A 400-year-old play by an underground playwright named William Shakespeare is making headlines this week after The Public Theater’s recent production of “Julius Caesar” angered some viewers (and hence corporate sponsors) by portraying the Roman ruler with a curious likeness to President Donald Trump.
Spoiler alert: The Trump-Caesar resemblance is causing tension because, as any Shakespeare or “Mean Girls” devotee knows, Caesar is assassinated in the course of the play. Or, as Fox & Friends reported, “President Trump [is] brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities.”
Of course, Shakespeare did not pen his bloody death sequence with Trump in mind. Nevertheless, artistic director Oskar Eustis’ decision to stage the killing of a mercurial, blonde-haired ruler in an ill-fitting suit and too-long red tie has drawn criticism from some viewers, various right-wing media outlets and Donald Trump Jr.
Delta Airlines and Bank of America responded to the firestorm by withdrawing financial support from the production, which is currently running at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater as part of New York’s famed Shakespeare in the Park festival.
Delta released a statement condemning the performance’s “graphic staging,” describing the show’s artistic and creative direction as having “crossed the line on the standards of good taste.” A spokeswoman for Bank of America similarly lamented that “The Public Theater chose to present ‘Julius Caesar’ in a way that was intended to provoke and offend.” American Express also tweeted that the company does not “condone the interpretation of the Julius Caesar play” despite its continued sponsorship of The Public Theater’s other endeavors.
As corporations severed ties to the show, theater buffs and high school English honors students were quick to call out the absurdity of the denunciations ― not only because of a little thing called freedom of speech, but because many don’t quite seem to recall what the whole message of “Julius Caesar” actually is.
Yes, Eustis’ production of “Julius Caesar” features, in no subtle terms, a Trumpian ruler being stabbed to death by senators, ostensibly, for the good of their nation. But the remainder of the play hashes out how this decision to off a tyrannical ruler in such an undemocratic manner yields nothing but disaster.
As New York Times’ Jesse Green wrote in his review of the show: “Even a cursory reading of the play, the kind that many American teenagers give it in high school, is enough to show that it does not advocate assassination. Shakespeare portrays the killing of Caesar by seven of his fellow senators as an unmitigated disaster for Rome, no matter how patriotic the intentions.”
For those whose memories have faded a bit since 11th grade, a brief refresher: “Julius Caesar” tells the tale of a demagogue ruling the Roman republic in 44 B.C. A conspiracy grows against the ruler, a man senators feel has grown tyrannical and threatens the future of the nation. In the famed Act 3, Scene 1, Caesar is killed by his fellow statesmen under the guise of patriotism.
Yet the decision to kill Caesar ends up shattering Rome’s democracy, rather than saving it. The play, then, warns viewers against violent reactions to despotic rule. As Eustis wrote in a note regarding the show: “’Julius Caesar’ can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.”
To suggest the production advocates for or excuses violence in any way is just false. If anything, the play suggests the very opposite, advising against the power-hungriness both Caesar and his opponents embody. If the advice is not heeded, as Gregg Henry, the actor playing Caesar at The Public, warned cheekily in an interview with Backstage: “You can end up losing democracy for like, 2,000 years.”
For some viewers, however, the message of Shakespeare’s words has faded into the background, overshadowed by the visceral power of a Trump-like actor’s white shirt stained with fake blood making its rounds across social media.
One named Laura Shaeffer expressed her disgust in an interview with Mediaite. “To be honest I thought it was shocking and distasteful,” she said. “If this had happened to any other president — even as recently as Barack Obama or George W. Bush — it would not have flown. People would have been horrified.”
Fair enough, except past productions have featured Caesar in the guise of both presidents listed above, among others.
In a 2013 review of “Julius Caesar” at Minneapolis St. Paul’s Guthrie Theater, a critic for Mpls St Paul Magazine described the value of casting Caesar as a “tall, lanky black man,” despite the resemblance being “too obvious.”
“Like Caesar, Obama rose to power on a tide of public goodwill,” the piece reads, “like Caesar, there were many in government who doubted Obama’s leadership abilities; and now that Obama’s first term has failed to live up to the messianic hype, there are plenty of people who — for the good of the country, you understand, not their own glory — want to take Obama down.”
So, this whole cast-a-Shakespearian-tale-in-modern-day-light thing is nothing new. It’s actually, a centuries-old practice. And Trump isn’t being forced to endure anything to which previous American presidents haven’t already been subjected. For eons, political leaders have been accused of greed, egotism and a lust for power. Democracy, as a result, can feel fragile ― if not under siege. Art exists in times like these to illuminate the patterns between past and present while untangling the particulars that distinguish each. It can stir provocation, yes, but also reflection, dissent and enlightenment.
The theater is often viewed as a space for pushing boundaries and critical thinking. In this production, despite the bloodshed onstage, no real person leaves wounded or endangered; audiences are not encouraged to wreck havoc on any American politician. (In fact, quite the opposite.) To suggest the staging of one of the most esteemed dramas of all time is “political speech” targeted directly and uniquely at Trump not only ignores the play’s message, but its history, too.
As one seemingly incredulous viewer said in a video interview with Inside Edition: “It’s not really the president, it’s theater. Everyone knows it’s theater.”
Julius Caesar is slated to run at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater until June 18 as part of New York’s Shakespeare in the Park festival. Tickets are free.