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Kyle Smith (Twitter: @rkylesmith) is critic-at-large for National Review, theater critic for The New Criterion and the author of the novels Love Monkey and A Christmas Caroline. Type a title in the box above to locate a review.

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    Obama Mangles Protocol, Shakespeare

    By kyle | May 25, 2011

    Others have remarked on how embarrassingly the president of the United States botched his toast. I’d like to add that he botched his literature as well. This is a man with two Ivy League degrees. A man who is frequently described as an intellectual. Is it too much to ask that he know the basics of the most famous Shakespeare scenes? If so, is it too much to ask for him to at least know what he’s talking about on those few occasions when he is quoting Shakespeare before the world?

    The famous quotation from “Richard II” — “this scepter’d isle, this blessed plot, this Earth, this realm, this England” — used to be used in an airline commercial. It was foolishly misused then as it was by Obama. As Marjorie Garber writes in “Shakespeare After All,” people are forever quoting things Shakespeare’s characters say as though it is Shakespeare himself speaking and giving advice (and they are forever quoting Polonius’s stiff truisms from “Hamlet” as though they, too, are the kinds of peppy self-improvement nuggets that get recited on Graduation Day). The “Richard II” mistake is worse than these — because that John of Gaunt speech is a huge slam on England of the day. The whole point of the speech is that England’s glory days (as of the 14th century, when the play is set!) are long past and what’s left is a wasteland. Moreover, Gaunt says this at the end of the very same (long) sentence people are always quoting as a tribute to the magnificence of that “precious stone set in the silver sea.” It’s a stemwinder so skip to the bold part, if you wish, for the payoff:

    This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
    This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
    This other Eden, demi-paradise,
    This fortress built by Nature for herself
    Against infection and the hand of war,
    This happy breed of men, this little world,
    This precious stone set in the silver sea,
    Which serves it in the office of a wall,
    Or as a moat defensive to a house,
    Against the envy of less happier lands;
    This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
    This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
    Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth,
    Renowned for their deeds as far from home,–
    For Christian service and true chivalry,–
    As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
    Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son:
    This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
    Dear for her reputation through the world,
    Is now leas’d out,–I die pronouncing it,–
    Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
    England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
    Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
    Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
    With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds:
    That England, that was wont to conquer others,
    Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
    Ah! would the scandal vanish with my life,
    How happy then were my ensuing death.

    It’s as if Obama decided to quote the first half of a sentence about O.J. Simpson without bothering to read to the end: “This magnificent athlete, this Heisman trophy winner, this record-setting Buffalo Bills running back, this loving father and husband, this beloved “Naked Gun” comedian, this Hertz rental car spokesman, this pillar of the community….”

    Topics: Barack Obama, Books, Politics | 24 Comments »

    24 Responses to “Obama Mangles Protocol, Shakespeare”

    1. Hunter Tremayne Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 9:19 am

      Terrible gaffe. He should be Bard.

    2. K Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 10:16 am

      At least he didn’t attempt to give the Queen a back rub.

      = Bush

    3. Brian Moore Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 10:49 am

      For a bit of perspective, and in fairness to Obama or to whomever was in charge of his toast, I’m almost positive Simon Schama ended his history of Britain TV series reading the nice part of the John of Gaunt speech.

      I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think so.

    4. Kyle Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 11:41 am

      @K — Angela Merkel is the queen?

    5. KS Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 3:21 pm

      Obama quotes Bible verses out of context too.

    6. Brandon Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 4:40 pm

      @KS…and the Constitution and the general rule of law.

    7. Liz Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 5:10 pm

      And we’re still supposed to think he’s brilliant?
      What is the ceiling on intellectual gaffes like this, and knowing how many states there are and the current year (as opposed to grammatical error or malapropisms) before we’re allowed to think otherwise?

    8. witwoud Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 5:16 pm

      Oh, so what. ‘To thine own self be true’ is good advice even if Polonius did say it, and the scepter’d isle speech is fine stuff even if does end with a qualifier. What a lot of guff about nothing.

    9. KS Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 5:41 pm

      I didn’t think that a comma was necessary in the sentence he wrote in the Westminster Abbey guest book (dated 2008).

      We must cut him some slack because he’s “heartbroken” over the disaster in Missouri. It’s a swing state.

    10. schizuki Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 6:38 pm

      It’s rare that I disagree with Kyle, and Obama has enough embarrassing gaffes to make one wonder if he stayed awake for any classes, but I’m saying this is much ado about nothing.

      People say “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” all the time, and that’s quite out of context. And I’m partial to Yeat’s “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” whenever I see a screaming Leftist. You don’t have to be a slave to context when you have a nice piece of writing tailor-made to insert into a different one.

    11. Thomas Answeeney Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 9:01 pm

      Is it possible that Obama did this on purpose? I have had a theory for a while that Obama is on bad terms with the Queen. He did give her an Ipod.

      If you look at it like that he’s a very intelligent man.

    12. Thomas Answeeney Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 9:02 pm

      If a little rude.

    13. Andy Says:
      May 25th, 2011 at 11:22 pm

      Can you imagine if GW Bush had made the “2008” and Richard II gaffes??

    14. Sylvia Morris Says:
      May 26th, 2011 at 3:37 am

      I can’t agree with your interpretation of Obama’s use of Shakespeare. The second part of the speech complains against the current government but doesn’t negate the first part. England was (and still is) a “precious stone set in a silver sea” and a “blessed plot”. The speech is delivered by John of Gaunt, a man whose word we trust. So there’s absolutely no problem with anyone quoting it in order to ingratiate themselves with us Brits.

    15. Anarcissie Says:
      May 26th, 2011 at 8:39 am

      Yes, people would have been astonished that Dub knew anything about Shakespeare. Quoting the ‘sceptred isle’ business as favorable is practically a cliche — I think even the almighty Churchill may have been guilty, but I don’t want to look it up.

      I agree with witwoud — much ado about nothing.

    16. Obama bin Biden Says:
      May 26th, 2011 at 11:53 am

      Give the guy a break, He’s from Kenya,….. no Indonesia, oh wait, he’s Irish, no British, no……

    17. A. Benway Says:
      May 26th, 2011 at 11:55 am

      Why does the author think that Barky was making a mistake – it was an insult all the more because it’s true. Yes, an educated man, thus most reasonable to understand the insult as willful and deliberate, not the result of ignorance at all.

    18. Obama bin Biden Says:
      May 26th, 2011 at 11:55 am

      He even needed cue cards for a toast. It wouldn’t surprise me if he has a teleprompter on the bedpost so he can talk dirty to Big Mo when they’re intimate.

    19. James Says:
      May 26th, 2011 at 2:02 pm

      How old are you people? The reading as given by Mr. Obama has been used publicly in that exact context forever! Where have you been? If anything, I would have accused him (or his advisors) of being redundant.

    20. Richi Ray Harris Says:
      May 27th, 2011 at 8:54 pm

      All right, you don’t need me here..I read and thus posted so I could get some viewpoints I don’t get at AolHuffpost, the devil corporate behemoth bent on taking away your bongs. But do you people keep up with the news or do you only talk to each other? The band playing over the speech was a bandleader’s miscue ..Not Obama’s. Not the Queen’s either. Not Wall Street. Not Trump. Not neo-liberals. And Kennedy’s usage was correct but that would be an old myth.

    21. A. Benway Says:
      May 28th, 2011 at 9:05 am

      It’s interesting to see who insults who – as this illustrates: “Former Polish President Lech Walesa, who led the Solidarity labor movement that helped bring down communism, canceled a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, saying he had other plans.”

      Ok, let’s see, Barky insults her royalness and Walesa insults Barky – so who’s on first?

    22. KS Says:
      May 30th, 2011 at 1:15 pm

      @A.Benway-According to the story that I read, Walesa, who had prior plans, turned down an invitation by Poland’s president to meet with Obama. He didn’t cancel a meeting with him.

      Anyway, how about Obama referring to a “Teutonic shift” rather than a tectonic shift?

    23. Kyle Says:
      May 31st, 2011 at 2:47 pm

      @Richi Ray, please explain how “Kennedy’s usage was correct.” If you’re referring to “Berliner.” (The proper usage: “Ich bin ein Berlinischer.”)

    24. Obama 'mangling' scripture - Stand Up For The Truth Says:
      October 10th, 2015 at 10:54 pm

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