The Public Theater in New York invited controversy when it decided to stage Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar depicting President Donald Trump as Caesar, complete with over-the-top blond hair and a wife with a Slavic accent.
And the backlash to the classic play, which depicts Caesar being assassinated by Romans who believe the emperor has grown too powerful, was swift, with conservative media outlets successfully pressuring Delta and Bank of America on Sunday to pull their sponsorship, which is this year’s selection for New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park.
Right-wing website Breitbart News has covered which sponsors of the production have left and which remain, while a Fox News contributor on Sunday described the show as “assassination porn.”
Donald Trump Jr. also weighed in, claiming falsely that taxpayer dollars were used to support the production.
I wonder how much of this “art” is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does “art” become political speech & does that change things? https://t.co/JfOmLLBJCn
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) June 11, 2017
But the outrage seemed to miss a crucial point: The play obviously advocates against assassination.
In an interview with Business Insider on Monday, University of Notre Dame Shakespeare Studies chairman Peter Holland pointed out that in the play, Brutus and Cassius’ decision to kill Caesar and restore democratic rule backfires spectacularly, suggesting Shakespeare wanted the audience to agree that this decision was the wrong course of action.
“What’s the result?” Holland said. “Chaos, civil war, a battle at the end of the play [in] which Brutus and Cassius both die, which we know was a huge bloodbath, 20,000 people died on the battlefield. And there’s nothing in this that says ‘Oh, you just get rid of your aspirant dictator and everything is going to be fine.’ It says exactly the opposite. What you get is the dissolution of the state, and it leads directly to the creation of Roman emperors.”
Holland suggested that this interpretation — a basic reading taught in high schools — was almost universally agreed upon among academics who study Shakespeare.
“I’ve never seen any academic writing about the play anyway that suggests that assassinating Julius Caesar is a good idea,” the Notre Dame professor said. “I don’t mean it isn’t out there, but nothing I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a hell of a lot.”
Following the initial backlash on Sunday, critics pointed out the boycott’s flaws.
“‘Julius Caesar’ is a play about how assassination is good” is an intriguing reading of Shakespeare’s classic.
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) June 12, 2017
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) June 12, 2017
It’s almost cliched at this point to stage Shakespeare with a modern twist.
Shakespeare’s plays have been used as allegories in many cultures, while big-ticket modern adaptations have included bizarre stagings. Ethan Hawke delivered Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be” monologue in a Blockbuster, and Lady Macbeth did club drugs in Geoffrey Wright’s 2007 “Macbeth.”
And stagings of Julius Caesar have fairly regularly interpreted Julius Caesar as an American president.
A 2012 Washington DC production depicted President Barack Obama as Caesar, while audiences in England debated whether Caesar was Bush or former Prime Minister Tony Blair in a mid-2000s English production.
Presidents portrayed as Julius Caesar in U.S. productions: Lincoln, Reagan, Clinton, GWB, Obama, Trump. (Caesar died in all of them.)
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) June 12, 2017
The outcry may be the result of a viral culture that takes bits out of context, but the critical reception of the play as a whole suggests the staging itself may be partially at fault.
The New York Times theater critic described the production as incoherent, while The Guardian suggested that Caesar was an ill-fitting comparison for Trump, arguing Richard III was a much more Trump-like Shakespearean figure.