Trump, Shakespeare, and Missing the Point

With the rise of dystopian fiction sales – most notably Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale but also Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here – an increase in popularity largely attributed to its alarming relevance to contemporary western, especially American, society, it might seem that Shakespeare is more out of date than ever. But his controversial presence has made itself known in the news and refuted the period constriction early modern drama might suggest. This has happened through passing Twitter comparisons to King Lear:

And, more directly, in the recent Julius Caesar controversy. If nothing else,  controversy gets people talking and just as, whatever you think about the result, I think we can agree that it’s great that Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize saw people talking about the Nobel prize in literature, so too is it great that the political production of Julius Caesar has got people talking about Shakespeare’s plays.

Caesar, despite his ancient heritage (100-44 BC) and his slightly less ancient early modern position (1599), has proved again to be able to speak powerfully to contemporary society. Set to be perhaps the most performed Shakespeare play of the year, Shakespeare’s story of power, corruption, moral justice and dictatorial rule continues to demonstrate its relevance to the world.

The background of Brexit, political instability, and the rise of leader-dominated politics now on both sides of the pond are given a nod by productions either subtly by implication, or explicitly, most notably the Public Theater’s production of the play this summer. In this production Trumpism has been directly equated with Caesarism.

Drama and tump of course not new connection forged, take the Trump impersonator competition of LA:

Nor is this the only Shakespeare play to deal with assassinating a ruler for perceived personal, political, or societal gain – I’m looking at you Richard II, Macbeth and Coriolanus to mention just a couple. However, Julius Caesar has emerged as perhaps the most relevant to American society. The ironic tone of Alison Wilkinson’s discussion of the recent controversy of the Public Theater’s production, highlights the way in which although this play can be construed in a contemporary American context this is not the only way to view it. Deposing a leader who has failed to represent the ideals their supporters want, or proved themselves inadequate might equally be applied to Guy Fawkes in 1606 or Theresa May and the conservatives seeking to topple her from her chair of limited stability, for failing to prove strong or popular. Wilkinson points out, that:

Though the play, being more than 400 years old, never mentions Trump’s name, the resemblance was noted by critics who were present at the show’s previews, and their reviews were picked up by the broader conservative media.

This suggests that there is a conservative fear of this production emphasising too readily the connections between Shakespeare’s Caesar and America’s Trump, but might it not be more radical, and dangerous, to do this more implicitly? That’s certainly the approach the RSC have taken to their production of this play currently running at Stratford. Contemporary American and British contexts are there but the impetus is on the audience to find them, not the actors to emphasise them by means of costume, body language, or appropriating the text into an American context.

Image result for trump in bath julius caesar        Cast members appear in the Public Theater production of Julius Caesar

The media frenzy surrounding this production also implies that depicting assassination has never been controversial until now.. This is of course simply untrue. This was certainly true in the early modern period. We only have to look at the quickly hidden Tragedie of Gowerie (probably based on the assassination attempt of the Earl of Gowrie to assassinate the King in 1600), or the privy councils attempts to try and exert more control over plays due to the emergence of themes of state on the stage which was strictly banned. It’s clear playwrights paid little attention to this. Calvert reports the prevalence of risky themes in early drama which see playwrights stick two fingers up to the authorities.

The Plays do not forbear to present upon their Stage the whole Course of this present Time, not sparing either King, State or Religion, in so great Absurdity, and with such Liberty, that any would be afraid to hear them (Samuel Calvert, 1605)

But it was nonetheless a risky business and, as the Delta-Trump-controversy has demonstrated, remains so even in 2017. Of course the cliché (that to get round this problem playwrights situated their plays in thinly veiled ‘foreign’ or ‘historical’ contexts) is true, but the Public Theater has defiantly refused to be constricted to the historical or early modern Julius Caesar through their direct situating of the play in contemporaneous America. They have issued a disclaimer arguing that they’re not advocating violence and, frankly nor does Shakespeare – just look at how the play ends! Brutus, Mark Anthony, well it doesn’t end well for the assassinators or the assassinated! Because of course that is the irony, all these critiques levelled at this production have to a great extent totally missed the point (and power) of the play. In it Shakespeare shows the limited power and ultimate futility of violence and the corruption at all levels of society, if anything Shakespeare’s Caesar is one we might even be able to sympathise with dependent on his portrayal. Certainly far more than the historical dictator, particularly when he shows some weakness and reticence to be associated with ultimate power.

As Eustis’ defence makes clear Julius Caesar shows the dangers of attempting to preserve democracy by non-democratic means, a warning which is inherent in the play! Nobody owns the truth nor can finally determine the framing of truth. This is especially striking in a post-truth world, but it does not mean it hasn’t also been striking pre-Trump.

The danger associated with art is something to be celebrated not quashed by financial sponsors and Trump enthusiasts!

Trump Jr. inadvertently mentions the cross-over of politics and theatre, and surely plays are always political – always choosing to take a particular political stance, the director’s critical view always informs productions, however explicitly. Also worth pointing  out that it’s not just Trump that has been paralleled with Caesar – this also happened to Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and even Obama.. Yes, you’re right the latter didn’t get the same kind of press coverage.. But it did happen!

But this adapting of Shakespeare to speak to 2017 America, is staunchly defended by the Public Theater:

The Public Theater stands completely behind our production of JULIUS CAESAR.  We understand and respect the right of our sponsors and supporters to allocate their funding in line with their own values.  We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions.

Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy. Our production of JULIUS CAESAR in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.

Cassius and Brutus indeed discuss in the play how often the scene will be played out for others to witness the arrival of apparent liberty democracy and freedom from restricted rule.

Cassius:                                         How many ages hence

Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,

In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!

Brutus:            How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,

That now on Pompey’s basis lies along,

No worthier than the dust!

Cassius:                                                            So oft as that shall be,

So often shall the knot of us be called

The men that gave their country liberty. (III.i.111-18)

Why might not ‘unknown’ accents also include the American, or the apparent libertarians be located in the twenty-first century. It might appear that Benson is right to point out that ‘it is “not a subtle statement” to portray the murder of a sitting U.S. president,’ but nor does it necessarily mean that the production is likely to inspire murderous sentiments in its audience. But it is this with which the bank of America and Delta took particular issue:

No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste.

As Stephen Greenblatt points out, it seemed to be ok for Trump to suggest assassinating Clinton last year.

If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. … Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.

Pretty dangerous thing to joke about, surely. Particularly given the murder of a politician during the Brexit campaigning in England that same year. Problem is was he joking? Cassius certainly wasn’t in Julius Caesar when he was convinving Brutus, and the consensus was certasinly that this was an active assiniation threat from Trump..

But when a play uses a thinly veiled depiction of American society well that’s stepping over the line.. Nonetheless, the odds of Trump being assassinated have been demanded (betting companies have refused to give them).

Yes, this production includes a Trumpish Caesar in the bath tweeting (plus a Mrs Caesar with a Slavic accent), and shows that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but it also shows the limitations of violent attempts to destroy total control through violence with the final fall of the regime at the play’s close.

Tina Benko and Gregg Henry as Julius Caesar and his wife Calpurnia in Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar

To fail to do so, would be to miss the political point of Shakespeare’s play. Julius Caesar critiques not only Caesar but, and of more consequence those who criticise him for personal gain and an attempt to build a new system. It underlines the damning power of rhetoric (Mark Anthony), the power of persuasion (Cassius and Brutus) and the power of the collective and individual conscience. While all of these have Trumpian resonances, the warnings are more pervasive. It has warnings indeed for the very media and corporations (seeking to control) which have sought to critique this production. It warns against propping up patriotism or a leader whatever the cost, as well as warning against the leader themselves.

Julius Caesar implicates all its observers and warns the danger of apathy as well as action. It should stir feelings of unease whatever its setting, and just as we shouldn’t welcome the ease in which dystopian fiction appears to map onto American or British society, nor should we be content when we watch Julius Caesar. If we are, then we’ve missed the point, and failed to heed its warnings. The rise in populism makes Julius Caesar all the more pertinent but as in the play, populism is endemic in our societies, it is not just in the leaders, or wannabe leaders, but in the people who fuel it, vote for it, or do little to stop it.

Julius Caesar urges us to interrogate how we challenge attempts for absolute control of thought and action, and tragically shows the inadequacy of fabricated democracy – violence begets violence and if anything we come away from the play urged against, not for, violence, whether Caesar, Brutus or Cassius is a recognisable leader of today or not. Julius Caesar leaks beyond its fictional play bounds and like a triple-shot espresso wakes us up to our apathy, the fragility of democracy and the subjective nature of freedom.

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About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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One Response to Trump, Shakespeare, and Missing the Point

  1. Pingback: Trump, Shakespeare, and Missing the Point | The Shakespeare Standard

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