shakespearean terms has been debased. “Lady Macbeth” is shorthand for any ambitious woman. “Othello” is shorthand for anyone jealous. “Hamlet” is shorthand for anyone who overthinks. The time has come either to use these terms far more selectively or to retire them altogether.
Comparing Shakespeare to politics is as old as Shakespeare--and it can be done well. Elizabeth I reportedly remarked after seeing Richard II: “I am Richard, know ye not that?” In American politics, major events have always invited references to Shakespeare, and many have been entirely appropriate. The assassination of Lincoln, undertaken by an actor in a theater, and by an actor who had performed Marc Antony in Julius Caesar six months earlier, is classic Renaissance meta-theater. Its bizarre and tangled web of coincidences and motivations make the scene truly Shakespearean.
Shakespeare is reduced to bon mots or character clichés constantly, and much is lost in the reduction. The coffee-mug version of Shakespeare quotes the line, “the first thing we do is we kill all the lawyers.” It doesn’t acknowledge that those words are uttered by a nasty piece of work named Dick the Butcher. The truth is that Shakespeare is not useful in explaining the world; he’s far too messy a writer. What makes Shakespeare so original, and so endlessly fascinating, is exactly what makes him so easy to abuse: his moral ambiguity and willingness to see all sides to people and situations. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him “the myriad-minded man,” and like Whitman, Shakespeare contains multitudes. With selective quotation, you can put nearly any thought in his head. He left no diary, no collection of interviews, nothing to corroborate against, only a weird will and a few laconic legal documents. Scholars have not even been able to establish a basic understanding of his religious perspective. He could have been a recusant Catholic, a good Anglican, or an atheist. There are excellent arguments for all of these views. We really have no idea.
Shakespeare’s Collected Works is like the Bible--because of its vast depth and infinite breadth, it can be used to justify anything: slavery or the abolition of slavery, monogamy or polygamy, war or peace, love or hatred. Shakespeare may be even more difficult to pin down than the Bible, because he so desires to be difficult to pin down. His characters are deliberate enigmas. In his great plays, there are no lessons to be learned at all, which is why Shaw disapproved and Tolstoy hated him.
If Shakespeare were simpler, if he were more didactic, more “useful,” we would have stopped caring about him ages ago. It’s exactly because his characters are so complicated and so mysterious that we love them and empathize with them. Despite the intense drama of the downfall of Spitzer, we will all soon forget him, probably sooner rather than later. Angelo, on the other hand, we can’t forget. He’s too real.
Stephen Marche is the author, most recently, of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, a literary anthology of an invented country.
By Stephen Marche