Donald Trump Jr tweeted two questions after the Julius Caesar play protest I posted over the weekend:
“When does art become political speech, and does it change things?”
I would like to try to answer these questions and by doing so, see if I can explain this fascinating moment in Shakespearean performance history.
Though this production raised new questions about art, and has raised passion from many people, it is not as radical as the protesters might think. Here is a list of historical points of reference to show you the many similarities between this protest and others throughout the history of Shakespearean performance:
1. This is not the first time a Shakespeare play has been seen as a spur to violence: In February of 1601, The Earl of Essex commissioned Shakespeare’s company to perform a scene of the deposing and killing of King Richard the Second one day before he attempted to overthrow queen Elizabeth, and make himself head of the English government.
Shakespeare’s company was exonerated, but Essex himself was tried convicted, and executed for high treason. Similarly, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in 1865, he had previously performed in Julius Caesar, and reportedly complained, (while on the run from the law), that “I am being hunted for what Brutus did so freely”
Source: New York Times Review. Now in both cases it is worth noting that Shakespeare’s company was not responsible for the death of a political figure, it was the people who interpreted his work that bear the responsibility themselves.
As many people have pointed out, in 2012 The Acting Company put on a production of Caesar with an Obama-esque version of the title character. No protests came from the left or right, though Caesar died in the exact same way- bloodily stabbed onstage. I would argue that these shows demonstrate that portraying Caesar as a contemporary figure does not itself incite violence. The audience knows that the figure of Caesar is simply meant as a link between Shakespeare and contemporary politics. This is how the director Oskar Eustis of the Shakespeare in the Park production defended himself against criticism of his staging: https://www.google.com/amp/s/mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/theater/donald-trump-julius-caesar-oskar-eustis.amp.html
I frankly also find the disproportionate reaction to these two Caesars rather insulting. When Obama was in office, he got plenty of negative criticism that sometimes extended to threats of violence. If you click here you can see a threat by country music singer Ted Nugent who threatens to shoot the president with a machine gun. The double standard that threatening a president on the left has no consequences, but threatening a Republican president is worthy of scorn, derision, and its backers pulling their support, deeply hypocritical.
3. Thirdly, this is not the first time a Shakespeare play has depicted Trump negatively. If you look at the comments of my Trump villain post, a director mentioned his production of Henry the Sixth Part Two, in which an actor portrayed the character Jack Cade as Trump. Like Caesar, Cade also murdered in the course of the play. Clearly, portraying Donal Trump as a Shakespearean character is not what is unique here.
4. Though it is certainly true that the play depicts violence and the overthrow of a regime, it doesn’t endorse violence, and is not intended to glorify the murder of a president or even a demagogue like Caesar. As I will later discuss, this play can’t be an endorsement of violence, since everyone who commits violence is duly punished.
So why has this particular production, that uses a Caesar that resembles this president, gotten such a big reaction? Part of the issue admittedly is the timing. The protest specifically mentions the attempted murder of a GOP senator, which happened last week. It is only natural that, given this recent threat of violence, some would fear that this production might incite others to violence. Yet, as I said before, a thorough analysis of the play shows that it does not condone violence against a political leader.
Additionally, given today’s divisive political environment, it is understandable why an audience of right wing protesters might be concerned about this scene in which Caesar is murdered on stage. They may vey well think the play is wish fulfillment for those on the left, who might enjoy watching the bloody assassination of someone who is vey unpopular right now. However, let me emphatically point out that first of all, no one on the left has endorsed violence against Trump. If you look at the backlash to Kathy Griffin’s picture of herself holding a bloody makeshift Trump head, you can see that no one left or right has endorsed support for such a treasonous un-American act. Secondly, with regards to Caesar, the play’s message is actually nonviolent. When Brutus and Cassius kill Caesar, it starts a violent uprising that leads to anarchy. Precisely the outcome the two Roman senators hoped to avoid. Seeing their designs fail which certainly discourage anyone attempting violence against a sitting authority figure.
Perhaps the best way I can prove this point is to remind everyone that Shakespeare himself lived in a monarchy. His theatre was strictly controlled by the government. If anyone in 1599 believed that Julius Caesar seemed to support the killing of queen Elizabeth, the play would have been burned and Shakespeare and his whole company would have been arrested and hanged.
Also, people have criticized the murder of Caesar as “too realistic,” again believing that the gore is intended to glorify violence. In reality the violence of the murder is intended to incite revulsion and disgust. Look at Mark Antony’s reaction when he shows Caesar’s body to the crowd. https://youtu.be/tRceRJAz6_Q
I frankly think that the main reason why this production is getting bad press is because it’s a portrayal of President Trump, not Obama, not the historical Caesar, not Hitler, not even Trump before he was president, but the current president, that a group of people elected, and who believe support their values.
I believe that the main reason Trump’s supporters are angry at this production is they feel an attack on him is an attack on them. The president’s supporters have shown repeatedly that they are willing to overlook almost anything to show their support of him. And I imagine that they have no desire to see him as an autocrat and dictator, let alone entertain the notion that he might ever be taken down by his opponents.
The irony is that the real Caesar was a man of the people who died because his opponents thought he was an autocrat. The real Caesar helped create the modern calendar, gave money to the entire city, and according to Marc Antony, “When the poor hath cried, Caesar hath wept.” Trump is the exact opposite; he is a self-centered con artist who pretends to be a man of the people. As I predicted, after his inauguration, he has vowed to cut taxes on businesses like his, he put his family in positions of power, used diplomatic meetings and press conferences to sell his products, and obstructed justice when his FBI director tried to investigate him. With this in mind, it seems bizarre to claim that this production is designed to ridicule the right, since Trump is neither Julius Caesar, nor is he an embodiment of the political right. He only stands for his own interests. Therefore an attack on Trump is not an attack on conservative values.
So to go back to the beginning point, “When does art become political speech?” I would argue art always becomes political when it comments about our world, and this quality of art is essential for our society to function. We need a healthy dose of satire and critical thinking, and art can provide it to us. However, there is a difference between disagreeing with a play and openly shunning it onstage.
To address Mr. Trump’s second question, art doesn’t change things, people change things, so we need to temper our reactions, including to art pieces like Julius Caesar. Remember, Caesar only died because people said he wanted to be king. Cinna the poet died because the mob said he should. This play warns us all to be careful and remain critical thinkers, or mob rule will result.
What depicting Julius Caesar as Donald Trump really means – CBS News
Ted Nugent once said Obama should ‘suck on my machine gun.’ Now he wants to tone down ‘hateful rhetoric.’ – The Washington Post