When the age that we live in becomes chaotic, cruel or unjust, we often turn to art to try and understand it. History is full of examples.
In the early 20th century in Ireland the young James Joyce wrote a series of short stories that held the mirror up to the paralyzed nation that he saw all around him.
I am quite certain there is a young American writer taking a similar measurement here in the U.S. this week. That's because even the most perfunctory glance can't fail to reveal just how deeply divided the nation has become politically, economically and even socially.
The atmosphere in America is decidedly Shakespearean this week. A hubristic madness, a desire not for peace or prosperity but for revenge and victory, is demonstrably consuming millions. And right on cue along comes a divisive demagogue to take all that roiling public anger and turn it into private opportunity for himself.
There is something quite Shakespearian about Donald Trump too. The public already know that something is rotten in the state of the nation, and to some of us Trump looks like the man to fix it.
To the rest of us, though, he looks like the worst possible path at the worst possible moment. Even his own Republican Party elders are leery of his tendency to blame minorities for the nation’s woes. That kind of angry rhetoric tends to create untouchable classes, isolating them, which ultimately damages the party's popularity, to say nothing of its soul.
But neither Trump nor his most ardent supporters give a fig for the party's popularity or its soul. All they want to do is win.
To win they need everyone else to lose. It's not politics, it's warfare. It's incredible how long it's taken the GOP to understand what they're dealing with.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,” writes Shakespeare.
Trump knows all about it, having surfed in on a tidal wave of conservative anger. He rode that wave all the way to the nomination this week. By the end of the week he will likely be the party's presidential candidate.
So the play has been cast and we are where we are. The GOP has chosen the most divisive and bombastic candidate in an era that calls for reconciliation and political skill. And what happens next is likely to inflame the wounds rather than heal them.
Shakespeare can help us understand what is happening to the nation this week because all of these conflicts have happened before. In one of his greatest plays, King Lear, he creates a character who is completely seduced by his own authority.
Lear is powerful and wants to remind you of it. He prefers how things look to how things are.
He has three daughters. The eldest two know are ungrateful and scheming and can play him like a violin. The youngest daughter Cordelia has none of their calculation or insincerity. She simply loves him.
If humanity has a pole star, a place to turn to in times of crisis and collapse, it's to her. Her kind of love, fixed as the firmament, is an aspiration.
At school when we studied the play I never saw her as the doormat or as the goody goody that the school notes often did. I didn't despise her unshakable devotion. I wondered at it.
There is something both deeply human and half celestial about her. I have known people like her. I've been lucky to know a few of them.
America is doing something that is Lear-like this week. It is mistaking bombast for courage. It is mistaking aggression for power. It's mistaking a demagogue for a politician.
I don't really know what one person can do stem such a rising tide. Except refuse to participate in it, I suppose. As Cordelia shows us, that's an action too.
In time, perhaps, the public will come to their senses and understand where fear has led their footsteps. And in time, perhaps they'll discover that the answer they spent their whole lives in search of was standing there looking them in the face all along.