Although William Shakespeare didn't use the word "lobbyist" in his plays, a group of political experts in Washington on Thursday said some of the bard's characters fit the bill.
Speaking at a Shakespeare Theatre Company's Bard Association panel discussion, Chadbourne & Parke partner Abbe Lowell, Patton Boggs partner Nicholas Allard, Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz principal attorney Stephanie Sandlin, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Executive Director Melanie Sloan and NBC News correspondent Michael Isikoff pinpointed influence seekers in several of the playwright's works, including King Lear, Julius Caesar and Henry IV, Part II. Allard said lobbying existed in Shakespeare's time and before.
"We've always had lobbying; it's the oldest profession," Allard said. "And there is some that think that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was the first lobbyist."
She said his older daughters, Goneril and Regan, are "ideologues and fully pandering to their father the king for their own special interests" when they flatter Lear in their effort to win control of his kingdom. Cordelia, Lear's youngest daughter, however, is "pragmatic," Sandlin said. Lear's youngest daughter looks out for the best of the king and the kingdom when she says she doesn't have any words to describe her love for her father, despite enraging him, the former congresswoman said.
“At the heart of being an effective lobbyist or someone in Shakespeare’s time who was close to those in power trying to influence and persuade, you have to have someone who is” persuasive, Sandlin said. “And in today’s politics, oftentimes the ideological divide is so immense that you got a narrow set of people who are pragmatic.”
But Sloan said Cordelia is “kind of a lousy lobbyist.”
“Can you imagine Nick if you just came in to tell your clients, ‘I’m not actually going to say anything good about anything you do, but members of Congress should just know’ ?” she asked.
Sloan later expressed admiration for Brutus in Julius Caesar in his fight for a better government.
“He’s willing to participate in this plot against Julius Caesar because he thinks it’s better for Rome,” she said. “And he does end up, of course, dead, but as one of the heroes and the most honorable man because he was trying to do the right thing and trying to make Rome a better place.”
Not every influence seeker in Shakespeare’s works played an admirable role, however.
Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV, Part II, is the modern day equivalent of a “lobbyist-bundler-Super PAC donor,” Isikoff said. Falstaff is a friend of Prince Hal, who becomes King Henry V.
“Publically, King Henry must keep his distance from Falstaff, but absent MSNBC, NBC and the news media,” he will meet with his friend, Isikoff said.
According to Allard, Shakespeare was the best lobbyist of his era.
“Really Shakespeare and the plays are a form of lobbying,” he said. “And it was a very effective and new type of commentary that held up for the public, not just for those in power, but for the public a view of the government.”
Lowell said the bard advocated for the arts, as well as other matters.
“When he writes a play about the way a king or a queen acts, or somebody in that nature of power, we all know that kings and queens and people who were governing England at that time were devoted to watching and listening,” Lowell said. “And he was certainly lobbying them.”
The discussion was the third “Shakespeare and the Law” talk presented by the Bard Association, a lawyers group that supports the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington. The organization also hosts an annual mock trial based on legal issues stemming from one of Shakespeare’s plays and a yearly benefit, called “Will on the Hill,” which has featured comedic performances from members of Congress.
National Law Journal photo by Andrew Ramonas.