So people are really mad about the Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar that dresses Caesar up as Trump. And lefty theatre people are sort of gleeful at the rightwing anger, because look! Theatre causes controversy! We’re important!
But one thing that’s jumped out at me in the furor is the implication– suggested by my Twitter timeline’s, “It’s Shakespeare, stupid,” response to a Fox news article attacking the “New York City play” in terms that made it seem like they thought it was a new anti-Trump play– is that there is inherent Trumpiness in Shakespeare’s play. That Oskar Eustis didn’t add anything except an orange wig and some pussyhats to what was already there.
But as always, Shakespeare is way slipperier and more equivocal than directors seem to expect, and the supposedly self-evident commentary on dictatorship that Julius Caesar offers is no exception. Today I keep thinking about a production I saw several years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the Vilma Silva played Caesar. Suddenly, the conspirators’ accusations of tyranny took on a more suspicious cast. Why were they so threatened by her? Should we believe their accusations of actions we never get to see? Why is Cassius so obsessed with her physical weakness, with feeling degraded by being subordinate to her?
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival didn’t change the text either– Caesar still had a distinctly self-aggrandizing air, still less-than-secretly craved a crown. Was still a war hero, and beloved by the people. There was good and bad. But her gender added an additional wrinkle, forced a reexamination of the conspirators’ virulent hatred. That wrinkle went some way towards standing in for an Elizabethan audience’s acceptance of the self-evident good of monarchy, a counterbalance to the conspirators’ language about tyranny and freedom that tends to ring completely convincingly to contemporary audiences.
I can’t see the Public’s production, so it’s very possible that they offer much more complication than the reviews and responses have suggested so far. But it seems to me that they have unbalanced the play’s morality by depicting Caesar as Trump– especially given their New York City (read: probably liberal) audiences, who are coming in with a certain set of biases (to say the least). Caesar is not just a cardboard tyrant, and Shakespeare’s central question is more complicated than just “is assassination of an objectively horrible leader right or wrong.” I don’t think it would have been any better to put Caesar in a pantsuit and make Calpurnia her white-haired southern husband, but it might have left more room for the text’s uncertainty about Caesar’s dangerousness.
In short, while Oskar Eustis may not have added anything to turn Caesar into Trump, it’s reductive to suggest that he was just tapping into was was already obvious and explicit in Shakespeare’s words.