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All Productions of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar are about Donald Trump.

June 21, 2017


Rewatching an old and very traditional looking TV production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar yesterday, I was of course reminded of the fact that it’s all about Donald Trump.

It’s about Donald Trump because I’m watching it now, in the year 2017.  And to watch it now, in the year 2017, is to watch a play about a global superpower with a republican constitution fretting over how to deal with an authoritarian personality cult and a man who seems to acknowledge no boundaries.  It is to watch a play about what to do about someone who has built devoted populist power base that challenges time-honoured assumptions regarding the division of power and constitutional precedents.  It’s also about a man afflicted with “illeism” who constantly needs applause and whose speeches are mainly about how great he is.

Anyone who can watch Julius Caesar in the year 2017 without thinking of Donald Trump is probably too dim to find their way to a theatre in the first place.  It doesn’t matter whether Caesar is wearing a toga, or renaissance era trunk-hose, or a shiny suit and an orange wig.  In the year 2017, Julius Caesar is about Donald Trump because there is no such thing as a “pure” period production.  No matter how much you try to recreate an original staging of a play, the audience is a “modern” audience and brings a contemporary context to a viewing of the play.

Of course, it’s well known that in 2012, a production was staged with Caesar as an Obama lookalike.  This did not provoke the same level of outrage as the recent Trump themed production.

Of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, it’s by no means clear whether the assassination of Caesar was “a good thing”.  Brutus, the “noblest Roman of them all” confesses to himself that the assassination is a pre-emptive rather than a retaliatory strike.  Has the Caesar/Trump destroyed the constitution yet – and if he hasn’t – what do we have to do to stop him before he does?  Brutus and his co-conspirators all wind up dead, of course, and the republic is never restored.  Following a civil war, a line of emperors is established that lasts for centuries?  Could Brutus and Cassius have predicted this?  Should they have?  Is chaos always preferable to tyranny?

Are the conspirators really libertarian patriots or are they liberal elitists, with an aristocratic disdain for the plebs who love Caesar/Trump?

These questions can never be resolved by a reading of the text, but they can be answered to some extent by particular stagings which necessarily stress some aspects of the play at the expense of others.  Staging the assassination of an Obama lookalike in 2012 makes for a play radically different from the staging of an assassination of a Trump lookalike in 2017.  But even if both 2012 Caesar and 2017 Caesar had been played by balding white guys wearing togas – the plays would have been experienced very differently.  Because 2017 is not 2012.

Can the staging of a play lead to violence?  Well, I suppose the clearest case might be John Wilkes Booth.  There can be no doubt that this rather histrionic actor thought of himself as Brutus.  Indeed the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre can be theorised as a kind of melodramatic “final performance”.  There was no need to stage a production of Julius Caesar in 1865 in which Caesar wore a stovepipe hat and a beard.  For those predisposed to see Lincoln as a tyrant – Lincoln was Caesar already.

Like Brutus,  Booth succeeded and failed.  Lincoln was killed, but Booth and his co-conspirators also wound up dead and the South still lost.

Booth was a southern sympathising racial supremacist who hated Lincoln.  He was also an actor.  Shakespeare did not make Booth kill Lincoln.  Shakespeare, very selectively quoted, merely gave Booth a rhetoric and a mood.

Regime-changing tyrannicide is a policy with unintended consequences.  All sorts of tyrannical leaders have been toppled – some comparatively recently, leading to chaos followed by worse tyranny.  Shakespeare seems to be aware of this, but he still allows the strength of Brutus’ republicanism its rhetorical appeal.  Of course, the most intelligent reading of the play is to reject all forms of directive intentionalism and merely assume that Shakespeare wanted to create a compelling piece of theatre – one that involved giving various opposed characters wonderful dialogue.

The other thing to remember about Julius Caesar is that it’s not a story that Shakespeare made up.  It’s an actual historical event that really and truly happened, an event that has variously inspired, shocked, and fascinated generations of people.  To censor a story that might provoke political assassination effectively, you’d need to outlaw history as well as theatre.  Put Plutarch in the dock.

Either you confront the central dynamics of the story – a republic in a state of constitutional crisis – conspirators traumatised by a populist demagogue who threatens the entire political order etc. etc. etc. or you try to prevent people from making historical analogies and comparisons.

I’d always claim that the best antidote to bad history is more history.  If theatre provokes, as it should, then let it provoke in complex and thoughtful way.  There is no staging of Julius Caesar that retains any percentage of Shakespeare’s original text that can be regarded as crude propaganda.  In 2017, the play is about Donald Trump.  But it’s not a play that tells anyone to kill anyone else.

Plays don’t kill people.  Neither do movies.  Neither does gangsta rap.  People kill People.  Usually with guns.


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