How impeachment hearings can be best understood using Shakespeare

Words are spilling into digitized pixels, onto blogs and good, old-fashioned newspapers about the impeachment hearings. There are essays on how to watch. Essays on the dramatis personae. Why is it important that Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, is now on the Intelligence Committee? Why isn’t he wearing a jacket?

We’ve seen tutorials about how journalists should cover the hearings. How not to get “distracted” by “stunts.” Guides on the Constitutional concept of “impeachment.” What Alexander Hamilton wrote about in Federalist Paper #65 regarding impeachment.


All apply and are worthy of study. But perhaps the best primer for understanding the impeachment hearings is none other than William Shakespeare.

No one studied the questions of morality, politics and ambition more astutely than the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare explored racial and religious divisions in “The Merchant of Venice.” Philosophical debates in “The Tempest.” Betrayal in “King Lear. The lure of power in “Macbeth.”

Many of Shakespeare’s plays focus on war. The consequences of bad political decisions. What it takes to serve as a successful leader. And, the corrupting intersection of a thirst for authority and the public good.

There’s a reason we portray major moments in politics as “theatrical” and even “Shakespearean.” It wasn’t so much that Shakespeare was prescient in foretelling major political events – be they about a fictitious Venetian court or a real-life political saga on Capitol Hill. Shakespeare simply wrote about the tensions involving power – which are inevitably present on every political stage from 7th grade student council to the highest levels of American government.

The goal of House Democrats in the impeachment hearings is to contour a narrative about what happened with Ukraine. Democrats hope their witnesses construct a gripping tale.

So, let’s see what Shakespeare can tell us about L’Affaire Ukraine.

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” – The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene III

What Shakespeare gets at  here is that people manipulate words to their advantage. Take the interpretation of the phone call President Trump conducted with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Persons familiar with the call, ranging from the whistleblower to National Security official Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, immediately saw flashing red lights. They were concerned about what was said on the call. Vindman fretted about how the NSC staff locked down the call. The phone call is seminal to the entire investigation. But many Republicans look at the phone call and see little that’s wrong with the verbiage. That ranges from Mr. Trump himself to Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The public must discern what it thinks of the text of the phone call after the hearings.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

Shakespeare may have channeled Zen for this one. Some yin and yang. Here, Hamlet ponders ways to avenge his father’s death while speaking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. One could argue that Democrats are fixated on the impeachment of President Trump – dating back to the Russia probe and Independent Counsel Robert Mueller. Therefore, the more Democrats stew over the results of the 2016 election, the more they see impeachable offenses.

Shakespeare and Chaucer romanticized the day in much of their work and as a result it gained tremendous popularity in Britain and throughout the rest of Europe.

Shakespeare and Chaucer romanticized the day in much of their work and as a result it gained tremendous popularity in Britain and throughout the rest of Europe. (iStock)

“This is not about (House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam) Schiff, D-Calif., finding the truth,” fumed Graham on Fox. “This is about Schiff trying to destroy the Trump presidency.”

But if one posits that there were in fact misdeeds by the President, then, Democrats will argue they have no choice but to impeach. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., insists Democrats “haven’t made a decision to impeach.” But frankly, lots of Democrats decided long ago to impeach Mr. Trump. Go talk to Reps. Al Green, D-Texas, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.

“More of your conversation would infect my brain.” – Coriolanus, Act II, Scene 1

For starters, no one can quite turn a phrase like Shakespeare. And, for the record, while obscure, Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most political works. The entire play is an expose on the power of populism and how people can overthrow a corrupt regime.

Republicans have long touted that the witnesses at the first impeachment hearing - acting Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and State Department official George Kent - lacked firsthand knowledge of the phone call. So Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times asked Pelosi about that at her weekly press conference.

“I’m wondering if you think it would be worth waiting for those who heard things firsthand, like (former National Security Adviser) John Bolton and (Acting White House Chief of Staff) Mick Mulvaney to testify?” asked Stolberg.

“Sheryl, Sheryl, Sheryl,” interrupted Pelosi. “Don’t fall into the secondhand stuff. Really. That is such a fraudulent proposition put forth by the Republicans. That is such a fraudulent proposition. And they know it. That's why they're talking about process rather than the substance of what we have heard.  I just won't even dignify what they are saying in that regard.”

“We must not make a scarecrow of the law, setting it up to fear the birds of prey, and let it keep one shape till custom make it their perch and not their terror.” – Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene I

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare argues that the rule of law is paramount and those who break it should face consequences.


Pelosi repeatedly argued that impeachment hinges on “the truth” and the hearings are “the message of the Constitution.” In fact, Pelosi has lately begun to cite the word “bribery” when citing reasons the House is investigating Mr. Trump.

“Bribery,” said Pelosi. “That is in the Constitution, attached to the impeachment proceedings.”

Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution indeed mentions “Bribery,” capitalizing it, as a potential impeachable offense.

Most major, historic Congressional hearings are distilled into a memorable moment, curated for posterity. Think of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas decrying his confirmation process as “high-tech lynching.” Attorney Joseph Welch saying to Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wis., “have you no sense of decency?” at hearings investigating communism in 1954. Welch’s retort ended McCarthy’s career.

Only one moment in the two days of open impeachment hearings left such an indelible impression. Yet, the “moment” didn’t even unfold in the hearing room – at least at first. This moment screamed out of the digital ether, radiating like an isotope from the powerful Twitter feed of President Trump.

Via Twitter, the President assailed the professional accomplishments of former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch as she appeared before the House Intelligence Committee.

“She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors,” tweeted Mr. Trump.

Moments later, Adam Schiff read the tweets aloud in the hearing room, seeking Yovanovitch’ s reaction.

“We didn’t need that” said one senior House Republican source.

Before the hearing, Democrats wondered if GOPers risked being too aggressive with Yovanovitch during the questioning.

“If they do that today, it will not look good,” said one Democrat on the committee.

Republicans on the committee didn’t have to. President Trump did it for them.


In tennis, this is referred to as an unforced error.

Many Republicans wished the President would have refrained from lambasting Yovanovitch on his Twitter account.

Believe it or not, one of Shakespeare’s most momentous quotes touched on this very subject.

“To tweet, or not to tweet, that is the question.”