Why we need a Trump Shakespeare


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Why we need a Trump Shakespeare

I will begin with a straightforward contention: “Literature is good to think with. It makes us better analysts, better interpreters, better readers. It doesn’t supply answers.”[1] This will seem like a contradiction: that we acquire various critical thinking skills, yet we don’t utilize them in the service of solutions. Moreover, this might appear problematic given that I will try to supply some semblance of an answer to what I see as a critical moment of conjunction between the realms of literature and politics, when a production of a 400-year-old play created a political firestorm, which resulted not in our revisiting that literary work, but in refusing nuanced close reading in order to buttress ideological positioning. This moment suggests to me the “problem,” of doing art—of doing Shakespeare—in a polarized political milieu. What I hope to model in the few minutes I have, is why we need to think in the way that literary scholars and humanists think because those methodologies will make us better navigators of our social and political culture.

Allow me to set the scene: this summer the Public Theater in NY staged a production of Julius Caesar in which the character of Caesar was uncannily similar to our nation’s 45th president, ill-fitting suit, too long red tie, and a suspiciously coiffed copper head of hair included. While this wasn’t the first instance of Shakespeare colliding—or colluding—with Donald Trump, many newspaper editorials pointed out the “Shakespearean,” nature of our 2016 election, the production’s overt analogue to our divided political moment drew criticism from right-leaning media and eventually the play’s corporate sponsors because of events in the plot—spoiler alert—Caesar is murdered in the senate. This event, the regicide, combined with the setting and characterization of the production suggested to those who objected to it that the play was advocating assassination. That of course is asinine to anyone who has bothered to dust off their copies of Shakespeare’s play. Even a cursory reading of the play reveals that Caesar’s murder instigates the end of Republican Rome. The very way of life that the conspirators sought to preserve was decimated by their bloody regicide.


Image creditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

Why then were people up in arms about this production? Was it disrespectful the office of the presidency of the US? If so, wouldn’t the 2012 “Obama-esque” production of Julius Caesar at the Guthrie Theatre, have raised eyebrows and caused the withdrawal of corporate sponsorship? (It didn’t by the way.) The Trump-Caesar production was taken as a liberal attack on a conservative president, what was used as evidence, was the setting and costume design, what was obviously not used as evidence was the actual text that was being performed. Let me make two points of clarification here: from my understanding of the production, as someone who didn’t see it, but read much of the commentary and reviews, it was deliberately provocative (as art should be). I think we were meant to see it as a distorted reflection of our political culture, and I think that was its failing because Shakespeare’s work is not in the business of providing easy answers to pressing questions of political agency and legitimacy. The Shakespearean corpus features many plays concerned with bad or weak rulers, two that easily come to mind are Richard II and King Lear, either one of those plays might have been appropriate to show a boorish ruler more interested in the empty words and promises of flatterers than in the proper rule and stewardship of his people and country. Julius Caesar is different, from the other two, however. Caesar is flattered once in the course play. He is persuaded into going to the Senate over the reservations of his wife, Calpurnia, by one of the conspirators. Other than that, Caesar’s only crime, as both Brutus and Antony remind their interlocutors is his ambition. Thus, the tidy mapping that the Public Theater and even those conservatives who objected to the play saw in Julius Caesar, is about the intents and effects of the powerful spectacle of the regicide. For the Public Theater, this was perhaps a way to use the machinery of the theater to exorcise the spirit of an unwanted leader: a symbolic burning of Trump’s effigy. For conservatives, it was the same event, but read as a real or potential threat to the president and very certainly a lack of respect for the man. What both miss are the politics that the Shakespearean text is intent on interrogating and delivering.

I want to turn, now, to those politics and how spectacle is mobilized to serve political ends. We cannot deny the power of Act 3, Scene 1, when Caesar is surrounded by the conspirators and ritually stabbed to death. If we know the play, we might remember Caesar’s famous line, “et tu, Brute,” in response to his beloved friend, Brutus, wielding the killing blow. What we might have forgotten, is the bloody business that follows the murder: the “bathing” of the conspirators’ hands—up to the elbows—and their swords in Caesar’s blood; that they “walk forth even to the marketplace / waving [their] red weapons […] crying “Peace, freedom, and liberty.” Caesar’s blood here is both a sign of his death and the symbol of their triumph, of Roman republicanism over potential tyranny. Once, shed, however, Caesar’s blood circulates through the body politic of the republic, animating those who will take up his side, and stanching the support garnered by the conspirators. Coupled with Caesar’s corpse and Antony’s rousing rhetoric, (I’m sure we all remember “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, / lend me your ears,”) the Roman populace soon turns on their would-be saviors. Indeed, what Shakespeare delivers here, via one of his most famous stage properties, Caesar’s cooling corpse, is a very deep suspicion not only of the flighty Roman mob, but also of rhetoric and spectacle, of language and image, of optics and messaging. What Brutus fails to understand, but Shakespeare a man of the theater understands too well, is that political power is theatrical in its very nature. While Brutus may proclaim the justness of his cause, Antony, political animal that he becomes in the latter half of the play, produces not just stirring words, but also Caesar’s brutalized and bloody corpse. Where Shakespeare gives Brutus dull prose; he allows Antony’s words to move the populace in emotional iambic pentameter. Where Brutus tells the Roman populace to take his word for it, Antony produces Caesar’s will, exhibiting to those same Romans that they are Caesar’s unworthy heirs.  The victors in the battle for Rome are not those who fight on the side of “honor” and Roman values, but rather those who can and do control the narrative of Caesar’s murder.

Optics, messaging, controlling the narrative these are words we cannot escape from in our politically saturated climate. So, what does a 400-year-old play have to teach us about such things? A lot apparently. This is the reason we turn to Shakespeare, as a culture, for answers in turbulent times. In his work we read the tea leaves of our conflicted and divided moment. Much of this has to do with his ubiquity and perceived universality, but much of it also has to do with the uneasy, difficult, and dangerous politics he didn’t shy away from in his work, and his unwillingness to tell us what we should think. That’s why we need literature, and that’s why we need a Trump Shakespeare.

[1] Marjorie Garber Loaded Words, 187.

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