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Et Tu, Congress?

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The following is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, English and American Literature reference specialist at the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room, Humanities and Social Sciences Division. This is the fourth in a small series of blog posts on Shakespeare at the Library of Congress.

United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, 2008. Prints & Photographs Division.
United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. Carol M. Highsmith, December 7, 2008. //

Several years ago I overheard the following conversation between Library of Congress and Folger Shakespeare Library staff:

“We could call our little corner on Capitol Hill between the Library of Congress and the Folger the ‘district of literature.’”

“Yes, but what about the other institutions in our neighborhood? I wonder how often Shakespeare has been invoked by members of Congress over the years?”

This exchange got me thinking about a project to actually check how often Shakespeare’s name has been thrown around by Congress and in what contexts. Congress produces a lot of documents. There are bills and resolutions, the Congressional Record (what’s said on the floor of Congress plus added material), transcripts of Congressional hearings, reports produced by many committees and other sources, and sometimes executive branch documents. Reading through all of this material from the start of Congress would involve millions of pages. What “digital tools” are available to make this quest even possible?

As one of the Library of Congress’s earliest online projects through our American Memory historical collections, we digitized materials to create A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, 1774-1875. This collection includes records of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the United States Congress until 1875, including debates, journals, laws and resolutions, the Congressional Record and its predecessors, and letters by delegates to the First and Second Continental Congresses.

While this is a wealth of material, the online version was produced when search systems were not as functional as they are today. A search across all of the titles on the single word Shakespeare yielded only nine items. While the text of some of the materials is fully searchable, much is not.

Richard Henry Lee. Engraving by Johnson, Fry and Co., after Chappel. [ca. 1860] //
Richard Henry Lee. Engraving by Johnson, Fry and Co., after Chappel, ca. 1860. //
I did find this gem in a letter written on April 20, 1776, by Richard Henry Lee to Patrick Henry:

This I take to be the time & thing meant by Shakespeare when he says “There is a Tide in the Affairs of Men which taken at the Flood leads on to fortune-That omitted, we are ever after bound in Shallows” &c. Let us therefore, quitting every other consideration heartily unite in leading our countrymen to embrace the present flowing tide, which promises fair to waft us into the harbor of safety, happiness, liberty and virtue.

I discovered from the start in this exploration that virtually no one provides a citation for the Shakespeare passage used. It is, however, easy enough to find the source through a general Internet search or through a website such as Open Source Shakespeare. The tide quotation is from Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3.

I wanted the ability to continue the search past the 1885 date. Fortunately, the Library also produces, formerly

Presently, this freely-available site includes documents from the 93th Congress (1973-1974) to the present. (Not all parts of go back to the 93rd Congress; for example, the Congressional Record can only be searched back to the 104th Congress.) includes legislation, hearings, the Congressional Record, and a wide variety of reports. A simple search on the word Shakespeare for all sources yielded 875 hits, substantially more than I found in the A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation. This is certainly more a reflection on the power of newer search capabilities, rather than on the contemporary invocation of William Shakespeare compared to in the past.

The problem with a simple keyword search on Shakespeare is that I also found numerous references to individuals named Shakespeare who were not William. For example, Frank Shakespeare appears in many State Department hearings, including confirmations as ambassador. While a simple search on just the word Shakespeare brings up some irrelevant material, I was hesitant to search on William Shakespeare as he is often quoted with just a reference to his last name.

The majority of citations seem to be from resolutions or items in the Congressional Record extolling state and local theater companies and Shakespeare festivals in such places as Chicago, Marin, Oregon, New Jersey, and Alabama.

Our neighbor, the Folger Shakespeare Library, is mentioned fairly frequently. In 2016 the Folger sent Shakespeare’s First Folio on tour to all 50 states, and members of Congress were quite pleased when a Folio landed in their districts.

Preface and title page, Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies. [First Folio of Shakespeare]. World Digital Library.
Preface and title page, Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies, 1616. [First Folio of Shakespeare.] World Digital Library.
Congress also authorizes the Architect of the Capitol to send chilled water to the Folger Shakespeare Library for their air conditioning. As part of the Capitol’s neighborhood, the Folger and the Library of Congress apparently share some aspects of facility maintenance in addition to scholarship.

What other means could I use to pursue my quest for the number of Shakespeare mentions? A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation ends in 1885, while does not pick up until 1977. That’s a large gap, plus the search capability for A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation is not thorough.

Fortunately, here at the Library of Congress and at some other major university and research libraries, subscription databases are available that allow one to search across all of the Congressional documents. In this case, I turned to Proquest Congressional and HeinOnline U.S. Congressional Documents Library. In Proquest Congressional, a basic search on the word Shakespeare yields 11,640 hits (as of December 16, 2016).

Naturally, there was a great deal of overlap with the entries I found through These included all the mentions of Shakespeare festivals, but also include special celebrations of Shakespeare’s birth and death dates. Throughout 2016, there’s been a worldwide celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Through the subscription databases, I also found an older Department of the Interior document: Shakespeare tercentenary; suggestions for school and college celebrations of tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 1916 [on programs, festivals, and plays]. While there were definitely celebrations of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014, I was amused to find an entry in the Congressional Record recording the 440th anniversary of his birth.

Naturally, the problem with other people named Shakespeare cropped up again: a “Dr. Edward Shakespeare” was involved in a cholera epidemic in 1887. Not only do other people named Shakespeare skew the results, I also found multiple references to the Shakespeare Company. In this case it wasn’t a theatrical company, but one that originally produced fishing tackle and moved on to other kinds of equipment during World War II. A strike in 1948 by the United Steelworkers prompted the House Committee on Education and Labor to appoint a Special Subcommittee to “Investigate Riot at Shakespeare Co, Kalamazoo, Michigan.” It would make a great topic for a Shakespeare play!

Stabbed in the House (or Senate) of his friends. George Yost Coffin [between 1880 and 1900].
Stabbed in the House (or Senate) of his friends. George Yost Coffin [between 1880 and 1900]. //
Well-known phrases from Shakespeare appear scores or hundreds of times–often used without mentioning Shakespeare:

  • To be or not to be – sometimes includes the rest of the phrase, that is the question (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1). Frequently used to describe whether legislation will actually happen, but also used as “to be or not to be: a candidate; a communist; an exporter; or a party to treaties.”
  • Et tu, Brute (Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2). Often it’s just shortened to “Et tu: U.S. Senate; U.N.; People; or Scranton” – meaning you’re in on this treacherous action too!

Negative applications of Shakespeare’s language appear far more frequently than positive ones. Members of Congress hide behind Shakespeare to disparage the way their institution works or to criticize specific bills or colleagues:

  • What fools these mortals be (Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 2). Used in an 1884 debate about silver and gold coinage up through a 2016 speech on the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Much ado about nothing (title of one of Shakespeare’s comedies). Used more than 800 times – in the context of tax reform, intelligence activities, and war department appropriations!
  • It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5). I’m not certain calling people idiots would be acceptable without quoting Shakespeare, but mostly it’s in the context of, “why are you making such a big fuss over this.”
  • Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician seem to see things thou dost not (King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6). Often shortened in the 19th century to simply “scurvy politician” – is this an indication of low self-esteem?
  • It’s time for more matter with less art (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2). A phrase used in an attempt to get bills unstuck and moved out of committee.
  • Brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.) Quoted before a somewhat lengthy speech despite a promise to be brief.
  • The Balanced Budget Amendment debates in multiple years engender a particularly large dose of Shakespeare quotations:
    • Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere (Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 1).
    • The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers (Henry VI, Part II, Act 4, Scene 2).
    • The devil knew not what he did when he made man politic; he crossed himself by’t: and I cannot think but, in the end, the villainies of man will set him clear (Timon of Athens, Act 3, Scene 3).
    • There is a Tide in the affairs of men… (Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3). Back to our 1776 example and politicians still need to get moving!
  • And right up to this current year, The Stolen Identity Refund Fraud Prevention Act of 2016 occasioned a fine use of Othello: But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed (Othello, Act 3, Scene 3).

Several Senators have been famous for their knowledge of Shakespeare. Upon his death in 1901, lengthy tributes to Senator Cushman Kellogg Davis of Minnesota all mentioned his love of Shakespeare and the fact that he had written a book, Law and Shakespeare. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia was equally well-known for his love of Shakespeare. In 1994 alone, Senator Byrd is reported to have quoted every Shakespeare play on the Senate floor at least once. Whether he was decrying slipping standards of education with Ignorance is the curse of God. Knowledge, the wing where with we fly to heaven (Henry VI, Part II, Act 4, Scene 7) or eulogizing Senator Spark Matsunaga–His life was gentle, and the elements So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’ (Julius Caesar, Act 5, Scene 5)–Senator Byrd found something relevant in Shakespeare.

My favorite discovery comes from unpublished hearings held over five days in 1937 on A Bill to Restrict Admission of Alien Performing Artists to the U.S. for the Protection of Native Artists. Shakespeare was certainly quoted: That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder, Whereto the climber upward turns his face (Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 1). In addition, a member of Congress clarified one witness’s testimony with this follow-up question: “Then the idea is we have no Hamlets because we have not developed them and have been importing them?” Clearly those actors with the English accents were preventing our native actors from getting the plum roles!

Finally, Congress held hearings in 1962 To Amend the Code of Law of D.C. with Respect to Public Exhibitions, Shows, Performances, Plays or Broadcasting. A discussion of censorship included a comment from a witness: “One gentleman asked where we would draw the line and referred to Shakespeare as being gory and even sexy. I would like to say that I think Shakespeare is no threat to our children. It is written in archaic language and you have to beat kids over the head to read or listen to it if it is on TV.” She added the comment, “Let us leave Shakespeare alone.”

It is doubtful that Congress will leave Shakespeare alone, but let us do so here at the conclusion of his 400th anniversary celebration in 2016. But wait–there’s another important institution in our Capitol “district of literature” neighborhood. Do you suppose that Shakespeare also gets invoked at the Supreme Court?