Defending Caesar – My Thoughts On The Public Theatre’s Production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears as I share my thoughts on the uproar surrounding the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

For those of you who aren’t aware, the production in question features a Julius Caesar who bears a striking (and intentional) resemblance to Donald Trump and includes a scene that depicts said Caesar being brutally stabbed to death by Brutus, Cassius, and their fellow conspirators. Despite the fact that William Shakespeare and Julius Caesar both pre-date Donald Trump by a few centuries, and that this play has been produced over the years with many different political leaders cast as Caesar, some have taken this scene as advocating the assassination of our current president. And to be honest, I find this ridiculous for a number of reasons.  I’ve spent the past few days thinking about the situation and I even took the time to reread the play before I commented.  And I just have to say that I believe it does a HUGE disservice to the play, to Shakespeare, to Trump, to the Arts, and to political discourse in this country to reduce this play, and especially this production of it, to one scene taken out-of-context. Regardless of what you think of the president, and in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I am not a fan, we need to be able to look at issues in their entirety, rather than focus on the specifics that feed into partisan agendas and social media rants.  And we definitely need to re-develop the lost skill of considering context, nuance, and sub-text in our cultural and political discussions.

First of all, can we all agree that, as one of the greatest writers in the English language, Shakespeare can be read on many different levels. Just because Caesar, himself, was literally stabbed in the back, that doesn’t mean that the Public Theatre was advocating or predicting a similar fate for Trump. There are a lot of metaphoric ways to stab someone in the back. In fact – partially due to this play – the phrase, “stabbed in the back” is a common way in our culture to refer to any sort of betrayal, not just those that involve actual knives.  So perhaps we can give Shakespeare and the Public Theatre some benefit of the doubt and assume that they are employing a metaphor to make a larger point.

So, if the Public Theatre wasn’t trying to advocate for the assassination of Donald Trump, why cast him as their Caesar in the first place? Frankly, it isn’t uncommon for productions of Shakespeare plays to be set in different times and different places to make the universal themes feel more relevant and current to modern audiences and, as I mentioned before, this play has been performed with Caesar cast as many different political leaders, including a 2012 production that portrayed Barack Obama as Caesar.  But, even if that wasn’t the case, there are just too many parallels between the play and the  current situation that it’s almost impossible (if not artistically and culturally irresponsible) to avoid the comparison.  Let’s be honest, until the Ides of March comes along, Caesar is a character right out of the Trumpian narrative and fits in beautifully with the way Trump likes to think of himself – a larger-than-life leader who comes to power on a swell of popular support from the common man and who is beset by enemies from the political establishment who are waiting for their opportunity to betray him.  If Caesar had survived the play, and if Trump was the sort of guy who read / saw Shakespeare plays, he would most likely be the one making the comparison between himself and Julius Caesar. (There’s even a Shakespearean version of “fake news” as Cassius and his co-conspirators forge letters and interpret signs to support their agenda and manipulate Brutus into turning on Caesar).  Still, Caesar, whoever he looks like, isn’t the most important part of this play and he isn’t the reason it’s so relevant to this time and this country.

The New York Times has a great article about this topic, Why Julius Caesar Speaks to Politics Today, but here are some of my thoughts on the matter.  The play, if you look at it in its entirety, is actually a fairly balanced, cautionary tale to BOTH SIDES of our political divide.  To the Right, Julius Caesar is a warning to avoid political hubris.  In the play, Caesar is warned multiple times about the danger but is goaded into ignoring the warning. He fails to listen to his advisors and those who have his interests at heart and falls victim to his tragic flaw, hubris. As a result, he walks right into the trap, despite every opportunity to avoid it.  In real life, Trump’s overconfidence (and constant tweeting) gives ammunition to his enemies –  again, we are talking about metaphoric ammunition, not actual bullets – who are working to bring him down.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has many relevant things to teach the Left. The conspirators were successful in taking out Caesar, the man, but in doing so, they lost the country and their lives. Some of them were in it for their own self-interest and desire for power. Brutus was motivated by a pure desire to save Rome from what he believed was a would-be tyrant. But regardless of motive, the conspirators lost everything, did not achieve any of their goals, and paid a heavy price for the life of Caesar.  The point is, as Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theatre, puts it:

“Our production of ‘Julius Caesar’ in no way advocates violence toward 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.”

Source: How Outrage Built Over a Shakespearean Depiction of Trump


Lastly, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has one more important lesson to teach both  Liberals and Conservatives. After Caesar was gone, betrayed by his enemies, praised and immortalized by those who loved him, his ghost lingered and haunted his foes. I firmly believe that, whatever happens over the next four years, whether Trump completes his term in office and runs for re-election or if the many scandals, investigations, political intrigues, marches and demonstrations succeed in removing him from office, his presence will continue to be felt for years to come.  And we as a country need to consider all of the many factors that lead to the rise (and possible) fall of Caesar and how we can move past the hyper – partisan and incredibly toxic state that our current political climate has become. At the end of the day, the purpose of theatre, of any art, is to start a dialogue, to provoke thought and portray life as the artist sees it, and this play, for better or for worse, does exactly that.  As Eustis puts it,

“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. 

And for this reason, rather than condemn Caesar, both sides of the political divide should praise this production and the Public Theatre for opening a much-needed dialogue.

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