In a world where the personal is political, so too is art; any story about any subject carries with it certain messages inherent in how it’s presented, no matter how long ago it was first written. For example: the plays of William Shakespeare are over 400 years old, and modern reinterpretations of those texts can still carry enough relevance to make this country’s right wing propaganda machine blow a collective gasket. And who said nothing you read in high school English class would be relevant in your adult life?
On Sunday, Fox and Friends ranted for five minutes about the production under the chyron “NYC Play To Depict Assassination Of Trump;” Fox News later published an extremely short post, which I will not link here, with the same dubiously-contextless headline. Although the article acknowledges that this Trump-like character is the “protagonist” of a Shakespeare in the Park production, nowhere does the actual title of the play appear: Julius Caesar. You know, the play about a collection of friends and conspirators who plot to kill an ambitious, well-loved demagogue, and end up plunging their country into total chaos. (He’s also not the protagonist, by the way; Brutus is, but that’s another issue altogether).
The ensuing backlash took over Twitter for the rest of the the day, and even inspired some real-world carnage when Delta Airlines and Bank of America both pulled their sponsorship of the production. Of course, Delta has funded current events-motivated theater before; a 2012 production of Julius Caesar performed by The Acting Company, which the airline sponsored a year later, featured an Obama-like character as the titular tragic figure and faced no such retribution. Funny how that works.
To be fair, Fox News is not making up this Trump association out of thin air. Although I have not yet seen the production, it seems pretty clear from pictures of Caesar’s blond hair and thick red tie that he’s meant to resemble our 45th president. However, a reviewer for The New York Times who has seen the play disagrees with how the role translates in person: “For one thing, Shakespeare’s Caesar is a war hero and, as smartly played by Gregg Henry, a deeply charismatic one,” he writes. “When offered the chance, three times, to become emperor, he chooses three times to remain a senator. This is more like George Washington than Mr. Trump.”
This is not subtle. (Also: Julius Caesar played by the Trump stand-in from Scandal and Antony played by the Hillary stand-in from Homeland.) pic.twitter.com/FAjOB3uH3G— Louis Peitzman (@LouisPeitzman) May 30, 2017
And that’s the problem inherent with this particular outrage: being compared to the beloved Caesar in the context of a production that explicitly views assassination as something terrible is practically a compliment. And it’s pretty clear that this production does hold these views — in a note on the show’s website, art director Oscar Eustis says that the play “can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” We might hate Trump, but in the context of this production, committing violence on him is a reprehensible choice.
Really, if you wanted to truly impugn Trump’s honor by inserting him into a Shakespearean narrative, there are better ways to do it. Take Macbeth, for example, which would portray Trump as a cowardly madman who’s cajoled by a bunch of women (boy would he hate that) into seizing power before being decapitated. Or Measure For Measure, in which Trump would be most comparable to Angelo, a lecherous duke who makes fornication a capital offense but still tries to blackmail women into sleeping with him.
But the best Shakespearean analogy for Trump’s current reign as president, by far, can be found in King Lear. It’s perfect; a senile old monarch in the throes of madness demands absolute loyalty and constant flattery from his supporters and family members, and ends up dead with his kingdom in turmoil. If I were deliberately setting out to hate on Donald Trump, that’s the production I’d stage. It’s certainly better than painting him as a martyr, isn’t it?