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Will Power: How Shakespeare can Save America This November

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In several of William Shakespeare's comedies, dyspeptic rich and powerful authority figures act to harm other, innocent characters. But the innate goodness and general positive nature of those innocents eventually prevail, correcting circumstances so that all may prosper.

This was Shakespeare's theatrical way of offering 16th Century Elizabethan audiences, embroiled in the religious controversies of the Protestant Reformation, secularized, nonsectarian spiritual advice, dressed up as entertainment. Virtue, resilience, and, most importantly, optimism augur salvation in Shakespeare's comic universe.

We, in today's 21st Century America, might benefit, as well, from the Bard's comic counsel. And that may be less surprising than you think, given our country's special relationship with the playwright.

Shakespeare has always been our favorite dramatist. Almost 25% of all the plays produced in the United States in the 19th Century were his. And Shakespeare was, by far, the most popular playwright on the American frontier. His works were received and celebrated as articulating the fundamental moral principles upon which to build a new society. In fact, in 1850, the very popular U.S. novelist James Fenimore Cooper called Shakespeare the great author of America.

So how might we help ourselves by embracing anew the Bard's secularized gospel of optimism? Consider Donald Trump.

Let's be honest--there is something very Shakespearean about the public Donald. Self-consciously flamboyant, raucously self-congratulatory, boundlessly ambitious, shifty, petty, pompous, carnal, imperious, vindictive--his public persona offers a manifestly theatrical comic antagonist strutting and fretting his hour upon the American media stage. But he is comic only so long as he is not elected.

For we, the citizenry of this nation, and, for the moment, his voluntary audience, will not find it so entertaining should such a character actually take power. And so here is how America's soft spot for Shakespearean virtues can save us.

Let our better angels (of whatever faith or creed we individually follow) guide us. Let our innate resilience, collective good nature and national optimism help us resist the demagogic appeals, reckless drum-beating and xenophobic fear-mongering of our current, carnivalesque trouble-maker. Let us trust in ourselves and in one another to ensure that what we have been living through these past several months is, indeed, a comedy, with a healthful and restorative ending.

Otherwise, we may find out on a national level, and to our great dismay, the howling spiritual despondency that Shakespeare was alternatively signaling in his tragedies.

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Steven Doloff is a professor of Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt Institute in New York City. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, and The Chronicle of Higher (more...)
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