The statement that Richard M. Nixon, late president of these United States, is a character worthy of Shakespeare isn't even a cliche. It springs to everyone's mind fresh as the perfect -- maybe the only sufficient -- way to describe this poisonously hypnotic public figure: the loser who wouldn't lie down, the misfit who refused to acknowledge that he didn't know his place, the striver undone by his own ambition with a neatness almost too symmetrical for art.

Because of his name, Richard Nixon has often been likened to Richard III. (There was even a '60s play called "Dick Deterred.") The comparison is almost irresistible, but it doesn't really work. Shakespeare's crippled king is above all seductive, a master manipulator, a specialist at luring others to their doom. Nixon had all the social ease of a Brillo pad and he lumbered to his own doom, unable to force even the minor functionary John Dean to take the fall for him. He's more like the shifty, hypocritical Bolingbroke, who managed to get rid of Richard II while protesting he really didn't want to. Bolingbroke became Henry IV, a character who has two plays named after him yet stars in neither of them -- just the kind of thing you feel could have happened to Nixon, a star of history with the personal magnetism of a bit player.

Calling Nixon "Shakespearean" is acknowledging his complexity. Men who are just jerks hold no fascination; they're shallow, and bore us quickly. Nixon combined seemingly disparate elements -- he was evil yet also pathetic, clumsy yet wily, idealistic and venal. He didn't make any sense at all, really, yet we feel we know him -- that he is, in journalist Tom Wicker's phrase, "one of us" -- and we wait for an artist to make sense of him where we cannot.

We've seen a lot of Nixon this month, as if he were some sort of perverse holiday figure, a ghost-of-Christmas-best-forgotten: the presents that flopped, the cookies that burned. Aside from Oliver Stone's heavy-breathing "Nixon," the made-for-television "Kissinger and Nixon" was on TNT, and in New York, a short, smart play called "Nixon's Nixon" also features the president and his secretary of state. (In a piece of casting Washington audiences -- and all political ironists -- will appreciate, Kissinger is played by Steve Mellor, last seen here as Groucho Marx in "The Cocoanuts.")

Even from beyond the grave, Nixon causes upsets: Right after he died, a lot of the liberal press was nice about him, incurring the wrath of other members of the liberal press for "going soft." America has yet to shake his cold, pale hand from its throat. What have our artists taught us about his phantom's grip?

On "Saturday Night Live," Dan Aykroyd, taking the low road as is his wont, established the definitive Nixon caricature, the Nixon Aykroyd's generation loved to hate -- a creep to make your skin crawl. With blithe sadism, Aykroyd homed in on all the characteristics that made Nixon such a poor figure in this age of television: the awkwardness, the homeliness, the choked, gravelly voice churning far back in his mouth as if he didn't really want to let words out at all.

If you look at Aykroyd's Nixon today, it's fascinating how much hatred went into the portrait, how much Aykroyd could count on the audience hating along with him. He made fun of Nixon like one makes fun of a freak -- the underlying assumption being that someone so misshapen deserves any slime you sling at him. It was Nixon's misfortune to be a genuinely ugly man, charmless, without even the equally unhandsome Johnson's brutish masculine force. (There exists a superb little Oliphant bronze of Johnson as a centaur; it's impossible to imagine Nixon so animally virile.) There's a smug cruelty in Aykroyd's attack -- his glee goes beyond smacking Nixon for his political sins and into the nasty, forbidden area of hurting someone because he's weak. Aykroyd and his contemporaries went after Nixon like playground bullies after the class nerd.

To this day, there are people who turn livid at the idea of granting any sympathy to Nixon. But even if one accepts the Aykroyd viciousness as deserved, such one-sidedness is inadequate for creating a dramatic character, one with enough inner tension to hold an audience's interest. Sympathy is demanded not by the strictures of compassion but by those of drama. Stone has said that he became less judgmental of Nixon the more he read about him. This might have been less an emotional reaction than the simple artistic need to turn the guy into someone who could carry a three-hour picture.

By far the most generous portrayal of Nixon on stage or in film is in John Adams's "Nixon in China." A minimalist composer with a romantic's soul, Adams was drawn to the hope and surprise in Nixon's rapprochement with Mao, to the idea that history is not a predetermined freight train hurtling to crush us all. A singing Nixon is in itself an almost loony idea, implying as it does a grace and lightness of spirit that seem totally alien to the man. But Adams's Nixon is a visionary. His arias express a man who is at heart a political mystic -- when he meets with Mao, another ruthless dreamer, it's a communion of brothers.

The trip to China is the heroic element in Nixon's myth, the achievement that keeps him from being just a nasty historical embarrassment and adds the sense of tragic waste to his story. Without China, Nixon is a bad joke; with China he's a mystery. Stone does no justice at all to Nixon's foreign policy brilliance, yet in his film the only scene that has anything like beauty is the one where the president and the dictator meet. Though it's only two tired men sitting in armchairs, the image is striking -- Anthony Hopkins's Nixon leans toward Mao with a relaxed physical assurance, a sense of self, that he shows nowhere else in the movie.

The legendary meeting also sparked the imagination of Russell Lees, whose "Nixon's Nixon" is a sharp, unsparing, funny play, a fictional re-creation of what might have been said between Nixon and Kissinger the night Kissinger came to advise the president to resign. The egotistic jousting of Nixon and his ambitious secretary of state is drawn much more wickedly than in the more staidly "historical" "Kissinger and Nixon." Like Nixon, Kissinger is a great mythic character, and we're eager to see how a writer treats him and an actor plays him. (For the record, Ron Silver's Kissinger is brilliant, slippery, powerful and depressed in "Kissinger and Nixon" and Paul Sorvino's is brilliant, slippery, powerful and a master at covering his butt in "Nixon.") In "Nixon's Nixon," the two partners and adversaries parry in different styles -- Nixon jabbing at the slower, more lugubrious Kissinger, but Kissinger landing a roundhouse punch whenever he manages to connect.

In this play too, irreverent as it is, the visit to China is treated with respect. Nixon and Kissinger reenact the meeting with Mao, and the stage direction reads: "Kissinger becomes Mao. He speaks only Chinese in a genuine and moving tone. Nixon becomes gracious and not without presence himself." At one point, Nixon expresses his awe of the Chairman: "My god. I think of myself as a world leader, but . . . ," though Lees mischievously undercuts the danger of too much seriousness by following up with this line: "He did that, the uh, very long hike."

Lees's play is a sparring match -- his Nixon is a fighter, and a good one. This is another side of his character that hasn't often been dramatized. Both Hopkins's Nixon and Lane Smith's in the 1989 television film "The Final Days" have a bruised doggedness, and Hopkins adds a sullen, simmering resentment that is almost aggressive. But neither of them, any more than the Aykroyd cartoon, gives any sense of real power -- they don't make Nixon frightening, an odd omission when playing someone who was so widely reviled. Is this the man with the force to torment and haunt a nation, this maladroit schlub?

Oddly, Beau Bridges, though nowhere near as affecting as Hopkins or Smith, manages to convey a sense of danger in "Kissinger and Nixon." It's difficult to tell whether this is owing to the actor's choice or a limitation of talent -- his Nixon is disturbingly inexpressive. He lurches around the room spouting sports metaphors when Kissinger is trying to discuss foreign policy matters of life and death; Bridges' delivery is staccato, and his Nixon is privately amused at jokes no one else understands. (Makeup artist Kevin Haney, who so memorably turned Robert Morse into Truman Capote onstage, layered Bridges' very un-Nixonlike moon face with latex; this may account for some of the stiffness and the fact that the eyes seem vividly, warily alive in the heavy face.)

Nixon's face was not, in fact, very expressive, and this presents a problem for anyone who plays him, since an actor's job is to let us know what's going on inside the character. Bridges' opacity, while unsatisfactory dramatically, is nonetheless convincingly Nixonian. Hopkins gives an extraordinary performance, but there is a sense in which the more moving he is, the less he reminds us of Nixon. Hopkins has a warm, alive, actor's face -- Nixon's wincing, inhibited spasm of a smile is an effort for him.

Hopkins is an unusual actor, capable of giving perfectly dreadful performances ("Magic," "Bram Stoker's Dracula") and breathtakingly effective ones ("The Elephant Man," "The Silence of the Lambs") that don't seem to emanate from the same source. His Nixon is one of his great ones -- troubled, haunted, without defenses, a breakable man. Lane Smith too played a Nixon who knew pain, his body rigid with resolve, his eyes darkly vulnerable. But Hopkins's small, slovenly creation, who seems to smell the stink of his own inadequacy, is a whole other level of suffering down. We're a long, long way from Aykroyd. In a reverse of the dictum, Nixon's life has played out first as farce and then as tragedy.

Stone's film is finally extremely sympathetic to Nixon, though in a peculiar way. He forgives Nixon only because he can be fitted neatly into Stone's personal, cracked vision of history. Stone's America is a paranoid theme park, and he's successfully turned Nixon into one of the rides. Not a flashy one, of course. Kennedy gets to be the exciting, high-tech experience, the Indiana Jones or Space Mountain; Nixon must make do with a role somewhere on the level of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, stodgy but serviceable. Somehow by the end of the movie, we are back to Aykroyd again: Stone worships the sexy young Kennedy and must make him a martyr to The System. The best he can do for unattractive old Nixon is depict him as a reluctant benefactor of that system. Physiognomy is destiny.

"As long as you can act the part," Nixon tells Kissinger in "Nixon's Nixon." "Kennedy taught me something there. He was one great actor. Debates? I beat his {expletive} off. Ask anybody. He acted his way to president." Kissinger responds: "You have to be an actor," and Nixon agrees, "God, yes. This job, you have to be. On the world stage and so on." The question remains: What exactly is the part he's playing?

In our national psyche, Nixon's role has probably been best defined by Tom Wicker, whose following observation is paraphrased (without credit) in "Nixon": "If John Kennedy embodied, as Norman Mailer once wrote, something like the nation's romantic dream of itself,' perhaps Richard Nixon represented a harder and clearer national self-assessment. In the dark of their souls, which Nixon seems to have perceived, Americans could have seen in him themselves as they knew they were, not as they frequently dreamed of being."

As for the Shakespearean comparison: Nixon was a man who thought he deserved power but was cheated of it, he was a man whose predecessor/father-figure, Eisenhower, both inspired and betrayed him, he was a man who worshiped his mother, he was a man of vision and intelligence whose actions fell short of his talents, he was possibly a little crazy, and -- ultimately, elusively -- he remains a man who resists all attempts to probe his mystery.

He's Hamlet. CAPTION: Nixon onstage, on TV and in the movies, clockwise from left: James Maddalena as the president in "Nixon in China"; Lane Smith and Susan Brown as the first couple in "The Final Days"; and Anthony Hopkins and Annabeth Gish as Nixon and daughter Julie.