The time is out of joint. When lost for words, as many have been over the past five years, William Shakespeare is a useful go-to guy. His plays have helped us make sense of plague, political upheaval and a mad monarch, delivering soliloquies by tweet.
“While maintaining his career as the most-produced playwright in the world, he is also moonlighting as the most-cited provider of metaphors for the Trump era – and particularly its denouement,” Jesse Green, the chief theater critic of the New York Times, observed last month. “Hardly a thumb-sucking political analysis goes by without allusion to one of the 37 canonical plays, however limited or far-fetched the comparison may be.”
But as the dust settles on the Trump presidency, Green’s exhortation – brush down your Shakespeare, stop quoting him now – seems unlikely to gain much traction.
Books have been written. Jeffrey Wilson, a Harvard academic, is the author of Shakespeare and Trump, published last year. The book’s cover features its title emblazoned on a red cap, in lieu of the words “Make America great again”, beneath a pair of donkey’s ears.
“The thesis of the book is tragedy but we’ve got a little bit of comedy in there too,” Wilson says. “So the cover alludes to Shakespeare’s character Bottom, who’s this kind of huckster blowhard who gets his head turned into a donkey to symbolise the stupidity. Plus, Bottom’s just obsessed with building a wall in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Which other characters parallel Trump? “There’s going to be Julius Caesar, who thinks he’s a god over people, not one of them. There’s going to be Richard III, this power-hungry criminal whose clownishness seduces supporters. There’s going to be Macbeth, whose thirst for power is wrapped up in his fragile masculinity.
“There’s going to be Henry VI, this child king whose weak leadership creates this fractious counsellor infighting all around him. There’s going to be Angelo in Measure for Measure, a self-declared law-and-order guy who is himself a criminal. And there’s going to be King Lear, who so completely binds the personal and the political that the collapse of his government is also the collapse of his family.”
When the pandemic finally ends and theatres spring back to life, that list will offer rich pickings to directors. There is a long tradition of holding up the mirror of Shakespeare to specific cultures, from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well and Ran to irreverent productions in South Africa that critiqued apartheid.
Some are subtle, others on-the-nose. In 2017, the director Oskar Eustis’s production of Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park depicted the eponymous character with blond hair and red tie. It all caused a brouhaha in conservative media: corporate sponsors pulled support, protesters stormed the stage and Eustis received death threats.
Wilson reflects: “When I asked [Eustis], he insisted he wanted it to be a very blunt instrument. The fascinating thing for me about that production is that it may or may not have helped us better understand Donald Trump but it helped me better understand Julius Caesar as a text.
“It allowed us to use Trump as a lens for understanding the way that Shakespeare wrote this play, which is so filled with comedy in the first half, the kind of outrageous, obnoxious, satirical comedy that is so associated with Trump. That’s how Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar should be performed.”
The play, he says, “is drawing upon tropes of the 17th-century clown, the antichrist who comically comes on stage and thinks that he’s the most glorious thing ever invented and is revealed to be a total fraud.
“You don’t really get that sense of Julius Caesar when you watch most Shakespearean stagings of the play but by using Trump as a lens to understand that, we can use the accessible emotions and knowledge that we have from current events to rethink how we should read this distant, old, obscure literature.”
Wilson’s book also considers how America has seen Shakespeare in the age of Trump. A month after his victory in 2016, for example, students at the University of Pennsylvania took down a portrait of Shakespeare and replaced it with a photo of Audre Lorde, an African American writer, feminist and civil rights activist.
Steve Bannon, who led Trump’s winning campaign and became a White House strategist, was previously a banker, media executive and Hollywood producer who in the 1990s co-wrote two Shakespearean adaptations: a Titus Andronicus set in space, complete with ectoplasmic sex, and a hip-hop Coriolanus, based in South-Central LA.
The screenplays are not publicly available but Wilson tracked them down – and found an insidious racism. He writes: “Specifically, Bannon’s Coriolanus suggests that African Americans will kill themselves off through Black-on-Black crime, while his Andronicus tells the story of a ‘noble race’ eliminating its cultural enemies on the way to securing political power.”
Wilson adds: “NowThis did a table read of Coriolanus and actors were just sprinting to get through the lines. One of them said, ‘It sounds like he’s never met a Black person in his life.’”
Abraham Lincoln quoted Shakespeare often, writing that “none equals Macbeth”. Trump likes films – Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Gone with the Wind and Sunset Boulevard are among his favourites – but he has had less to say about theatre. In four years in Washington he never ventured to the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill, nor the Shakespeare Theatre Company downtown.
“There’s a database that collects all of Donald Trump’s campaign speeches,” Wilson says, “and there’s only one hit when you search for the name Shakespeare. It comes when Trump is describing a campaign speech that Ted Cruz made and Cruz had been speaking very eloquently from Trump’s perspective and so Trump said something to the effect of ‘Ted Cruz is a Shakespeare’.
“So Ted Cruz is Donald Trump’s image of the ideal of linguistic eloquence. Ted Cruz: not of an age, but for all time.”