Flattery and Shakespeare
Flattery and Shakespeare
by William H. Benson
June 29, 2017
On July 9, 1850, Millard Fillmore, the Vice-President, became the thirteenth President of the United States, after the twelfth President, Zachary Taylor, died of cholera. On the day Fillmore took the oath of office, he fired every member of Taylor’s Cabinet because he “resented the way that they had ignored him when he was vice-president. Two months passed before he approved a new cabinet.”
Last February, Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globe, wrote that Fillmore “plunged the White House and the Whig Party into turmoil,” because he was attracted “to oddball political movements, conspiracy theories, and ethnic hatred.” He displayed open hostility toward free trade and Irish immigrants, but supported slavery, although he was from New York, a northern state.
Fillmore’s most appalling decision was to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, a law that allowed federal officials “to hunt escaped slaves and return them to bondage. In a Pennsylvania case, the President charged forty-one Americans with treason because they refused to join a slave-catching posse.”
In the 1852 presidential election, the Whigs lost by a landslide, and the fractured Whig Party collapsed and was extinguished from American politics forever. In 1856, Fillmore ran for president as the Know-Nothing party’s candidate. Their slogan, “Americans must rule America.” He lost.
Jacoby began his column, “History doesn’t repeat itself. But it has an unnerving tendency to rhyme.” Jacoby suggests that our current president is governing as Millard Fillmore did.
One can remember though that as time moves forward, the issues, ideas, personalities, laws, and cultures change. What was the case in 1850 is not the same as in 2017. No one can step into the same water in the same river twice. History may rhyme or resonate rather than repeat itself.
To equate a living person with a historical character—who once lived and is now departed—is one thing, but it is more difficult to equate a living person with a fictional character, even one based upon a historical figure.
At Trump’s recent full cabinet meeting, while the cameras were rolling, each secretary, plus the vice-president, spoke of their over-the-top loyalty to the president. A Toronto citizen commented on Twitter, “This is actually the start of King Lear.”
Indeed, Shakespeare’s King Lear asked each of his three daughters to tell him how much they loved him, so that he could decide how much of his estate he would give to each. Two daughters, Goneril and Regan, flatter him and profess their devotion, but the youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses and says, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your majesty according to my bond; no more nor less.” Cordelia’s honest answer so shocks Lear that he banishes her.
He then divides his estate between Goneril and Regan, who then take all that their father owns and drive him out onto the heath on a stormy night, where he shouts at the wind.
A writer for the Economist said, “No secretary quite filled the role of Cordelia, the princess who refused to flatter King Lear,” and “Lear confuses flowery words with love,” and “Mr. Trump is no King Lear, whose choleric old age was preceded by a long and fruitful reign.”
On the same day that Trump conducted his televised cabinet meeting, Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar opened at “Shakespeare in the Park” in New York City’s Central Park. Instead of a Roman toga, this Julius Caesar “sports a blond wig and a suit and too-long [red] tie, sends tweets from a golden bathtub, and is brutally stabbed to death by a group of women and minorities.” The blood on the stage dismayed the corporate sponsors, who then reconsidered their support.
One critic insisted that “portraying the assassination of the American president as a righteous blow for justice is an offense to decency,” and it was. The Economist‘s writer said, “Donald Trump is not a Julius Caesar. Instead he is a boastful, thin-skinned praise-addict. He knew full well that his cabinet officials were flattering him, and he relished their humiliation. He is more bully than tragic hero.”
Our current president does not match one hundred percent Millard Fillmore’s performance, nor does he match Shakespeare’s dramatic characters, King Lear or Julius Caesar. There is no allegory, typology, or symbolism here. The president is what he is, does what he does, and tweets what he tweets, and in that, he needs no help from history or literature, neither of which he reads.
The historical past fails to foretell the future, and the same is often true of centuries-old literature, including Shakespeare’s plays. As for cabinet secretaries who humiliate themselves by flattering the president with questionable adulation, it reminds me of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s attitude, that when flattery is required, there is no excess.