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In Kentucky, A Shakespearean Feud Between Bevin And The Beshears

Matt Bevin
J. Tyler Franklin
Matt Bevin

In recent weeks, we've seen the ongoing feud between Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear -- and Beshear's father, former Gov. Steve Beshear -- flare and smolder.

Their disagreements are plentiful: education funding, campaign contributions, political appointments and corruption charges. To wit:

It's not unusual for a new administration to criticize the previous one. But this one has the paternal twist -- and it seems especially personal.

I usually cover arts and culture for WFPL, not politics. But in our daily news meeting last week, listening to my colleagues discuss the press conference in which former Gov Beshear strongly implied that the Bevin administration may be under FBI investigation, this word occurred to me: Shakespearean.

We all know that politics is theater, but this particular back-and-forth, with each player's overlapping desires and motivations, feels especially dramatic -- even for Kentucky.

First, let's set the stage:

"You have a fairly unusual situation here," says Kentucky political columnist Al Cross. "You could say [Bevin] is the biggest change agent that we've had in the governor's office for a long time. There were some other millionaire businessmen who got themselves elected, like John Y. Brown and Wallace Wilkinson, but they largely operated within the traditional political structure. Bevin seems to be charting his own course.

"You have that combined with the fact that the previous governor's son has just been elected attorney general, with the help of the outgoing governor. And employed briefly, as his top deputy, the man who was personnel secretary for his father and has now pleaded guilty to a corruption charge," says Cross. "Now that is a pretty interesting set of circumstances."

Cross points out that the feud also includes a dispute involving the governor's wife (also the attorney general's mother), Jane Beshear.

"On his way out, Steve Beshear appointed his wife to a non-paying position on the Kentucky Horse Park Board, which was a fairly legitimate appointment, since she is a horsewoman and she's been very active in those kinds of things. But Bevin took issue with that, and that kind of set the tone for the relationship between the two," says Cross.

So when the word "Shakespearean" popped into my head, it was time to go to the experts: Matt Wallace, producing artistic director at Kentucky Shakespeare, and scholar David Bevington of the University of Chicago, editor of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (7th edition)," published in 2013 by Pearson.

"What makes something 'Shakespearean?' I think that's a great question," says Wallace. "When you say, 'This is very Shakespearean,' I think about it being personal.

"What makes politics so Shakespearean, it's people fighting for what they want, people fighting for what they believe in. And as much as people don't want it to be personal, it is personal. It's very personal," Wallace says.

Both Wallace and Bevington mentioned "Hamlet" as a reference point for this situation; in the play, a son famously defends his father's legacy. Of course, that play involves a murder, not a democratic transfer of power.

But "Hamlet" and current Kentucky politics share a key element: as Bevington puts it, "a quarrel within a family constellation."

"You could say at that point that Shakespeare is really someone to whom one might turn for insight into the nature of a kind of dynastic and ethical political quarrel about how the kingdom is to be run," says Bevington.

Shakespeare frequently depicted royal families, whether they were the actual monarchs of England or his own creations.

"These family ties are not a whole lot different from some of Shakespeare's histories," says Wallace. "You know, you have the bloodline being passed down. Look at the Bushes, look at the Clintons."

In Kentucky, the Beshears are the closest we have to a political dynasty.

Bevington says applying the term "Shakespearean" to this situation reflects the conflicting ethical claims on both sides.

"The concept of 'Shakespearean' is often used in a very large and loose way to endorse a big idea," Bevington says. "Usually something that one regards as of monumental importance, ethical importance. He's often seen as a very ethical writer, on the side of right."

And being on the side of right is exactly what each player on this Kentucky stage is claiming for himself.

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