Is Barack Obama the Shakespeare of Politics?

The New York Review of Books has finally printed British writer Zadie Smith’s “Speaking in Tongues,” an essay based on her lecture given at the New York Public Library last December. In character with the 34-year-old novelist, Smith’s lecture is timely and timeless, youthfully sage, and fantastically put together both in terms of syntax and conceptual significance. In her lecture, Smith contrasts Barack Obama’s plight as a politician with William Shakespeare’s easy status as “everyman”:

“Shakespeare’s art, the very medium of it, allowed him to do what civic officers and politicians can’t seem to: speak simultaneous truths. (Is it not, for example, experientially true that one can both believe and not believe in God?) In his plays he is woman, man, black, white, believer, heretic, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim. He grew up in an atmosphere of equivocation, but he lived in freedom. And he offers us freedom: to pin him down to a single identity would be an obvious diminishment, both for Shakespeare and for us. Generations of critics have insisted on this irreducible multiplicity, though they have each expressed it different ways, through the glass of their times.”

Smith goes on to cite Keats and Stephen Greenblatt, each of whom praise Shakespeare’s lack of evident ideology – and abundance of uncertainty – in what Keats calls a “negative capability,” even when the dramatist was writing for a specific audience or crown. This uncertainty allowed Shakespeare to so acutely express truth’s inherent plurality. Her Smith’s conclusion then begins with a tribute to imagination which Smith designates “the only land of perfect freedom.”

“Presidents as a breed, tend to dismiss this land,” declares Smith, “thinking it has nothing to teach them. If this new president turns out to be different, then writers will count their blessings…. A line of O’Hara’s reminds us of this. It’s carved on his gravestone. It reads: “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.”