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
Since this is national poetry month, I thought I’d talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s poetry. Shakespeare wrote 154 short love poems called sonnets. What follows is kind of a do-it-yourself poetry manual that would be great if you want to write a poem for a spouse or a loved one for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Mother’s Day or any other time, to show that you care. Sonnet writing has been a time honored tradition for showing the people we care about just how much they mean to us.
If you’ve never written a sonnet , don’t worry, the kind of sonnet Shakespeare wrote is pretty easy to write, and it follows just a few simple rules. I don’t want to lie; it takes a lot of patience and thought to craft a sonnet, but the rules are easy to follow. So let’s get to it!
What Is A Sonnet? A sonnet is a short poem that’s only 14 lines long, written in what is called Iambic Pentameter, Shakespeare’s preferred form of poetry. I’ve written before about Iambic Pentameter, but just to be clear it’s a 10 syllable line that goes da-Dum- daDum-da-Dum-daDum-daDum. So all you need is 14 lines that follow a particular rhyme scheme. You’ll notice that in the sonnet above, every other line rhymes except the end. This is called an ABAB rhyme pattern, and it is the trickiest thing about writing a sonnet. One reason Shakespeare has this rhyme pattern is to draw your attention to the last two lines, then draw the sonnet to a close with the simpler rhyme of the couplet.
Sonnet Form A sonnet’s 14 lines are arranged into three short groups or quatrains which are four lines long. Usually around line 9, there is a kind of “turn” or change in the direction of the argument, like at line 9 in Sonnet 8 above, where Shakespeare stops talking about summer, and starts talking about the person to whom he’s writing. If it helps, you can think of this as the “But…” part of the sonnet, because it’s the part where he changes the argument using the word “but,” (and what a but it is). The sonnet then concludes with two rhymed lines of Iambic called a rhymed couplet. These last two lines are a way of wrapping up the main idea of the poem in a short, catchy way.
Step by step Tips and Tricks:
- Start by planning out your sonnet.
It’s often useful to consider your sonnet like a speech or a short argument. The three quatrains give you a chance to come up with an idea, then develop the idea, and then come to a conclusion, much like any other form of persuasive writing that you might’ve had to do for English class. For example, Sonnet 8 pictured above, (one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets), begins with the question: “Shall I compare the to a summers day?” He then goes to flatter the person he’s writing about by talking about how much better they are than a summers day, saying that actual summers are too windy and too hot, and the flowers of the summer are all too brief. By contrast, Shakespeare argues that the subject of the sonnet has beauty that will last forever, particularly if that person goes on to have children. This is the form that Shakespeare sonnets often take and I would advise you to try and make your sonnet into a clear argument.
Example Of Sonnet Writing: Since Mother’s Day is coming up, if you wanted to write about the mother of your child, and thank her for her for being there for your child, you might want to structure your sonnet by using the three stanzas to express three simple ideas like:
1. Thank you for being the mother of our child(ren)
2. A specific time she did something awesome for your child (give examples!)
3. Thank you from you, me, and our child(ren).
Tip 2: Plan Out The Rhyming Couplet: As I mentioned before, the last two lines of every sonnet are called a rhyming couplet; two lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme together and help conclude the sonnet. Just like a English paper, a good conclusion is very important, which is why it’s it’s often useful to work on this these two lines first before you get into writing the meat of your sonnet. For example, here’s a couplet I wrote about preparing breakfast in bed and doing chores for one’s wife on Mother’s Day.
All chores this day will I do in thy stead
Commence I shall with breakfast in thy bed!
Tip 3: Writing Poetry Now that you have the ideas you want to express now comes the hard part: putting them into poetry. I often find it helps to just get a piece of paper, write as much as possible to express the three ideas in your sonnet in prose, then get down to translating your ideas into iambic pentameter.
Quick Tips to help you along:
- Make sure the important words are on the right beats. Remember, in a normal Iambic line, every other beat (2, 4, 6, 8, and 10) are emphasized. This means the important words/ sylables need to be on those beats. You might have to invert the order of a word or two to keep those beats clear. like I did in my couplet when I wrote “will I do” instead of “I will do”
- You don’t have to use iambic in every line. Shakespeare was never a slave to a particular verse form, and a whole poem in iambic pentameter can sound a little dull sometimes. This is why, if you really want to, you can change a line or two to emphasize different beats
- Trochees A clever way to wake up your audience is to start off with a few regular iambic pentameter lines, and then change it to a line where the first beat is the one that’s important. Like a dance or song that suddenly changes tempo, this creates a sense of excitement in the reader.
- Spondees Sometimes you can emphasize two syllables at the same time, as Shakespeare does in lines 1 and 3 of Sonnet 8. You wouldn’t pronounce “Shall I” as “SHALL I or shall I,” and the phrase “rough winds” demands that both words are important, so Shakespeare is clearly changing the verse a little just to make the poetry more interesting.
- For More information on other types of Meter, read Sam Rame’s Literary Analysis Blog: http://samrames.blogspot.com/2013/03/william-shakespeares-sonnet-60-like-as.html
Tip 4: Use Literary Devices: I find Shakespeare very often tried to express an idea by using metaphor and allusion to create images in the listeners mind. Sonnet 8 which we’ve been discussing, is structured around creating a contrast between the speaker and a pretty day in summer. You can do this kind of flattering comparison yourself, but, as we’ve seen, it’s often useful to put a “but” in the argument around line 9, to make it clear that you love the person more than for example a warm summer day. Imagine getting a sonnet that claims that someone loves you more than ice cream!
Sometimes Shakespeare uses contradictory images in his poetry for dramatic effect. Romeo often and talks about “Oh brawling love, O loving hate”. He uses this to express the wildness of his passion. This is called antithesis, and it’s very useful when you want to add a little spice to your poetry. Try comparing your beloved to both ice and fire!
Alliteration and assonance: Remember, Shakespeare wrote for the theater not for people reading in the book this is why he often plays with words that sound a particular way and worked very hard to come up with sounds that would grab a listeners attention rather than readers. When a word when several words start the same letter it creates a sense of order and gets the readers attention. Assonance is when consonants are repeated within the middle of a line.
Useful Websites when you’re working
- Rhymezone.com– a convenient online rhyming dictionary
- Thesaurus.com– useful if you need another word that fits into iambic better.
- Kotsheet.com- a website for teachers with lots of useful worksheets to help you organize your sonnet. Useful for writing or teaching sonnets!
I hope this post was helpful. If you have any questions, please comment, or email me in the “Ask the Shakespeare Guru” page. If you write any sonnets yourself and wish to share them on this site, let me know and I’ll gladly re-post them!
Till Next Time,
-The Shakespearean Student.
- The Sonnets Edited by Rex Gibson. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Shakespeare’s Wordcraft by Scott Kaiser. Limelight Editions, 2007. Free preview here: https://books.google.com/books/about/Shakespeare_s_Wordcraft.html?id=IdVuj0IY2ekC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Literary Devices.net: https://literarydevices.net/
- Cummings Study Guide: https://cummingsstudyguides.net/xSonnets.html
Well, it happened. A man whom I have described as a villain of Shakespearean proportions is now the president. You might have read in my Richard III post that I had hoped that the election would play out like the history play about a deformed tyrannical king with bad hair. What I forgot when I made that prediction was that the king in question, Richard III, does become king for a little while.
Here’s another way of putting it. I found it on the Facebook page of a friend of mine, Austin Tichnor of The Reduced Shakespeare Company:
I don’t want to talk too much about devisive politics because I feel that the country and the world is hurting too much because of people who want to reduce the world into “my party,” “my country,” and turn everything and everyone else into “the other.”
What I want to talk about in this post, is what I hope for our new president, some words of wisdom from The Bard, and maybe some words of healing for those people who feel like “the other,” starting with some of the people I might have offended with my earlier posts.
Why Donald Trump is like Henry V, (we hope).
A lot of people are full of anxiety right now because nobody is really sure what kind of president Trump will be; will he follow through with his campaign promises? Will he take power from those in Washington and give it to the people, as he said in his inaugural address? How much will his past life as a real-estate tycoon influence his work as president? This uncertain climate reminds me very much of the end of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, where the old king dies leaving the kingdom to his son. Thus far, the prince, (known as Hal to his friends), has been wasting his time drinking in a bar in Eastcheap with his disreputable friend, Sir John Falstaff. Watch this scene where he and Falstaff mock the king and trade insults with each other:
But, on his deathbed the real king summons his son and knocks some sense into him, demanding that he take the job of running the country seriously. In Act IV, Scene v, the prince, (thinking his father is dead) tries on his father’s crown right before King Henry wakes up and curses his son with a long and terrible speech. Below is King Henry’s deep rebuke of his son Hal, detailing his fears of what will happen when the prince becomes king.
What! canst thou not forbear me half an hour?
Then get thee gone and dig my grave thyself,
And bid the merry bells ring to thine ear
That thou art crowned, not that I am dead.
Pluck down my officers, break my decrees;
For now a time is come to mock at form:
Harry the Fifth is crown’d: up, vanity!
Down, royal state! all you sage counsellors, hence!
And to the English court assemble now,
From every region, apes of idleness!
Now, neighbour confines, purge you of your scum:
Have you a ruffian that will swear, drink, dance,
Revel the night, rob, murder, and commit
The oldest sins the newest kind of ways?
Be happy, he will trouble you no more;
England shall double gild his treble guilt,
England shall give him office, honour, might;
For the fifth Harry from curb’d licence plucks
The muzzle of restraint, and the wild dog
Shall flesh his tooth on every innocent.
O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows!
When that my care could not withhold thy riots,
What wilt thou do when riot is thy care?
O, thou wilt be a wilderness again,
Peopled with wolves, thy old inhabitants! King Henry IV, Part II, Act IV Scene v.
I have to wonder if Obama feels a little like King Henry, since Trump has promised to repeal Obamacare, reverse many of his executive orders, and put his own “Mad Dog” ruffians in charge of the country. I also find it ironic that King Henry is worried about foreign ruffians becoming part of English society, while Trump is worried about keeping them out of America.
The good news is that Prince Hal eventually became a wise and effective ruler. In the play that bears his name, King Henry V united his country, and achieved a famous victory over the French. Everyone in the play was shocked and amazed by how he transformed himself from a drunk into an effective king. Trump has that same opportunity; although his poll numbers are low right now, he can prove his commitment to the job and amaze the country.
This is what I’m sure all of America hopes Trump will do for the country, although I have trouble believing that it will actually happen. It seems more likely to me that he will exploit his position to help his businesses, just as he has done his entire career, and he already shows signs of doing now. It seems unlikely that he will achieve anything that will protect the dignity of Americans, or achieve prosperity for anyone but himself.
I believe that the best we can hope for with Trump is a presidency that mirrors one of Shakespeare’s most mediocre kings. Richard II, who stole land away from his nobles because he believed being king gave him God’s permission to do whatever he wants. Trump was practically quoting Richard, when people wondered about his many potential conflicts of interests between the presidency and his business empire. Moments like this make me and many others like me curse the way businessmen-turned-politicians can give away America’s dignity dollar by dollar, as John of Gaunt famously cursed in Richard II:
JOHN OF GAUNT
Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death! Richard II, Act II, Scene i.
If you’re like me and millions of other people around the country who don’t have a lot of faith in this new government, the question becomes, “What do we do now?”
I believe that once again, Shakespeare can offer words of wisdom and comfort in this moment of doubt and uncertainty. One quote I keep coming back to is from a play you’ve likely never heard of- The History Of Sir Thomas More. You won’t see this text in any collected edition of Shakespeare, because the play is actually unfinished. Only a tiny portion of it survives, and it was never published. It has the incredible distinction to be one of the only surviving play manuscripts from Shakespeare’s day, and if he did write it (which no one can definitively prove), it is the only play written in his own handwriting. Even if Shakespeare did not have a hand in writing it, it is one of the most poignant speeches I’ve ever read, and it has an incredible message for our nation and for the entire world.
First, a little background. Sir Thomas More was a real man who worked as Chancellor of England under Henry VIII. He was famously executed for refusing to support the king’s divorce of Queen Katherine Of Aragon because of his devout Catholic beliefs, and for that reason he is still considered a man of great principle and honor. The scene which Shakespeare allegedly helped write however, takes place earlier, when More was just a sheriff of London.
In the speech below, More is trying to break up a riot where a mob of people are trying to murder a group of immigrants from the country, accusing them of stealing jobs from Englishmen, (sound familiar)? More pleads with them to show compassion and to be open to other points of view. Here is More’s speech, performed by Sir Ian McKellen.
Here’s the text of the speech:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….
Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
Sir Thomas More, Act II, Scene 4.
Finally, here’s a link to view the original manuscript, which is on display in the British Library in London.
The obvious condemnation of xenophobia and hatred of immigrants in More’s speech is obvious, so I won’t belabor it, but it’s worth noting that this problem has been going on for over 400 years. What I’d like to focus on is what More says at the end: when a nation erupts into violence against immigrants it cheapens itself and the world takes notice. Also, it is the job of those in authority to protect, not stay silent when such attacks take place. This is why we need to think carefully about Trump’s proposals regarding immigrants, Muslims , and other such “strangers.”
In a more general sense, I feel that in our divided nation, we all are feeling like strangers. Whether you’re a man or a woman, Democrat or Republican, Caucasian or Non-Caucasian, many thousands of people in this nation all seem to feel that someone is treating them like “strangers,” and our task, all of us, as Americans and human beings, is to “take the stranger’s case,” by looking at other people’s points of view with compassion and an open mind. That, by the way was made Shakespeare a great writer; his own ability to see into the minds of kings and peasants, women and warriors, ghosts and gods.
So here’s the big question: whom would Shakespeare vote for? I believe he would vote for whomever would try to learn from the lives of these strangers, and use his or her authority to protect their right to speak their minds. Deciding who that person is, is a task I leave to you.