It’s been interesting teaching Shakespeare’s As You Like It during the government shutdown. In the play we see a usurpation of power while recently we learned that GOP right wingers have been planning to shut down the government since January. Shakespeare is a good author to turn to at such times since he understood well the dangers of violating the norms of established government. (See, for instance, Richard II, the Henry IV and Henry VI plays, Richard III, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, and Macbeth.) Through As You Like It we get to vent about what is going on in Washington, reminisce about a golden past, and then hope (somewhat unrealistically) for a restoration of order.
First to the news. It now appears that these rightwing Republicans were determined from the first to, essentially, nullify the results of the 2012 election. Or to be more precise, to make sure that whatever Obama campaigned for—most notably, the public ratification of the Affordable Care Act—would not happen. Their meeting resembled another meeting four years ago, right after the 2008 election, when Republicans planned scorched earth opposition to anything that Obama proposed, including formerly Republican ideas. Here are excerpts from a recent New York Times article:
Shortly after President Obama started his second term, a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III gathered in the capital to plot strategy. Their push to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care law was going nowhere, and they desperately needed a new plan…
It [their “blueprint to defunding Obamacare”] articulated a take-no-prisoners legislative strategy that had long percolated in conservative circles: that Republicans could derail the health care overhaul if conservative lawmakers were willing to push fellow Republicans — including their cautious leaders — into cutting off financing for the entire federal government…
To many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010 — waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.
In As You Like It, Frederick has overthrown his older brother, Duke Senior, who has fled to the Forest of Arden. As is to be expected from one who plots against others, Frederick becomes increasingly paranoid and proceeds to banish anyone with ties to his brother, including many noblemen, his niece (even though she is his daughter’s best friend), and Orlando, son of a late friend of Senior. By Act V Frederick is so worried by everyone who has joined Senior in the forest that he sets out to kill them all.
While Frederick is obsessed and paranoid, however, Duke Senior is making the most of his exile. Given all the machinations occurring in Washington, it is refreshing to hear him preferring nature to smiling sycophants who will stab you in the back. The “penalty of Adam” is our exile from Eden into a world of sin:
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference; as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery; these are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
In the forest of Arden, unlike in shutdown America, nourishment is provided for the hungry, as Orlando learns when Senior gives him the food for his starving servant that he has just tried to steal. In Arden people are kind to those who wish them ill, as we see when Orlando saves his murderous older brother from a lion. In Arden we see a golden age where people are motivated by loyalty rather than greed. Here’s Orlando talking to his 80-year-old servant, who wishes to share his life of hardship:
O good old man, how well in thee appears
The constant service of the antique world,
When service sweat for duty, not for meed [reward]!
Thou art not for the fashion of these times,
Where none will sweat but for promotion,
And having that, do choke their service up
Even with the having; it is not so with thee.
One can imagine a modern day Orlando reminiscing about those days in Washington when Republicans could collaborate with President Johnson on civil rights legislation or when President Reagan worked together with Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill to pass a budget. They all wanted their way but ultimately put the country first.
Is there a resolution to our current impasse? Most observers are pretty sure that enough moderate Republicans would join with Democrats to pass both a clean budget resolution (thereby reopening the government) and a debt ceiling raise (thereby warding off global economic catastrophe) if they were given the chance. It all comes down to John Boehner allowing a vote on the floor.
Let’s hope the Speaker of the House has the conversion experience we witness in As You Like It, as reported by a messenger:
Duke Frederick, hearing how that every day
Men of great worth resorted to this forest,
Address’d a mighty power; which were on foot,
In his own conduct, purposely to take
His brother here, and put him to the sword;
And to the skirts of this wild wood he came,
Where, meeting with an old religious man,
After some question with him, was converted
Both from his enterprise and from the world;
His crown bequeathing to his banish’d brother,
And all their lands restor’d to them again
That were with him exil’d.
If you know any old religious men, send them to Washington.