To her opponents Hillary Clinton is Lady Macbeth, raging within the corridors of the power, hoarding wealth, punishing her enemies, ever plotting to gain the throne, crying “Out, damned spot!” as she futilely tries to wipe the blood of Vince Foster from her wretched hands.
To her supporters she is Portia, plying her legal skills and declaiming about the “quality of mercy,” even as she mercilessly skewers the Wall Street money lender out to take his pound of flesh from the common man.
But the detail about Hillary Clinton that would surely have attracted Shakespeare’s attention is the sheer gob-smacking length of time she has been seeking the presidency. At least one college classmate predicted she would be the first female president, and it is as if she has spent the subsequent 47 years preparing herself for the role. Shakespeare might have thought Hamlet would make the ideal king if not for the unfortunate ending of that play, but before he wrote Hamlet he spent two plays detailing the preparations of a young price for his kingship, and they have much to say about the education of the presumptive Democratic nominee.
In the two parts of King Henry IV, Shakespeare details the education of the young Prince Harry, who would eventually become the revered Henry V. Prince Harry has two role models influencing his development. His father, King Henry IV, talks of duty and honor, even though he is really all about gaining and maintaining power, having usurped his throne by killing Richard II and then spending his entire reign fighting to maintain it, most notably at the battle of Shrewsbury. The prince’s other role model is old Jack Falstaff, a fat Rabelaisian figure who glories in gluttony, thievery, and whoring, all of which is balanced by his outlandish humor, his jaundiced view of duty and honor, and his true love for the young prince. In short, Falstaff is very much a figure of flawed and glorious humanity, and he became one of Shakespeare’s greatest, and most popular, characters. “Banish plump Jack,” Falstaff famously tells the young prince, “and banish all the world.”
In these plays we see Prince Harry navigating between these two models and there is a hope that in marrying the best traits of both figures, and discarding the worst, he might somehow become a different kind of king, something new and glorious.
Hillary Clinton, having cast herself into the role of president-in-waiting-and-waiting-and...., is navigating between two role models of her own. Bill Clinton might be a Rabelaisian figure in his own right, but like the prince’s father he sure as hell knows how to gain and maintain power. From his election, despite the rash of scandals, to his move to the center when the House went Republican, to staying in power despite being impeached, and finally to securing wealth and maintaining a semblance of influence in his post-White House years through the Clinton Foundation, he has proven he will become anything necessary to get what he wants. These are lessons that Hillary seems to have fully absorbed in becoming the careful, scripted politician who voted for the Iraq war to prove her toughness, and who has crafted a platform of small steps and modest progress. “I am not interested in ideas that sound good on paper,” said Hillary just recently, “but will never make it in the real world.” This real world she talks about is the world where Bill Clinton holds sway.
Hillary’s other apparent role model, at least in this primary season, is Bernie Sanders, a gray-haired embodiment of the spirit of the Sixties, with its freewheeling social mores and progressive, dare we say radical, politics. It is clear that Bernie has pushed Hillary to the left over the course of the primaries. And while Bernie is only a recent antagonist, one suspects that with Hillary there has always been a Bernie, someone on her left telling her to loosen up, be bold, swing for the fences. Obama played that role during her last run for the presidency, and maybe Russ Feingold during her time in the Senate, and maybe the progressive left excoriating the DLC during her husband’s term. Each of these Bernies, really, are just stand-ins for the most powerful of her role models, the idealist Hillary had been in her youth, before the business of politics and the attacks from the right took hold. Listen to Hillary Clinton at her graduation from college in the actual Sixties: “For too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” Hillary, meet Hillary.
Hillary Clinton’s presidency, if she defeats Donald Trump, will be determined by how she navigates between these two poles. Shakespeare has given us a map as to what could happen. “The tide of blood in me hath proudly flowed in vanity till now,” Prince Harry says upon his father’s death. “Now doth it turn, and ebb back to the sea, where it shall mingle with the state of floods and flow henceforth in formal majesty.” And in his first public appearance as king, he renounces Falstaff in one of Shakespeare’s most poignant scenes. Instead of becoming a new kind of leader, the prince feels the pull of his father and his history and becomes another just like those before him. On his deathbed his father confesses the crimes that gave him the crown and advises his son to distract the populace with “foreign quarrels.” In the beginning of the third play about this same man, Henry V, our Prince Harry, with his father’s blood now in his veins, concocts a ruse to invade France.
One could imagine Hillary, under the sway of her husband’s pull to power, wagging the dog to bolster sagging popularity, with results probably as disastrous as Henry’s invasion of France. Yes, caught with a small force behind enemy lines, Henry V won a stunning victory at Agincourt, but continually concerned with maintaining his conquest he died less than seven years later of dysentery outside of Paris, leaving a young son who was unable to maintain the throne. The result was the War of the Roses that plagued England over the ensuing decades, continuing beyond the time that Joan of Arc helped throw the occupying British out of France.
But Shakespeare grants to Hillary another possibility. At one point, the wastrel Prince Harry gives us a glimpse of his promise:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagion clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
Is it fruitless to hope that Hillary, upon finally achieving her presidential ambitions, will find her own way to break through the base contagion clouds that seem to strangle her best and noblest impulses? Is it fantasy to imagine that the first female president will discover a new way to inhabit the office, and surprise us all by tempering the real politic of her husband with her youthful desire to make the impossible possible? Probably. You don’t have to be Shakespeare to know the politics is designed to break your heart.
But then again, how do you banish the face in the mirror?
Lashner is a graduate of the New York University School of Law and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He worked as a prosecutor with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. before retiring to write full-time. He is the New York Times bestselling author of the Edgar-Award nominated novel The Barkeep, as well as Guaranteed Heroes, The Accounting, and the Victor Carl series of legal thrillers. He lives outside Philadelphia with his wife and three children. The Four-Night Run is his latest novel and is available now.