The Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” featuring a Donald Trump-like lead has closed, but the controversy circling the play remains.
According to The Associated Press, police are currently investigating threats made to the wife of the play’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis. Eustis’ wife filed a complaint on June 9 about threatening phone messages she received. One caller, the AP reports, said he or she “wanted her to die after saying her husband wants the Republican president to die.”
The production, which ran last week as part of the annual free Shakespeare in the Park festival held in Central Park, incensed critics with a Julius Caesar character bearing strong physical similarities to Trump. As a result, some alleged that the play’s iconic scene ― during which Caesar is assassinated ― sanctioned or even encouraged violence against the president of the United States.
However, anyone who has actually seen or read the 400-year-old play ― or listened to director Eustis speak on the matter ― knows that it unequivocally denounces political violence of all kinds. Shakespeare’s message strongly warns that democracy can only be upheld through democratic means, casting Caesar’s stabbing as an illegitimate act of misguided patriotism. As Eustis summarized to The New York Times: “This production is horrified at his murder.”
Nonetheless, anger surrounding the play has escalated over the past weeks, climaxing when rightwing protesters interrupted a performance last Friday, one storming the stage and another standing up amid the crowd to scream “You are Nazis.”
Sadly, Eustis’ wife is not the only individual to be threatened as a result of the theatrical dispute. Other Shakespeare theater companies around the nation, completely unattached to The Public’s production, have been mistakenly targeted.
Stephen Burdman, artistic director at New York Classical Theatre, described some of the “hateful emails” the company received. “Every arts organization gets critical correspondence,” he told HuffPost. “But normally, they are very well crafted and certainly not vitriolic or threatening. These were outrageously threatening, lots of ‘you should die’ and lots of expletives. Once they started threatening families I didn’t even want to share them with my wife.”
Burdman is not alone in receiving disturbing messages intended for The Public. Last week the Washington Post reached out to Massachusetts’ Shakespeare & Company, which, perhaps due to its domain name Shakespeare.org, was also the target of threats. One read: “F— you, hope you all who did this play about Trump are the first do die when ISIS COMES TO YOU f—– sumbags [sic].”
Artists around the world have expressed their support for the play, stressing the importance of free expression and political theater. The Public released a statement last week, declaring it stands by its production:
We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions. Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy.
Our production of “Julius Caesar” in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.
There is something painfully ironic about unleashing violent threats to protest what is perceived by some as an endorsement for violence. Hopefully now that the production has finished its run, the vicious and often misplaced attacks on members of the theater community and their family will come to an end.