Shakespeare in the Park’s production of “Julius Caesar” with the man himself looking uncannily like Donald Trump has caused a stir. So much so in fact that some of the corporate sponsors have decided to withdraw financial support. These include Bank of America and Delta Airlines with the latter stating “No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ does not reflect Delta’s values.” I wonder what on earth this means. So let’s dig a little further into why a play written more than 400 years ago could create such a reaction.
To begin with, Shakespeare can rightly be called the most contemporary of all playwrights. His characters describe psychological types and states of mind that even Freud thought were extraordinary. His plays can be staged in any number of ways from period costumes to modern dress, from demure Elizabethan backdrop to the Fascist brutalism of the1930s. His ideas are so vast and his understanding of our humanness so all consuming that his plays can fit any age and any approach. Somehow he always provides the opportunity for the essence of his drama to survive and shine no matter how radical the treatment. He was a careful politician in his time when a careless word or action could lead to terrible reprisals. His only slip was a re-staging of “Richard II” specially requested by the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth’s erstwhile favorite who was about to fall from power and end up on the block. “Richard II” is about a sovereign who looses his crown and staging it at a time of possible national insurrection by Essex was an unwise move.
Then there is Shakespeare’s political handling of the character of Julius Caesar. This had nothing to do with government but with management of his actors. Why is the play called “Julius Caesar” when our eponymous hero has only five percent of the lines and is killed in Act 3, Scene 1? Compare this to Brutus at 28 percent of the lines, Cassius 20 percent and Mark Antony 13 percent. Shakespeare had a dilemma with this play. He had written three great parts, parts that actors everywhere still fight over from Orson Welles and Marlon Brando to Ralph Fiennes and Kenneth Branagh. He could easily have called the play “Brutus” or even “Mark Antony” but if he had, the fall-out from his star actors would have meant company internecine warfare. So the compromise was to call it “Julius Caesar” to whom he gives some of the best one-liners of all time:
‘I am constant as the northern star,’ ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once,’ ‘Let me have men about me that are fat.’
He obviously revered Caesar and made him a sympathetic character following his historic source material in Plutarch, even down to showing that he had lost his hearing in one ear.
Portraying Caesar as Trump is probably well within contemporary performance practice, but maybe a little cheap and obvious. It’s certainly not something to get fired up about. We live in an open society; there is the First Amendment, which applies as well to theatre directors and we are mature experienced adults who can deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous stage performances. Well, can’t we? If you are intent on getting offended, then watch Bill Maher or John Oliver on HBO delivering their own style of political commentary. (I believe that such commentary is really important in a free society.)
If you really wanted to create a sensation with a Trumpian figure in Shakespearean form then you could conceive of a new “Macbeth” with King Duncan recast as Hillary, or better still a white Othello surrounded by an all black cast with those blonde curls taking us from victorious battles (signifying the election perhaps) to the murderous bedchamber scene about which we can only imagine. Now that might be really nicely provocative and stir up some really great discussion and debate. But getting upset about a small character in a big play looking like the President, well really, get over it and get some courage because we are going to need it for the next few years.
In keeping with that thought, I offer some lines inspired by but not written by Shakespeare—the result of a Shakespearean improvisation competition between my son and me. (He won.)
Fear not this temporal King whose pride is ripe as autumn’s berries. Think not upon your vaunted ambition to lie upon his smoking image For it will change and when ‘tis done a lighter place will smile upon our offerings And make them bright as a child’s glad laughter, So now think your way through and bring your honest courage to this our noble charge.