America was built by work, but it was created by words. A declaration, heady with classical eloquence, pitch perfect in the gravity of its steady polemical meter, brought the republic into the world. Knowing that one rebels in poetry but governs in prose, the Constitution gave the nation its institutions in more austerely workmanlike English. Where its language is sharp and clear, arguments are contained; where ambiguous and elastic, contention is invited, never more so than now. Along the way to the present, rhetoric of great passion and moral intelligence—that of Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, William Jennings Bryan, and Franklin Roosevelt—reminded Americans of the highest purposes of the Union and of the terrible penalties of falling short. The greatest of their speeches—Gettysburg, “Cross of Gold,” “Four Freedoms”—endure through the generations when no one can remember a word of what British prime ministers other than Winston Churchill (who was, as he reminded Congress, half-American) had to say about anything.
America was once a nation of high-school and college rhetoricians schooled by oratory manuals like the one written by the Scottish clergyman Hugh Blair, a Cicero for modern times. Lawyers and clergymen aspired to be Hancocks and Clays. To be American was to sound off stylishly. Jefferson’s 1777 draft for the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom could be read as much for the blazing force of its diction as for the nobility of its principles. Mark Twain could growl tigerishly at the follies of American imperial overreach, but even those, like Teddy Roosevelt, who hated what he said were provoked by the cunning of his voice.
And now, as the gears of election time begin to crank and grind, and the tinny operetta of soundbites tunes up, where is this once mighty republic of words? In the pit of the tweet, that’s where. In the echo chamber of radio rant, where sycophants call in to be patted on the head by talk-show tribunes. In the pseudodemocracy of the blogosphere, where every and any utterance demands equal right to our attention no matter how banal the notion, how crippled the syntax, or how inanely dude-heavy the patter. Every so often, of course, our oratorically minded president opens the throttle on his own considerable word engine, but increasingly he is back on his heels, as if eloquence were now held by his enemies to be a confession of un-American ineffectiveness. “Results, not rhetoric,” says Tim Pawlenty’s favorite campaign slogan. If the nomination were won on the dullness of public address, he would be a shoo-in.
But just maybe help is at hand for rhetorically challenged pundits and pols in remedial exposure to the greatest language enhancer of all time: William Shakespeare. The Royal Shakespeare Company has built a replica of its Stratford-on-Avon arena theater inside New York’s Park Avenue Armory, where it will offer a repertoire of five plays in six weeks. The Bridge Project, offering a Bard-heavy program, is always a sell-out in Brooklyn and London. And this wouldn’t happen if it were a matter of Brits grandly bestowing the Bard on Americans. Something like the opposite is the case. Shakespeare has always been an American crowd pleaser.
Right now in Central Park, the entirely homegrown Public Theater is performing with stunning timeliness Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s ferocious dissection of sexual hypocrisy and political power. Its plot features a puritanical paragon of public virtue, dedicated to stamping out fornication, if necessary with the death penalty. Needless to say, no one comes out well. Sanctimonious politicians much given to denouncing vices when not entirely untainted by temptation themselves should be frog-marched to the play.
You would imagine that the English of four centuries ago would always have been an insuperable barrier to American enjoyment, but you would be wrong. In the early years of the republic, touring troupes of actors, some English and some not, took their companies, in boats and wagons, up the Mississippi and the Ohio, into the backcountry of the moving frontier, where they would halt, recruit some enthusiastic amateur locals for spear-bearers, dress them up, and perform in tavern yards, landings, schools, and churches. Audience passions could run high, not least because the public knew its Richard III (a perennial favorite), its Hamlet, and its Othello backwards. Subpar performances were greeted with a pelting rain of apples and coins.
The greatest of all the American Shakespeareans of the mid–19th century, Edwin Forrest, took it as his personal mission to knock the favorite of the English stage, Dickens’s friend William Macready, from his perch. Forrest, an ex-knife-thrower whose violent physical stage business wowed the house (his suicidal Othello falling backwards, head to the footlights, was a winner), made much of the fitness of Shakespeare for modern America and derided Macready’s effetely mannered performances. Each toured the theaters of the other’s country, stalking his rival, raising the stakes for a Macbeth showdown, which duly came about in New York in May 1849. The bad blood turned literal. Twenty-five died and more than 100 were badly wounded in the Astor Place “riot” that began when a Forrest-fan gang tried to break up a Macready performance.
Those passions ran high because Shakespeare in the 19th century was the common property of everyone. Laborers, shopkeepers, professionals, and clerks were all in the audience for King Lear and Julius Caesar—gripped by the great dramas of ambition; deceit; lust; delusion; jealousy; hypocrisy; rip-roaring, gut-bursting hilarity; and annihilating despair. And out from the footlights and into American audiences flowed the great tide of Shakespeare’s words: emboldening, liberating, exhilarating. And if it’s too much to hope that the words coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire in the next months will sound like passages from Coriolanus or Julius Caesar, then at least you know where to go for the balm of eloquence.