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When Politicians Turn to Shakespeare

When Members of Congress take the stage at the Shakespeare Theatre’s ninth annual Will on the Hill event on Monday, some of them will already know their lines by heart. 

Rep. Jared Polis, for one, borrowed from the Bard a few weeks ago when expressing disdain for his colleagues’ descriptions of the cuts in the 2011 spending agreement as “historic.”

“As the Bard put it, the cutting in this bill is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” the Colorado Democrat said during an April 13 floor debate.

Polis is not the only member of Congress who enjoys employing some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines in floor speeches and debates. Here are a few more examples:

The Sound and The Fury

It may not come as a surprise that the famous phrase from “Macbeth” is one of the most popular among members of the legislative branch.

In the play, the words are spoken by Macbeth in a soliloquy; “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

In Congress, the word “idiot” is usually left out, though perhaps sometimes implied. 

Like Polis, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) also used the line during the recent spending battle. “Again, is the debate over spending just another Republican and Democratic squabble? Is it just an attempt to gain political advantage? Sound and fury signifying nothing?” he said on April 4.

It was also used by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) to criticize an Iraq War Resolution in 2007. “This resolution is not serious,” he said. “It is a political ploy rather than a principled position. It is sound and fury that signifies nothing.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) used the line when he opposed language considered by the Senate in March 2007 that would have begun the pull-out of U.S. forces from Iraq within 120 days, “Ultimately, it will be a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing but, more importantly, that accomplishes nothing and may do harm,” he said. 

Thou Doth Protest Too Much

Another popular line during debate is drawn from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” In July 2009, then-Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.) used it when responding to criticisms of a Democratic measure that required new legislation to be budget-neutral. After Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) passionately criticized the Democrats’ efforts, Arcuri said, simply, “Methinks thou doth protest too much.”

Another New York Democrat, Rep. Anthony Weiner, used the same phrase in April 2009 during an exchange with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) over a community policing program. “Reclaiming my time, generally speaking, I think the lady doth protest too much.”

Weiner used the same phrase, including the insistence on “lady,” in an exchange with then-Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) in February 2007.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Then-Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) quoted “Romeo and Juliet” to help explain his view on the debate over whether the government should provide “amnesty” to illegal immigrants as part of the 2007 attempt at immigration reform.

“Amnesty is a lot like Shakespeare’s famous definition of a rose: That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” 

Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) used the phrase to make a rather different point about his Democratic colleagues’ policies in December 2009.

“I get such a big kick out of that hollering and yelling over there. Maybe I should get my voice up here real quick. You know, Shakespeare said, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And when we talk about socialism, I just suggest you go look in the dictionary and read what is says as far as the definition is concerned.”

Something Beautiful Dies

Following the tragic shootings in Arizona in January 2011, Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) took to the floor, using a passage from “Othello” in order to draw a connection between heated political debate and the events. 

“Shakespeare tells us in ‘Othello’ that when Iago whispers mistruths in the ear of Othello, something beautiful dies,” Larson said. “Something beautiful died in Tucson, Arizona, this past Saturday. … Who knows what mistruths were bouncing around in the head of the assassin? Who could know that? But something beautiful died. Democracy died just a little that day.”

To Be or Not to Be

Sometimes members take Shakespeare’s verse and run with it, as Republican Jeb Hensarling (Texas) did in June 2010. He at least had the good sense to apologize to the Bard before radically changing one of his most famous lines during a debate on a motion to instruct conferees on the Dodd-Frank Financial Services overhaul. 

“Mr. Speaker, the question before us, with apologies to William Shakespeare, to bail out or not to bail out, that is the question. The motion to instruct by the ranking member says no more bailouts. Quite simply, it cannot be said any other way,” Hensarling said. 

Sen. Robert Byrd

By unofficial count, no Member of Congress cited Shakespeare as frequently or with such rigor as former Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.).

He would frequently invoke the Bard in giving remarks on the Senate floor. And, according to an anecdote from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s remarks eulogizing the West Virginia icon, he began the practice early in his career, quoting from “The Merchant of Venice” during a speech on trade policy as a House Member in 1953.

Byrd’s bardology often came when he was waxing poetic.

In a Jan. 15, 2009, speech given after Hillary Rodham Clinton’s farewell to the Senate, Byrd quoted Juliet: “Mr. President, as I think about Senator Clinton’s leaving the Senate to become Secretary of State, I am reminded of the words of the great English bard William Shakespeare, who wrote that ‘parting is such sweet sorrow.’”

Byrd also liked to quote Shakespeare on the arrival of the spring equinox. 

“William Shakespeare observed that, ‘There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners … They hold up Adam’s profession,’” Byrd said in a 2000 speech. “There is indeed a kinship among gardeners, whether serious gardeners whose gardens are their lifelong avocation, or the duffer with a few beds who buys plants at the local hardware store each spring.”

For obvious reasons, Byrd left out the other two ancient vocations referenced by the clowns in Hamlet — “ditchers, and grave-makers.”

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