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When Politicians Turn to Shakespeare

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Rep. Jared Polis 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.”

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.

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