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Sound and Fury: Seeing the Trump-Biden Contest Through the Eyes of Macbeth

If we’re living a Shakespearean tragedy, expect the former vice president to dethrone the Donald of Manhattan.

Call it a “dagger of the mind” or the stuff of “wicked dreams,” but as the COVID-19 death toll climbs and election day nears in my homeland, I’ve begun to think of the Donald of Manhattan as the Thane of Cawdor, otherwise known as Macbeth.

It all started back in January. During his failed defence of democratic norms, House impeachment manager Adam Schiff made reference on the Senate floor to a CBS News report in which “a Trump confidant said that key senators were warned, ‘Vote against the president and your head will be on a pike’.” His remark drew gasps of “not true” from Republican senators who’ve heard far worse on a nearly daily basis from the Twitter account of their party’s standard bearer.

The phrase “head on a pike” brought me back to the final scene of Roman Polanski’s 1971 film Macbeth. After the hero, Macduff, unceremoniously hacks off the “usurper’s cursed head” and proclaims “the time is free,” those who’ve been freed shove a pike into Macbeth’s noggin. For a few fleeting moments, we see the gruesome scene from the perspective of the fallen king’s dying eyes: looking up, instead of down, at his subjects and witnessing their elation at his demise. In my thought experiment, Macbeth is not the senators but Trump. And Macduff is neither Schiff nor any other member of the House or Senate. He is Joe Biden, the former vice president and longtime Delaware senator whose only living son the US president has done his best to destroy.

Former Vice President Joe Biden. Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid/File

The analogy is not perfect. Trump has little of the courage, eloquence or self-knowledge of the mighty Macbeth. And it’s unlikely that Melania has anything like the malign influence Lady Macbeth had over her husband. Nevertheless, by targeting Biden’s only surviving son, Hunter, with accusations of corruption for his former seat on the board of Ukrainian gas giant Burisma Holdings, and tying nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine to a desired investigation into Burisma and the Bidens, Trump, like Macbeth, may have set in motion his own political demise, not by a cowering Senate but a disillusioned electorate.

Like Trump, Macbeth, decides to target his rivals’ families. He’s won the crown by murdering the king – not uncommon in Shakespeare. But later, in one of the most heartless decisions in all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, he sends his henchmen to murder Macduff’s entire family, “Wife, children, servants, all.” This, you may recall, is in addition to the murder of Macbeth’s friend and comrade in arms, Banquo (and attempted murder of his son), among whose descendants a king is prophesied.

Macbeth and Banquo encounter the Witches for the first time. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Théodore Chassériau, Musée d’Orsay, Public Domain

One tends to think that Shakespeare hoists too much tragedy on the shoulders of his heroes. But real life is often far more tragic. In 1972, after being elected senator of his home state of Delaware for the first time, Biden lost his wife and daughter, Naomi Christina, in a car accident. Neilia was 30 years old, and Naomi, lovingly called “Amy,” had just turned one. Biden’s two sons, Hunter and Beau, 2 and 3 at the time, were critically injured in the accident. Biden wouldn’t leave their bedside and was sworn in as senator from their Wilmington hospital room.

The boys recovered and eventually went home with their father, who took the train home each night from Washington to Wilmington to be with them, and continued doing so for decades. Biden remarried in 1977, and his wife Jill and he welcomed their daughter, Ashley, into the world in 1981. As he explained in a 2015 commencement speech at Yale, it was in part the tragedies he overcame but more importantly the enduring bond with his family that allowed him to maintain a healthy perspective on what it means to serve the American people.

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“Ambition is really important,” he said. “You need it. And I certainly have never lacked in having ambition. But ambition without perspective can be a killer. I know a lot of you already understand this. Some of you really had to struggle to get here. And some of you have had to struggle to stay here. And some of your families made enormous sacrifices for this great privilege. And many of you faced your own crises, some unimaginable. But the truth is all of you will go through something like this. You’ll wrestle with these kinds of choices every day. But I’m here to tell you, you can find the balance between ambition and happiness, what will make you really feel fulfilled. And along the way, it helps a great deal if you can resist the temptation to rationalize.”

The speech was given while his son Beau, a former attorney general of Delaware and recipient of the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq, battled brain cancer at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. At the age of three, Beau survived the car accident that claimed the lives of his mother and sister and fractured his brother Hunter’s skull. Two weeks after his father delivered this speech, Beau succumbed to brain cancer on May 30, 2015. He was 46 years old.

Our common pain is now the coronavirus pandemic, not unlike the plague in Shakespeare’s time, having claimed more than 140,000 lives in the US alone (on July 20) and threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions more.

It is again Macbeth that most fully captures the anxiety and misery our nation is currently experiencing, where political tribalism and social insecurity seem to deepen with each passing day; with each new protest and each new death by a disease that has itself become grotesquely politicised. The carnage wrought by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s unmoored ambition takes place in an atmosphere of plague and paranoia, where physical ailments are amplified by psychological and emotional distress. As Ross says to Macduff when the latter returns to Scotland after Macbeth’s ruthless ascent to power:

Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be called our mother, but our grave, where nothing,
But who knows nothing is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not marked; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy.

The bard would never be so prosaic, but it’s no surprise that the remedy for controlling a deadly pandemic and restoring faith in government is one and the same: Trust. Laurie Garrett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Coming Plague told us as much at the onset of the now global pandemic in a February 15 column for Foreign Policy: “An epidemic cannot be fought and won unless the bonds of trust between governments and people can survive the grief, confusions, emotions and medical challenges of the battle.”

US President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts/File

Clearly, that trust has broken down between much of the US and Donald Trump, who— much like Macbeth, imprisoned yet empowered by his all too human vanity, ambition and moral nihilism—may not fully believe but behaves as if:

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.

Literary historian Stephen Greenblatt, in his 2018 book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, never mentions Trump by name, but his passages on Macbeth infer parallels. “The internal and external censors that keep most ordinary mortals, let alone rulers of nations, from sending irrational messages in the middle of the night or acting on every crazed impulse are absent,” he writes. All tyrants are “enemies of the future,” he continues, not only in the figurative sense, by undermining the rule of law and the ties that bind; but in Macbeth’s case, in the literal sense, by destroying the offspring of those who might bring stability and prosperity to the kingdom.

The truest line of that Yale commencement speech Biden gave five years ago about why he commuted from Washington back to Wilmington every night to see his young boys was this: “[T]he real reason I went home every night was that I needed my children more than they needed me.” It’s hard to imagine a better reason for Macduff to return to his plague-ridden Scotland and challenge Macbeth, or to avenge the tyrant’s assault upon his “pretty ones”.

Michael Judge, a former deputy features editor at The Wall Street Journal, is a US-based poet and freelance journalist.