Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

A Shakespearean view of Australian politics

Adrian PhoonShortly after Kevin Rudd was ousted from the Lodge last month, Malcolm Turnbull decided to console him with some words from Shakespeare. In a Fairfax op-ed entitled 'Axed and humiliated: Someone should give this poor bastard a hug', Turnbull quotes Coriolanus:

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek of the rotten fen, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you!

The Roman general Coriolanus is a reviled control freak, full of patrician disdain for the plebeian masses. He turns on Rome and defects to the enemy. Not a kind comparison to make.

Of course, Turnbull's own bloody leadership spill last year was more like something out of Titus Andronicus: like that tragedy's characters, the Liberal Party was predisposed to mutilate and cannibalise.

Shakespeare's plays have long been mined for political parallels. These comparisons thrive partly because Shakespeare is the acknowledged master-observer of human behaviour. His works are recognised as a readymade source for human archetypes and circumstances.

It has to do with the inherent drama of politics. Political crises can be extraordinarily theatrical (which is why they lend themselves so readily to stage and film adaptations). And some of our political leaders often seem to adore the limelight.

Usually we compare politicians to either Richard III (for cunning Machiavels) or Julius Caesar (for victims of political assassinations). Less often, Richard II (for doomed philosopher-kings) might get trotted out.

Comparing politicians to Shakespeare's characters is easy enough to do. Just take an incident — say, Julia Gillard's successful negotiations with the mining bosses — and find a vaguely appropriate analogue in Shakespeare: 'Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings.' That's Richard III.

Politicians sometimes invoke Shakespeare to flatter their own cause. But this rhetorical trick is fraught with dangers. The first risk is that they come off sounding pompous. The second risk is that their analogies backfire.

In 1938, Neville Chamberlain prepared to fly off to Munich to appease Hitler by agreeing to the annexation of Sudetenland. He quoted Henry IV: 'When I come back I hope I may be able to say, as Hotspur said in Henry IV, "Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety".'

But Arthur Greenwood later pointed out in the House of Commons that Chamberlain had failed to quote the rest of the passage: 'The purpose you undertake is dangerous; the friends you have named, uncertain; the time itself unsorted; and your whole plot too light for the counterpoise of so great an opposition.'

When pundits and comedians invoke Shakespeare, the connections are almost always mischievous. In the lead-up to the 2008 US presidential election, Stephen Colbert compared Barack Obama to Hamlet, 'an egghead elitist who can't make up his mind', is 'haunted by his father', and 'drove a good woman insane' (Hillary Clinton). John McCain was either Macbeth or Prospero, 'a powerful old man who lives in isolation with a hideous creature no one likes'. Cut to a picture of McCain with Joe Lieberman.

In the same episode of The Colbert Report, Harvard Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt compared Sarah Palin to Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bottom 'thinks he can play all the parts, ready for anything, but is actually a horse's arse'.

Not all Shakespeare analogies are withering. Novelist Zadie Smith once likened Barack Obama to Shakespeare himself, whose capacity for sympathetic understanding is vast and various, and whose politics is notoriously difficult to discern from his works. Both Shakespeare and Obama, Smith argued, were able to transcend party lines and cultural divisions. A high compliment to Obama, indeed.

In the long run, though, such flattery may be worse than a withering comparison, since it only sets up your hero for failure. With the US riven more than ever by party lines and cultural divisions, Obama will fall short of Shakespeare's apolitical reputation. But do we really want our politicians to be apolitical and never take a stand? Now that would be a tragedy.

As the Australian federal election looms, Shakespeare will inevitably re-emerge in our politics. Those who become victims of Shakespeare analogies should note: it's arguably better to be compared to a Shakespeare character — no matter how noxious the comparison — than not to be compared at all. A comparison suggests you have somehow erred magnificently; no comparison suggests that you possess no character.

Australian columnist David Burchell recently surveyed 'Shakespeare's gallery of tragic heroes' for 'somebody whose personality and predicament could be fitted' with Rudd. But, he claimed, 'I couldn't see my way through it'. For Burchell, Rudd's inconsistency on policy issues made him worse than a tragic failure; it made him a failure lacking any stature, tragic or otherwise.

As he hits the election campaign skids as a backbencher rather than Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd may well look back nostalgically on those days when he had to suffer Malcolm Turnbull's slings and arrows. 

In the meantime, this election takes us into undiscovered country, as both Labor and the Liberals offer up people who were not even their own parties' leaders this time last year. To lead Australia or not to lead Australia? For Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, that is the question.

Adrian PhoonAdrian Phoon is a freelance writer and blogger based in Sydney. He has been published in Melbourne's The Age, The National Times, New Matilda and Same Same

Topic tags: Shakespeare, Turnbull, Rudd, Obama, Palin, Bottom, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Richard III



submit a comment

Existing comments

Julia Gillard didn't successfully negotiate with the miners - she was thoroughly out-foxed.

Carol | 26 July 2010  

Is the ghost of Banquo troubling our Lady MacBeth?

KevingtonBeare | 29 July 2010  

Similar Articles

What welfare policies?

  • Frank Quinlan
  • 30 July 2010

The current kind of content-free campaigning, appealing to popular biases and stereotypes, has real consequences for the social services sector and the people they serve.


The trial and sentencing of Comrade Duch

  • Tony Kevin
  • 28 July 2010

The former head of the Khmer Rouge's main interrogation centre has just been sentenced to 30 years prison. There are important lessons internationally. If a state becomes evil, its orders must be resisted.