Stephen Marche: Byrd and the Bard

[Stephen Marche, a columnist for Esquire, is writing a book about Shakespeare’s effect on world history.]

SHAKESPEARE scholars, and the literary community generally, have selfish motives for missing Robert Byrd, the West Virginia senator who died last week at 92. Historians will long debate his complicated legacy, but scholars will no doubt agree that he was the greatest Shakespeare-quoter in American political history. His death marks the passing of an entire style of literate politics.

Most politicians quote Shakespeare badly, if at all — with a special emphasis on at all. Quoting Shakespeare is risky as a rhetorical strategy. No American politician today wants to seem too educated. Robert Byrd was different. He didn’t waddle around in clichés like “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” from “Macbeth,” or “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” from “Hamlet.”...

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