Trump Era Ignorance Triumphs Over Shakespeare

Why do we bother learning anything?
Marcus Lindstrom via Getty Images

What’s to be said about the Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar,” which, having dressed the titular dictator in President Donald Trump’s weeds, has fulfilled its most obvious destiny by earning the relentless enmity of Trump’s fan base?

Here’s my offer: What a time to be alive but also mostly dead inside! What a thrill it is to have another dose of that fulminate-of-mercury outrage delivered to our screens. And what a terrific way to highlight two key features of our age ― the extreme uselessness of ever knowing anything and our tendency to expend too much of our spirit in a waste of shame.

Like all the great conservative mavens of “cultural literacy” recommended that we Gen-Xers do in college, I’ve spent many thousands of hours with William Shakespeare and the canon of Western Literature. And that’s fine. The canon is mostly pretty good, except for Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

In particular, I’ve spent more time with “Julius Caesar” than any reasonable person should be required to. But this weekend’s burst of psychopathic indignation over one production of the play was a good reminder of what a futile pursuit that was. America, circa now, is more apt to valorize people who don’t know a single thing about what they’re talking about than it is to reward those who do. Being armed too strong in honesty, I ended up on the losing end of this weekend’s joust over “Julius Caesar.”

So, thanks for nothing, E.D. Hirsch! I’ve really wasted my time. But since it’s my time to waste, let’s make the most of it.

OK. The thing about Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar” is that it’s not actually about Caesar. The main character is a politician named Brutus who, greatly concerned about Caesar’s violations of democratic norms and thoroughly convinced that he alone understands what ails Rome, is seduced into a plot to murder the Roman dictator by conspirators who know that Brutus’ yen for high-mindedness will give them cover for their base ambitions. The play is a “tragedy” because Brutus, a decent man, doesn’t figure out that he’s a fool who has made Rome worse until it’s far too late.

This story is pretty squarely in Shakespeare’s wheelhouse. When he wasn’t writing what many people dismiss as “Tudor propaganda,” he was pretty concerned about how easily an established order could be tipped into chaos. Shakespeare wasn’t too keen on people stepping out of their place. The “Great Chain of Being” didn’t offer much encouragement to populist revolutions. Of course, it would be interesting to know what the Bard might have made of Trump, but I suspect that if the real estate mogul demonstrated a willingness to keep his actors gainfully employed, Shakespeare would have ruffled very few feathers.

Nevertheless, over the weekend, when the Public Theater’s “Julius Caesar” became the latest piece of cultural bric-a-brac to get laundered through the media outrage machine, I found it hilarious and appalling because the outrage only succeeds if you’re aggressively ignorant about the play. A day later, what I’m finding funny is the thought that somewhere in New York right now, there are some liberals, equally ignorant about the play, who will rush to see the Public Theater’s production, salivating at the notion that this version really sticks it to Donald Trump.

They are in for a real surprise, because if anything, “Julius Caesar aims its daggers at the notion of a high-on-their-own-supply Resistance, flush with the belief that the best solution to all their political problems is the quickest one.

The second scene in Act 3 is going to be especially unsettling for them. That’s the famous scene of competing orations where Brutus first recites a “Stronger Together” speech that could have been penned by Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook. Supremely confident that his elite standing is sufficient to the task of educating the crowd in the correct course of action, Brutus then leaves them alone with Mark Antony ― and immediately loses them to Antony’s devil-tongued “Make Rome Great Again” incitement to mob violence. For his part, Caesar exits the play as a man more sinned against than sinning.

Rome, meanwhile, descends into violence. The very next thing the mob does, in fact, is murder a poet named Cinna who had nothing at all to do with the assassination of Caesar. Cinna tells the mob that they’ve mistaken him for another man, a conspirator who shares his name, but the crowd decides to murder him anyway, shouting, “Tear him for his bad verses!” and “It’s no matter, his name’s Cinna!”

I feel you, Cinna, wherever you are. What, indeed, is the point of being right about anything?

But Cinna’s murder is pretty fitting to think about in this moment. With all of their future at stake and society in the balance, the whipped-up crowd demonstrates that the only thing that they’re actually good at is tearing to pieces someone completely inconsequential ― someone who just accidentally wandered into their lives, who they would otherwise never have noticed.

That’s what we’re good at now. That’s what has been done to this production of “Julius Caesar.”

It’s a good thing that such easy targets exist because otherwise we would have to confront bigger problems. For instance, the president is an utterly venal, shameless liar. But he exists because of decades of choices that we all made, together. We really should be doing the hard work of sorting out our own house in a sensible fashion and taking stock of our failings, but you know what’s easier? Utterly destroying the woman who played “Vicki” on the all-but-forgotten show “Suddenly Susan,” for a really epically hack piece of “art.”

Bank of America, which hopefully has figured out how not to accidentally repossess people’s homes, will probably not breathe a discouraging word should some 20 million people lose their health insurance in the next few weeks. But the bank made sure to register its extreme displeasure with the Public Theater, withdrawing the funding from the theater company that I am almost positive it had forgotten proffering in the first place.

You want to be mad that this production presented Caesar in Trumpian fashion? Be my guest. But I have to be honest with you: If you’re going to be angry about it, be angry at the fact that it’s kind of a cheap move on the director’s part.

Replacing Caesar with a recognizable world leader is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Did you know that the Acting Company partnered with the Guthrie Theatre on a 2012 production of Julius Caesar that put an analogue of President Barack Obama in the title role? It’s true. Somehow, liberals forgot they were supposed to be outraged at the sight of the murder, and I’m left to speculate that Psalm 109:8-chanting conservatives loved it and were literally brought to the point of violent sexual ecstasy when Brutus murdered Barry O. in cold blood on the stage.

Dolling Caesar up like Trump is basically a quick-and-dirty, shorthand way to drag an audience into the world of this particular play ― a society on the edge that teeters and breaks thanks to the actions of a few powerful men. And when I say “quick-and-dirty,” I mean that it’s like dropping a damned anvil on the stage. It’s not subtle!

Here’s the rub, though ― maybe it can’t afford to be subtle.

This play is being produced for an audience of affluent theater-going New Yorkers, and they live a life that is, psychologically speaking, about as far away from epochal societal instability as you can get. So you hand them a Trump-Caesar, and it stimulates their liberal, professional-class mores. “This is not normal,” they think as the play begins. “I was born as free as Caesar,” Cassius whispers to Brutus, adding, “So were you.” It’s time for some Roman-style game theory! And total wish fulfillment comes before intermission in the form of Caesar’s murder.

If the production is good enough (and I’ve no idea if the Public Theater’s is), it forces this audience to confront the way everything works out for those anti-Caesar revolutionaries and gives them a moment of unexpected frisson when they realize they’re supposed to see themselves in Brutus’ tragic aspect.

So it’s possible that the way this play is being produced is actually beneficial for its intended audience. Perhaps this production is capable of shaking its particular audience out of their dull and easy way of thinking about the world, putting them in touch with more meaningful ideas.

Now that I think about it, I might actually do “Julius Caesarthis way if I had to produce the play. But I’d be utterly mystified if anyone, hearing about my production, was compelled to attempt to set the Guinness record for Being Mad On The Internet about it. The only thing I can say about such people is that they must lead a pretty blissful existence if this is what gets them worked up.

Besides, you should know that if I really wanted to savage Donald Trump ― if I just wanted to turn him into a punching bag for my own cheap thrills ― I wouldn’t put him in Caesar’s shoes. No, I’d feature him in the title role of “Macbeth(Ivanka could be Lady Macbeth!) and I’d hire the most pornographically violent fight director that money could buy.

And what would that prove? I have no idea! But I guess that’s the point: LOL, nothing matters.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story featured a photo of Caesar Augustus rather than Julius Caesar.



Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for HuffPost and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

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