Maybe you haven’t heard about New York’s Public Theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (that’s him below), with the title role played by an actor whose appearance is clearly intended to evoke President Donald Trump–who, of course, is betrayed and brutally murdered in Act 3. That has stirred up more than a little outrage (and the loss of some sponsors of the production). So, although I am pretty sure no one is asking, I’m happy to weigh in on the subject.
The play has been performed before. You probably knew that. And, like all of Shakespeare’s plays, it has been adapted in fascinating, even controversial ways. For example, in 1937, an Orson Welles production portrayed Caesar to resemble Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and a 2012 production featured an Obamaesque figure in the title role. Shakespeare directors and companies do this kind of thing all the time. That’s part of the fun of seeing Shakespeare performed.
In the case of the Public Theater production, it’s neither as “cutting edge” as the show’s defenders portray nor as offensive as the outrage suggests. Shakespeare’s play portrays Julius Caesar as an accomplished man who was adored by the public but whose personality and popularity worried the politicians (some of which may have a ring of familiarity to President Trump’s fans). But Mark Antony’s famous oration (“Friends, Romans, countrymen”) works only if the assassination could be perceived by reasonable people as overreach–even “bloody treason.” And the assassination brings about disastrous consequences for almost everyone, including Rome itself, so it is hard to imagine (though I haven’t seen the production) that it could be convincingly presented as pro-assassination propaganda.
So, while it is far from a brave or clever conceit to make the title character look like the current president, it is also not unusual. And, unless damage has been done to the text, it is a play about friendship, loyalty, and honor, that (it seems to me) also has much to say to our current political and cultural situation. I, for one, would have liked to see it (its run ends June 18).