Trump Family Attacks Shakespeare- Julius Caesar Protest

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:
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. 

Deposition by Augustine Phillips about how Shakespeare’s company was innocent of treason.

Shakespeare’s company was exonerated, but Essex himself was tried convicted, and executed for high treason. In addition, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln, 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.

2. This play is also not the first time a director has portrayed Caesar as a contemporary president-

An Obama-like Caesar is murdered in The Acting Company’s 2012 production of “Caesar”

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 this shows portraying Caesar as a contemporary figure does not itself incite violence. The audience knows that this figure 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 disregard of Obama’s presidency 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 pulling of support by it’s backers, is 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 Trump was portrayed as Jack Cade, who is also murdered in the course of the play. Clearly, portraying Donal Trump as a Shakespearean character is not what is unique here.

4. Also, it is certainly true that the play depicts violence and the overthrow of a regime, but 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 the threats of violence that have happened to those in power that 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 Cesar 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 put 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 point is actually nonviolent. When Brutus and Cassius kill Caesar, it starts a violent uprising that leads to anarchy, precisely what 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.

https://youtu.be/Y7BtKlGGFKs

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 Anthony, “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 imagination, 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 that this is essential for our society to function. We need a healthy dose of satire and critical thinking and art can provide this. 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. 

References

What depicting Julius Caesar as Donald Trump really means – CBS News

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/530037/

https://www.google.com/amp/s/mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/12/theater/julius-caesar-shakespeare-donald-trump.amp.html

https://apple.news/AW6FmlDY3TEe4C97AG7UI4Q
Ted Nugent once said Obama should ‘suck on my machine gun.’ Now he wants to tone down ‘hateful rhetoric.’ – The Washington Post

View story at Medium.com

https://apple.news/AE9eeH-L6TxeY1qJwq4Ur8w

Scary Shakespearean Stories!

“Let us sit upon the ground, and tell… THE MOST MESSED UP, MACABRE, EVIL SHAKESPEARE STORIES EVER!”

I have three macabre stories that are 100% true relating to Shakespearean plays, just in time for Halloween!

Lithograph of a demon tempting John Wilkes Booth, created by John McGee in 1865.
Lithograph of a demon tempting John Wilkes Booth, created by John McGee in 1865.
Tale #1: Life Assassinates Art. Everyone knows John Wilkes Booth was an actor who murdered President Abraham Lincoln at Fords Theater, on April 14th 1865. However, not too many know that he was a Shakespearean actor, and that his experience with the Bard’s play of Julius Caesar, might have encouraged Booth’s murderous hand!

The whole Booth family were  a Shakespearean theatrical dynasty; John Wilkes and his two brothers, Edwin and Junius-Brutus Booth Jr were professional actors. The three brothers only appeared together onstage once: in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar- which as you know from my previous posts, is a play where the noble Roman Brutus becomes the head of a conspiracy to assassinate a dictator in the name of peace and freedom. Booth’s father coincidentally was Junius Brutus Booth, and many scholars suspect that Brutus’ son might have taken inspiration from this ancient Roman assassin. In John Wilkes Booth’s mind, Lincoln was a tyrant oppressing the south, and it was up to him to “nobly” sacrifice himself for the good of the Republic.

Photo from the 1864 benefit performance of "Julius Caesar," starring John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr (left to right).
Photo from the 1864 benefit performance of “Julius Caesar,” starring John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr (left to right).
In the photo on the left, you can see the three Booth brothers onstage as Julius Caesar. In a true twist of fate, John Wilkes did not play one of the conspirators Brutus or Cassius, (who stab Caesar in the back), but Marc Antony, the man who spoke for Caesar at his funeral and incited all Rome to avenge his murder. Five months after this photo was taken, Booth shot Lincoln onstage at Ford’s Theater, and shouted in Latin: “Thus shall it be to all tyrants.”

And the Julius Caesar parallels don’t stop there: just as Caesar’s wife had dreams predicting his murder, President Lincoln was haunted by dreams that warned him of his own death which he told his own wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Days before the assassination, Lincoln himself had a terrifying vision:

“About ten days ago, I retired late. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along.

“It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me, but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully.

” ‘Who is dead in the White House?’, I demanded of one of the soldiers.

” ‘The President’, was his answer, ‘He was killed by an assassin.’

“Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which awoke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.” (reprinted from http://www.prairieghosts.com/a_lincoln.html). 

The tragic tale of Lincoln mirrors in many ways the assassination of Caesar, a man who to some was a tyrant and to many was a savior. Surely few other moments from history demonstrate Shakespeare’s poignancy, in a more gruesome and macabre way.

Works Cited:

  1. Andrews, John F. “Was the Bard Behind it,” The Atlantic. Accessed from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1990/10/was-the-bard-behind-it/308480/
  2. http://shakespearestaging.berkeley.edu/index.php?option=com_g2bridge&view=gallery&Itemid=256&g2_view=core%3AShowItem&g2_itemId=15120&g2_imageViewsIndex=1
  3. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003689283/
  4. http://www.prairieghosts.com/a_lincoln.html

A Few More Updates

Hi folks!

I’ve now finished my work on Romeo and Juliet, and this October, I’m taking a little time to talk about two of Shakespeare’s spookiest plays- Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. Right now, the Royal Shakespeare Company is putting on a very inventive production of the play, and I’d like to talk a little about this interpretation. You can read about it here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/9317659/Julius-Caesar-Royal-Shakespeare-Theatre-Stratford-upon-Avon-review.html 

You can read my analysis of Julius Caesar here.

Here are some posts I’ve got waiting in the wings:

  1. A spooky Shakespeare Stories related to Julius Caesar, and the assassination of President Lincoln!
  2. Analysis of the speeches in Julius Caesar (podcast, hopefully).
  3. Play of the Month for Macbeth.
  4. Explanation of the curse of Macbeth.
  5. Review of “Haunt Me Still,” the sequel to “Interred WIth Their Bones” by Jennifer Lee Carrel.

Stay tuned!