I asked a former colleague what William Shakespeare might say about the meandering journey to elect a new House speaker.

“A true ‘Comedy of Errors,’” came the response.

If this was “Twelfth Night,” the House would have wrapped this up a long time ago.

It certainly wasn’t “Much Ado About Nothing.”


Perhaps the marathon quest to choose a speaker was like “As You Like It?”

However, it was thought that after the hurly-burly, the House might actually re-elect its deposed leader, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after it dethroned him. There were even charges that McCarthy and his allies were trying to execute a return to power behind the scenes.

Now that would be Shakespearean.

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., seized the GOP’s nomination for speaker for four hours and ten minutes on Tuesday, before withdrawing.

Former President Trump made sure of that.

“Tom Emmer, it looks like he’s finished. He was not a supporter. He was a RINO,” thundered Mr. Trump.

One might say there was some semblance of “Richard III” once the former president got involved. 

Others piled on.

“I can’t go along with putting one of the most moderate members of the entire Republican Conference in the speaker’s chair,” argued Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind. “That betrays the conservative values that I came here to fight for.”

“There are some people criticizing him for that, which I think is wrong,” said Fitzpatrick. 

“He didn’t object to Joe Biden’s Electoral College votes. He voted with the Democrats to overturn President Trump’s ban on transgenders in the military,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. 

“The voter base, I think they’re making it pretty clear they don’t want Tom Emmer to be speaker,” said Rep. Eli Crane, R-Ariz., of Emmer. 

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., said that Republicans tore Emmer up because he had voted to certify the 2020 presidential election results. 

“All’s Well, that Ends Well?” Hardly. 

The former colleague wrote that Congress had officially entered “‘Othello’ status” once Emmer bowed out. 

McCarthy, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., Jordan and Emmer.

To be, or not to be was certainly the question for this quartet.


But as Cassius said to Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” “It’s not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” 

Shakespeare and politics are among my favorite subjects, but I truly didn’t think any of the aforementioned plays or quotations from the Bard quite did the mayhem over the speakership justice.

So, I brushed up my Shakespeare.

I finally landed on what is perhaps Shakespeare’s most obscure work: “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.”

“Pericles” isn’t a household name like “Hamlet” or “King Lear.” It’s rarely performed. In fact, academics question whether Shakespeare even wrote the whole thing.

The reason “Pericles” is held in such low regard: the play is messy. The text is jangly. The plot is uneven. The production is difficult to stage. The show drifts aimlessly into an odyssey with action unfolding in six distinct locales. It’s challenging for the audience to grasp the importance of each setting.

Like Pericles, the speaker drama was episodic. For Act I, the scene was set in McCarthy-land. Then set sail for Scalise-land. Then Jordan-land (or should it just be “Jordan”?). Then, Emmer-ville. Finally, the House arrived in “Johnson Parish” with the election of House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La.


Johnson is to the speakership as to what “Pericles” is to the Shakespeare canon.

We’re not talking about Sam Rayburn or Tip O’Neill here.

“Pericles” is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays at a mere 2,462 lines. By contrast, “Hamlet” is Shakespeare’s longest work. It clocks in at more than 4,000 lines — but a meager 18 characters.

There are 24 characters in “Pericles.” In all of the iterations of the October speaker sweepstakes, an astonishing 14 Republicans were declared candidates for the job at one time or another. A total of 15 different people received votes for speaker on the floor. 

Shakespearean scholars have even struggled to classify the obscure play. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Many theatrical experts identify “Periclese” as a “tragicomedy.”


The same could be said about the election of speaker. 

The show begins with Pericles hearing a riddle. A king offers his beautiful daughter to marry anyone who answers the riddle correctly. But they will be killed if they are wrong.

Pericles knows that he will die if he botches the answer to the riddle, but he knows the answer. The king is having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Thus, Pericles concludes that if he tells the truth, he will be killed, too.

That kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” paradox is the quintessence of the modern speakership. McCarthy faced one fate if he were to fail to lift the debt ceiling or avoid a government shutdown. And if he faced another doomed fate if he . . . .

Well, the rest is history.

Mike Johnson faces the same conundrum as McCarthy.

If he moves to avoid a government shutdown . . . .

But if he doesn’t meet certain conservative demands on government funding . . . .

Republicans spent weeks jogging from one candidate to another, holding forth a vision to elect one Speaker but then dashing those chances just hours later. For instance, Republicans bounced Jordan because of his behind-the-scenes threats and bullying.

“Who makes the fairest show means most deceit,” wrote Shakespeare in “Pericles.”

Republicans swapped out Jordan for Emmer. Emmer’s nomination for speaker lasted four hours. That didn’t even qualify as a one-act. Perhaps a sonnet for Emmer.

Some experts believe that George Wilkins wrote the first two acts of “Pericles.” He then might have brought in the Bard to clean things up and write the final acts.

There are parallels with that on Capitol Hill.

McCarthy started the show. Then, after lots of drama, the House recruited Johnson to finish.

On Johnson’s first full day on the job, the speaker found himself rushing to a meeting at the Capitol with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

“Did you think that would be your first task as speaker,” I asked Johnson

“I did not,” he replied with a smile.

Thursday was emblematic of the frenzied nature of the speakership. At one moment, Johnson was huddling with Albanese. A few minutes later, he spoke off the cuff to the press corps about the shootings in Maine. By afternoon, Johnson was at the White House with other Congressional leaders discussing the Middle East and Ukraine.

The day was as discordant as the scenes in “Pericles.” 

Perhaps the best quotation to sum up Johnson’s challenge appears not in “Pericles,” but “The Tempest.”

“What’s past is prologue,” wrote the Bard in Act II, Scene 1 of “The Tempest.”

For the House, a new guy. But the same members. And the same problems.

Stick around for the next act.

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