George W. Bush's "Three Shakespeares": Macbeth, Macbush, and the Theater of War

By Barnes, Todd Landon | Shakespeare Bulletin, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

George W. Bush's "Three Shakespeares": Macbeth, Macbush, and the Theater of War


Barnes, Todd Landon, Shakespeare Bulletin


In November 2006, on the day before election polls opened, George W. Bush rallied a Florida crowd: "We're involved in a global struggle, and we will face the enemy where we find them, no matter what the theater of war is. The most important theater, however, is Iraq" ("Remarks"). What are we doing when we speak of a "theater of war"? How are we to understand relationships formed through such interactions of the political and the aesthetic: the politics of theater and the theater of politics? Why do we speak of one activity in terms of the other? Joseph Roach offers an interesting reading of this figurative reversibility. He notes that the "command over bodies individually and in ensembles constitutes a technology of power of the utmost importance in military and theatrical history: the deployment of moving bodies in exactly the right places at exactly the right times, and in the right relationships with one another" (110). Roach's astute observation, part of a larger Foucauldian discussion of power and bodies on stage, is not without an awareness that the repressive power exerted "over bodies" which allows them to be "deployed" is possible only because power is first and foremost a productive biopolitical force. So what might this mean for the agency of the soldier or the actor who is seen to be "under" the power of larger strategic forces?

While the question may seem familiar, I would like to take this opportunity to investigate anew this awkward figuration of theater as war in order to understand more thoroughly how practices of war and practices of theatrical performance might interact differently, in ways unaccounted for by their repeated metaphorical coincidence. How might an examination of the spaces constituted and inhabited by these war theaters and theaters of war help us to escape reductively dialectical conceptions of "difference between" (which shuttle us back and forth between these slippery signifiers, from tenor to vehicle and back again) and allow us to rethink the concept of unmediated "difference itself"? (1) In our global age, as space and time continually reorganize themselves in relation to the changing shape of Empire, we must recognize the need to think differently about the seeming convergence, coincidence, and mutual exclusivity of each side of the deceptively simple equation: theater = war.

In order to rethink our understanding of theatrical practices, as well as practices of war, I would like to address a recent event within the terrain of "Shakespace," a term Bryan Reynolds and his collaborators employ to describe "the particular articulatory space through which discourses, adaptations, and uses of Shakespeare have suffused the cosmopolitan landscape transhistorically" (9). More importantly, though, I want to interrogate the often limiting spatial logic both politicians and academics often employ when examining how performances (be they military or theatrical) operate within the broader cultural terrain. The event I would like to explore, an event ever more visible and therefore less avoidable, presents itself to our attention as a series of productive intersections between Macbeth and George W. Bush.

A provocative instance of this intersection occurred in August of 2006 when President Bush discussed Shakespeare with Brian Williams of MSNBC. Bush told Williams, "I was in Crawford and I said I was looking for a book to read, and Laura said, "You oughtta try Camus.' I also read three Shakespeares ... I've got an eclectic [pronounced "eck-el-ectic"] reading list" (qt. in Williams). According to Kenneth T. Walsh of US News and World Report, Macbeth was in fact one of Bush's "three Shakespeares" (qt. in Chonin 22). This intersection between Bush and Shakespeare, while it might seem "eck-el-ecktic," is in fact only part of a varied and prolonged history of engagement. In the time since September 11th, a number of performances have sought to place Shakespeare into dialogue with the Bush administration. …

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