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The theater of Trump: What Shakespeare can teach us about the Donald

Harold Bloom subtitled his magnum opus on Shakespeare “The Invention of the Human” in recognition of the Bard’s unprecedented ability to imagine the lives of others. 

The question I’ve been pondering of late is what would Shakespeare, the greatest detective of the soul of man in literary history, have made of Donald Trump? Is there anything in the plays that could offer us some insight into the motives and machinations of this New York billionaire turned political firebrand?

The comedies, which I naturally turned to first, failed to supply a figure who combines Trump’s peculiar combination of arrogance and unpreparedness, pugilistic vehemence and showman’s pandering. The histories provide the richest trove of Shakespeare’s political thought, but there’s no Falstaffian equivalent to the Donald. (Trump might be able to match the braggadocio of Prince Hal’s drinking buddy, but his playground-quality insults fall short in linguistic brio and satiric bite.) 

My project was beginning to seem like a fool’s errand, but then sick in bed and bored with the novel I was reading, I turned to two Shakespeare tragedies: “Julius Caesar,” which I hadn’t read since Denzel Washington brought the play to Broadway, and “Coriolanus,” which I saw earlier this year via the National Theatre Live broadcast of the sensational Donmar Warehouse production starring Tom Hiddleston.

Denzel Washington in a scene from the modernized revival of 'Julius Caesar' at Broadway's Belasco Theatre in 2005.
Denzel Washington in a scene from the modernized revival of 'Julius Caesar' at Broadway's Belasco Theatre in 2005. (Joan Marcus / AP Photo / Boneau / Bryan–Brown)

These historical dramas, set in ancient Rome, startled me with their almost prophetic reading of our current moment. Indeed, the senatorial squabbling in these tragedies might easily be relocated to Washington, D.C.

Not that there’s a blustering toga-clad noble with a shock of clown hair, a problem with women and a put-down for every oppressed group among the characters. Shakespeare’s worldview is astonishingly comprehensive, but a playwright from the Elizabethan-Jacobean era would need a time machine to dream up Trump. 

If even Marshall McLuhan, the 20th century expert on the merging of media and politics, would require a crash course in Twitter, Facebook and “The Apprentice," how could we expect Shakespeare to shed light on this reality TV star turned standard-bearer of the GOP?

A stroll through Shakespeare’s Rome suggests how. For those assuming that a Trump-Julius Caesar connection is up my sleeve, I can only quote the late, great Shakespeare scholar Anne Barton, who in reviewing a book that made a comparison between the Roman statesman and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, simply declared, “It is unfair to Caesar.”

What “Julius Caesar” and “Coriolanus” illuminate isn’t Trump himself but the Trump phenomenon. Shakespeare may have no equivalent for the businessman who successfully transformed himself into a brand before redeploying his marketing acumen to the political arena, but the playwright understands the voters who are drawn like moths to the  fiery glow of Trump’s candidacy. 

The political background of the Roman plays resonates sharply with our own situation. Democratic pressures continually tested the ancient Republic, as the equilibrium between patricians and plebeians shifted. Today a similar contest for power is taking place between elites and everyday workers.  

To anyone bewildered by the eruptions of violence at the Trump rallies, “Julius Caesar” and “Coriolanus” reveal just how easy it is to transform anxious citizens into mobs. The personality of the demagogue isn’t a central concern in either tragedy, but the plays carefully expose the wily business of political control and the ease with which unscrupulous leaders can manipulate the fear and frustration of the masses. 

Anti-Trump protesters clash with Trump supporters outside the Anaheim Convention Center during a rally on May 25.
Anti-Trump protesters clash with Trump supporters outside the Anaheim Convention Center during a rally on May 25. (Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images)

Shakespeare recognizes that the political immaturity of the people is the one constant. Exploiting this requires a shrewdness that can take many guises. But a good talking game is a necessity for any demagogue, and no play better demonstrates the potency of this art than “Julius Caesar.” 

As always, Shakespeare works through contrast and comparison. Brutus, after killing Caesar at the Senate house, appears before his countrymen to explain his rationale for the murder. His speech, as straightforward as it is succinct, makes a direct appeal to his auditors’ reason. 

This turns out to be a mistake arguably as fateful as his questionable decision to take part in the assassination. For though Brutus sways his audience initially with his argument that he and his fellow conspirators took Caesar’s life for the good of Rome, his listeners don’t want to be persuaded by an abstract case for democracy. 

Shakespeare, with brilliant economy, clarifies what the crowd really wants: an emperor to replace the father figure they’re now mourning. When one of the plebeians cries out after Brutus’ speech, “Let him be Caesar,” the affirmation leaves Brutus nonplussed. This bookish patrician wants his principles endorsed, not his personality. 

Mark Antony makes no such mistake in his funeral oration, which whips the crowd into a rabid frenzy. His eulogy, fobbed off as the sentiments of a man too bereaved for rhetoric (“My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar”), transforms the citizenry into an instrument of revenge so blind that, in the ensuing rampage, a poet is killed simply for having the same name as one of the assassins.

The irony is that the citizens believe that logic has won them over. “Me thinks there is much reason in his sayings,” says one of the plebeians of Antony's speech. “If thou consider rightly of the matter, Caesar has had great wrong,” says another.

Antony claims he’s “no orator, as Brutus is,” just “a plain blunt man.” No doubt the kind of guy ordinary Romans would enjoy having a glass of vino with. But Shakespeare allows us to see through this aristocrat's pose of solidarity with the common people.

When Trump said in his victory speech in Nevada, “I love the poorly educated,” he was expressing the same sentiment Antony was no doubt muttering to himself as the mob drove Brutus and Cassius out of the city gates. What Trump loves, of course, is the effectiveness with which his populist message does his dirty work for him.

Donald Trump signs autographs after he speaking at the Lawrenceville National Guard Armory on May 19 in Lawrenceville, N.J..
Donald Trump signs autographs after he speaking at the Lawrenceville National Guard Armory on May 19 in Lawrenceville, N.J.. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

"[Trump] wins voters over by appealing to their spleens rather than their minds"

Charles McNulty

He wins voters over by appealing to their spleens rather than their minds. Grievances are replayed like tunes in a music library. His attacks are rationalized as self-defense and his most divisive remarks are framed as a holiday from America's great scourge,  political correctness. 

In an impressive rhetorical sleight of hand, Trump discredits the opposition by claiming that any criticism of him stems from personal animus. In this respect, he follows the playbook of Antony, who as Maynard Mack observed in the essay “The Modernity of 'Julius Caesar,'" convinces the mob that “all rationality is simply a surface covering up private grudges.” This is the ad hominem strategy that allowed Trump to emerge unscathed from the Republican debates despite his unsteady performances.

Coriolanus, or Caius Martius as he was known before his conquest of the Volscian city of Corioli, is in many ways the anti-Trump, a warrior who is disgusted by the pageant of politics. After returning home victorious over the Volscians, Rome’s relentless enemy, he refuses to exhibit his wounds to the public to gather the necessary votes to be made consul.

Rome, to Coriolanus, is an ideal that can only be sullied by the marketplace of politics. He’s too proud to bend to the commoners, believing his martial service should speak for itself.

“Coriolanus” is Shakespeare’s most explicitly political tragedy, one in which the fatal flaw seems to rest as much in the body politic as in the protagonist, whose astonishing virtue in war, his implacability, turns out to be his terminal vice in peacetime. The play dramatizes what happens when a leader, lured into the show-and-tell of electoral politics, scorns the “many-headed multitude.” 

Tom Hiddleston as  'Coriolanus' at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013.
Tom Hiddleston as 'Coriolanus' at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013. (Johan Persson)

At the same time, Shakespeare shines a light on the way the system is open to brazen manipulation by career politicians. The tribunes, the plebeians’ representatives, fear that if Coriolanus is made consul he will diminish their power. They urge the crowd to renounce him, playing on their fears and reminding them continually of his arrogance. 

“Coriolanus” exposes the cynical maneuvering of the democratic process. Idealism is not only defeated but fundamentally doubted. And only imminent annihilation seems capable of restoring a sense of the common good. 

At the root of this tragedy is economic inequality — the kerosene that allows these political conflagrations, as much today as in Coriolanus’ era, to burn out of control. The starving plebeians are furious that the nobles aren’t sharing their food stores. Their protests are legitimate even if their fury is being co-opted to serve other agendas. 

The modern parallels don’t end there. Coriolanus, who joins forces with the Volscian enemy after being exiled, grandiosely believes his own patriotism is worth more than the patriotism of the rest of the population. (“I banish you!” he jeers when the “common curs” cry out his sentence.) Like many an egomaniacal politician, Coriolanus insists he must destroy the state to make it great again. 

In his commentary on “Julius Caesar” in “Shakespeare the Thinker,” A.D. Nuttall raises a “paradox of democracy” posited by philosopher Karl Popper: “What is one to do when the demos, the people, freely decides to resign its power to a despot?” 

Nuttall reminds us of democracy’s freedom to commit suicide, but Shakespeare seems to retain a modicum of faith in the fickle, self-seeking and, yes, chronically ill-informed citizenry. For all their shortcomings and shortsightedness, the plebeians of “Coriolanus” come off slightly better than their counterparts in “Julius Caesar” (a play set later in history but written earlier). Progress rests in their fallible hands as Rome transitions from a militarized society to a more pluralistic system. 

Republicanism was a largely foreign concept for Shakespeare, whose livelihood depended on the good will of monarchs. Yet his work evinces an intuitive understanding of the old line made famous by Winston Churchill about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

“Julius Caesar” and “Coriolanus” help us to contextualize Trump’s political rise as the price of something dangerous yet indispensable — our liberty. They also serve as cautionary tales, warning us in this volatile election year that politics is inherently a public relations war and that Reason, that poor campaigner, is in for the race of its life against stoked Fury.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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