December 12, 2012

Shakespeare on the fiscal cliff


For those of us who find economics baffling once things get more complicated than the most basic concept of supply-and-demand, Ari Shapiro has compiled a series of interviews with literary types around Washington, DC, drawing comparisons between the fiscal cliff discussion that’s all over the news with works of Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Thornton Wilder. The piece aired on NPR’s Morning Edition earlier this week and is called “The ‘Fiscal Cliff’ for English Majors.”

Erstwhile Folger Shakespeare Library director Gail Paster, describes how the political and economic situation calls to mind Act IV of Shakespeare’s King Lear, when the blinded Earl of Gloucester wrongly believes he’s at the edge of the cliffs of Dover, led there by his son who describes the scene to make Gloucester believe he’s about to face a terrible fall. Paster says that this moment of a false cliff created by words is analogous to the fiscal cliff, especially since the predicament was created by lawmakers in the first place. She contends, “We will so frighten ourselves with the consequences that we will have to do something … Language is making that landscape more terrifying than it might have even been in reality.”

The Library’s current director, Michael Witmore, also finds comparison to Shakespeare in the brinksmanship between Republicans and Democrats. He brings up As You Like It, which, Shapiro explains, “defines how to deliver an insult, how to intimidate your opponent without heading into a fatal duel.” Witmore says of the comedy, “It is a culture of scripted escalation. It’s a dance, it’s a game; and that’s what politics is. You say one thing, but you know that you’ve got this way out, and this way out, and the other side knows, too.”

Reaching even further back to ancient Greece, Anna Thorn of indie bookstore Politics & Prose points to Aristotle’s concept of dramatic irony — different from the contemporary understanding of irony, it refers to the audience of a play having knowledge of something that the characters do not, like the fact that Oedipus has married his own mother. The parallel here, as Shapiro explains it, is that Republicans and President Obama disagree on tax revenue and rates; while the “audience” of the public knows that they’ll likely compromise somewhere in the middle, but the “performers” act as if they are unaware of what the outcome will be.

The most recent example featured in the story is Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker (later adapted into the musical Hello, Dolly!). Paul Tetrault, the director of Ford’s Theater, says the play “captures Republicans and Democrats perfectly.” He goes on to explain,

The two main characters fight like cats and dogs. You have the Republican, Horace Vandergelder, who is a small businessman running his grain and feed store. And you have the Democrat, Dolly Gallagher Levi, who in her great famous line, says in the play, “money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”

Shapiro points out that the rival characters ultimately get married, concluding, “maybe art doesn’t always imitate life,” but until we get Carol Channing to walk through the House of Representatives to a lavish, aisle-crossing-inspiring musical number, we’ll never know for certain.


Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.