The Current

Trump vs. Clinton: modern day Greek tragedy? Election race literary guide

If politics is a place where the lines between fact and fiction can blur, the U.S. election campaign has left many saying you can't make it up. The Current looks back on this election through the lens of literature from Shakespeare drama to Greek tragedy.
The 2016 U.S. election campaign has provided lots of opportunity to see comparisons to Greek tragedy, Shakespearean drama and science fiction. (Rick Wilking, Brian Snyder/Reuters/Wikimedia)

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With the U.S. presidential election finally drawing to a close, the time has come to reflect on just what kind of a story it's been.

The campaign bears a striking similarity to something the Bard might have penned, half-a-millennium ago. Not to mention a Greek, or Roman tale from even further back.

English professor Elizabeth Pentland, who specializes in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature, tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti the U.S. election has "been a very Shakespearean election campaign."

"Shakespeare was always interested in the inherent theatre of politics, the element of performance, the element of drama in persuading people, in winning people over and we have larger-than-life characters here on the stage in front of us," says  Pentland. 

English professor Elizabeth Pentland says the parallels of Richard III to Trump and Elizabeth Woodville to Clinton are strikingly similar. (Wikimedia)

"We have, you know very, very charismatic leaders like Trump who can win people over. But we also have problematic leaders here who display traits that are troubling and divisive."

David Konstan, a professor of classics at New York University, also sees parallels of the U.S. campaign through the lens of Greek and Roman literature.

"Greece gave us the word democracy and Rome gave us the word republic. And both of those forms of government which kind of combine in the modern American system …  have a history of great conflict."

He tells Tremonti that the 5th century in Athens saw the rise of populist speakers and open civil war. And Rome had a whole history of civil wars both with "charismatic speakers who took opposite sides and were able to sway large portions of the population."

Konstan says there's great emphasis on character in Roman literature.

"... less on what it was exactly that somebody was promising and much more on the way you might tarnish the character of your opponent by raising all kinds of scandalous things." 
Science fiction writer Jo Walton says the backstory to Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower is very parallel to this U.S. election. (Wikipedia)

And let's not leave out science fiction and fantasy looking back on this epic battle of Trump vs. Clinton.

According to Jo Walton, a science fiction and fantasy writer, there's a lot of examples of women fighting monsters in fantasy writing.

She tells Tremonti that in the '50s, '60s and '70s , science fiction seemed ridiculous, extending things further than anybody thought they could possibly go.

"And it seems to me that this election was written by one of those people," Walton tells Tremonti.

"Philip Jose Farmer, Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, Thomas Disch … somebody like that who is writing a ridiculous satire of what politics could possibly come to that nobody could possibly believe."

The narrative to this drama still unfolds as the votes are tallied Tuesday night to elect the next U.S. president.

But the question is how does this play out today?

"Is this going to end in tragedy? Is it going to be a comic or a happy ending?" asks Pentland.

"One way or the other this is an election that's going to make history. So in some ways we have all of Shakespeare's plays potentially in the mix here."

Listen for more literary examples in the full segment.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese.