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Why outrage over Shakespeare in the Park’s Trump-like Julius Caesar is so misplaced

The uproar forced corporate sponsors to pull out and inspired protests — but it missed the point of the play.

Gregg Henry plays a Trump-like Julius Caesar in the Shakespeare in the Park production.
Gregg Henry plays a Trump-like Julius Caesar in the Shakespeare in the Park production, which has been met with controversy.
The Public Theater
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

For decades, conservatives have darkly warned that failing to teach the Western canon of literature to students — that deeming books and plays by dead white guys irrelevant to today’s concerns — would lead to disastrous consequences.

They recently proved their own point.

For its annual Shakespeare in the Park program, New York City’s Public Theater mounted a production of William Shakespeare’s 1599 play Julius Caesar in Central Park — a play that, among other things, strongly warns those who commit political violence, even in service of their country, about the futility of their actions.

But right before its opening night on Monday, June 12, the production was met with conservative outrage, which continued all throughout its short run (Sunday marked the last performance, as planned) and is still going strong. Early in the outrage cycle came the cancellation of two corporate sponsorships. Then, Friday’s performance was interrupted by two protesters, one of whom crashed the stage stage to yell, “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!" Sunday’s final performance was interrupted by a similar event.

The uproar all stems from one key creative decision: namely, portraying Julius Caesar as Donald Trump.

Even before the production officially debuted, Julius Caesar was drawn into the perpetual outrage machine that powers modern American political media. Right-wing outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News expressed horror over the Public Theater’s particular staging of the play, in which a blond, coiffed politician who resembles the US president — he tweets from a golden bathtub and wears a red tie, and his wife has a Slavic accent — is assassinated in Act III beneath an American flag, by a cast that contains women and minorities. Though the play, being more than 400 years old, never mentions Trump’s name, the resemblance was noted by critics who were present at the show’s previews (which began in May), and their reviews were picked up by the broader conservative media.

“NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of Trump,” Fox’s headline read. (Readers had click a “read full article” button, five paragraphs into the story, to learn what the had to is.)

The Daily Caller — which published several opinion pieces in 2016 explicitly linking Trump and Julius Caesar, both fawningly and not — took an innovative angle, drawing on a conservative outrage target du jour in its headline that declares, “NYT Is Sponsoring an Assassination Depiction of Donald Trump.” (The New York Times Corporation is one of Shakespeare in the Park’s corporate sponsors.)

Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere, and Elizabeth Marvel in Shakespeare in the Park’s Trump-inspired Julius Caesar
Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere, and Elizabeth Marvel in Shakespeare in the Park’s Trump-inspired Julius Caesar.
The Public Theater

Within hours, two other corporate sponsors, Bank of America and Delta Airlines, pulled their sponsorships. Delta, citing in an emailed statement the “graphic staging” that “crossed the line on the standards of good taste,” elected to end its sponsorship as the official airline of the Public Theater altogether. Bank of America maintained its relationship with the theater but issued a statement ending its sponsorship of the Julius Caesar production because it was presented “in such a way that was intended to provoke and offend.”

The controversy found new fuel later in the week, after a gunman opened fire at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia leaving House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) critically wounded. In response, many on the right — including the weekend’s protesters — were quick to draw a direct connection between the shooting and the play.

Certainly, there’s a long tradition of outrage in theater, as well as provocative political protest. Private corporations are free to signal their values by pulling sponsorship or advertising from anything they like, whether it’s Bill O’Reilly’s show, Breitbart’s website, or a production of a Shakespearean play dressed up to “provoke and offend” the president of the United States and some of the people who support him. Individuals, too, are free to act as patrons and consumers, supporting both the art and the companies they agree with and speaking against those they find offensive.

But right-wing media outlets’ swift move to offense and outrage over the production — and the uproar that ensued — does call into question how well any of those who are upset grasp the history of Shakespeare and his place in the Western canon, and whether they’re at familiar with Julius Caesar itself.

Because in short, a lot of people have completely missed the point of both the production and the play.

Shakespeare in the Park takes part in a long tradition of infusing the Bard’s plays with fresh relevance

Every summer, the Public Theater — often referred to simply as “the Public” — stages a series of plays at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater under the auspices of its Shakespeare in the Park program. Typically the program features Shakespearean plays and sometimes other, similar classic works (by Chekhov or Ibsen, for instance). Hopeful attendees enter a lottery for tickets, which are free but in very high demand.

How can tickets to such a big production be kept free to the public? In fact, Donald Trump Jr. recently asked this question on Twitter:

The answer is that most of Shakespeare in the Park’s funding comes from corporate sponsors and private foundations. This summer’s productions also received a portion of their funding from the New York State Council on the Arts (supported by the taxpayers of New York) but not the National Endowment for the Arts, which is supported by federal taxes.

These partnerships benefit New Yorkers who want to see Shakespeare in the Park’s productions, as well as others who visit New York for that purpose, no matter whether they can pay for a ticket — though acquiring a ticket through the lottery, as any New Yorker can attest, is a challenge that favors no man. That means it’s members of the general public who benefit, rather than just elites who typically can afford expensive tickets to high-profile theater in New York.

The Public’s stagings of Shakespeare follow the tradition of most professional productions of the Bard’s work, which honor the magnitude of Shakespeare’s accomplishments by using staging clues to draw connections between his plays and contemporary movements in politics and culture.

In 2016, for instance, the Public produced Troilus and Cressida (set in ancient Greece), as well as The Taming of the Shrew — the latter with an entirely female cast. And so one of the major topics of discussion in cultural circles that summer was whether, and how, the misogyny and subjugation of women that are seemingly advanced by The Taming of the Shrew could be staged in 2016.

Shakespeare’s ability to speak to every time period is considered one of the marks of his mastery as a playwright. As early as 1623, 7 years after Shakespeare’s death, the poet Ben Jonson declared, in his preface to the First Folio (an early collection of 36 of Shakespeare’s major comedies, tragedies, and histories) that the playwright was “not of an age but for all time!”

Jonson was exactly right. Shakespeare’s plays about real-life political figures were never meant to be strict live-action reenactments of historical records for educational purposes. The Bard wrote plays about the history of his own country, England, but he also wrote about major figures from Roman history, in addition to using old poems, myths, and stories as the basis for his work.

Even in his own era, his audiences recognized that a play about a Roman general or a Danish king wasn’t an education in the past, something that had relevance to them only because it happened. Shakespeare was able to capture essential truths about human nature, treachery, loyalty, love, politics, societies, justice, and both the noble and corrupting uses of power in his plays. He wrote about populism and elitism. His plays tell stories about tribalism, and treachery, and honor. For him — as with classic theater in virtually every time and place — plays weren’t just entertainment, but a place to confront people with challenging notions about their own world.

In fact, in Hamlet, Shakespeare points to this function: Seeking to prod the consciences of his guilty, murderous uncle, the Danish Crown Prince Hamlet stages for the king and queen a play that mimics some of the motivations and actions he ascribes to them. “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King,” he tells the audience.

This tradition, of leaning on Shakespeare to speak to every age and not just his own, has resulted in or inspired some of the most enduring artistic works of all time. The list is endless, ranging from Orson Welles’s various (and controversial) film and theater adaptations of many of Shakespeare’s plays — which Welles often tweaked, sometimes substantially, to play with their meanings — all the way to House of Cards, which is explicitly based on Richard III (a role the show’s star, Kevin Spacey, played onstage months before the Netflix show premiered) with a hefty dash of Macbeth.

So the timelessness of Shakespeare’s work — and the reason the Bard is considered one of the foundations of the Western canon of literature — is not just that it’s old and has been performed a lot. It’s that he got at something about human nature that seems relevant no matter the time period, place, or circumstance. And thus his work lends itself to endless reinterpretations that always feel relevant, and even pointedly critical.

Julius Caesar is a political play with warnings for everyone

Which brings us to the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, and the remarkably ahistorical reaction to it.

The play — which draws on Plutarch’s Lives, from about the second century CE — begins with the triumphant return of the ambitious Julius Caesar to the Roman Republic following his defeat of the sons of Pompey. Caesar is a popular hero whom the common people celebrate, even though they used to love Pompey. And Rome’s politicians fear that if he rises to power, he will become a tyrant and take advantage of the common people, changing Rome from being a republic to being an empire ruled by an authoritarian leader: Caesar himself.

Tina Benko and Gregg Henry as Julius Caesar and his wife Calpurnia in Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar
Tina Benko and Gregg Henry as Julius Caesar and his wife Calpurnia in Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar.
The Public Theater

So a band of elite politicians plot to kill Caesar. His friend Brutus is wracked by indecision over joining the plot, but finally decides to put country over friendship and throw in with the conspirators, comparing Caesar to “A serpent’s egg / which hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow mischievous / and kill him in the shell.”

Spoiler alert, I suppose: Caesar is assassinated, though not before uttering the famous line “Et tu, Brute?” when he discovers his friend Brutus among the assassins.

Caesar’s killers are convinced they’ve undertaken this act on behalf of the people and for the greater good of Rome, and not for their own glory. Brutus eloquently proclaims as much to a crowd of commoners, who are at first won over to his side. But then Caesar supporter Mark Antony (in his famous speech beginning “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”) turns public opinion against the conspirators by manipulating the crowd’s emotions, and the mob turns violent.

Battles ensue, and ghosts appear, but in the end, even though the conspirators manage to keep Caesar out of power, they lose in their attempt to prevent Rome from abandoning its roots as a republic to become an empire, and they die brutal deaths themselves. Mark Antony, meanwhile, manages to launch himself into a major point of political power.

The tricky part about Julius Caesar is that it doesn’t have one clear “message.” Shakespeare was too keen an observer of human nature and political will to simplify his stories that way. He captured the complex ways in which history tends to twist and turn.

Instead, there are several warnings in Julius Caesar. One is a warning to would-be authoritarian leaders who may be surrounded by people clinging to patriotic ideals and willing to act on them. One is a warning to populists, with the play showing how public opinion is easily swayed and manipulated by charismatic figures. (In a canny move, Shakespeare includes the sad story of Cinna, a poet who is in no way related to the plot against Caesar but who is mistaken for a conspirator with the same name. The crowd realizes the error, but kills him anyway.)

And there’s a warning to those who, like the conspirators, believe themselves to be acting in service of country over their own interests as individuals. Violence begets violence. Scholars have long argued that the play casts their motivations in a less-than-flattering light, with Shakespeare suggesting that just because you think you’re acting patriotically doesn’t mean you don’t have your own private reasons for doing it, and your own drive to gain power. By the end of the play, Antony concludes that Brutus — Caesar’s friend who betrays him — is the “noblest Roman of them all,” and the only one who truly acted in service of the republic. And coming from the mouth of Antony, who has a vested interest in his own power, even that is in question.

Julius Caesar is often interpreted differently for different political contexts

Julius Caesar is a political play, one that plumbs the uneasy relationship between power and populism, as well as the conflicts that arise between personal relationships and loyalty to country. It even explores the pitfalls of various forms of government, from democracy’s potential for mob rule manipulated by showy speakers to the potential for personal power seeking in a republic to the dangers of iron-fisted, people-crushing authoritarian rule.

And it’s not as if those concerns were limited to ancient Greece or Rome, or to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England. So whenever and wherever it’s mounted, the play feels fresh.

In fact, in the play itself, the character of Cassius foreshadows the play’s future to Brutus, declaring in a remarkably on-the-nose statement, “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!”

That eternal, built-in freshness is why Julius Caesar so attractive to theater companies. As far back as 1770, a production at the Philadelphia’s Southwark Theatre was lauded by one commentator as showing “[t]he noble struggles for Liberty by that renowned patriot Marcus Brutus . . . shewing the necessity of his [Caesar’s] death” — and of course, this was in front of an audience chafing under the rule of King George III, just three years before the Boston Tea Party.

And since the 20th century was a battleground for competing political ideologies, it’s no surprise that Julius Caesar was considered ripe material for innovative — and bitingly contemporary — treatments of the old story.

In 1937, at the age of 21, Orson Welles staged a groundbreaking version with the Mercury Theater in which the set and costumes were specifically designed to make the audience think of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In 1973, the BBC produced a modern adaptation of the play called Heil Caesar, ostensibly set in an unnamed country. In 1984, New York’s Riverside Theater Company mounted a production of Julius Caesar set in modern Washington, DC, where America is on the verge of handing its popular leader a lifelong presidency. And a 2012 Royal Shakespeare Company production set the play in a modern African state.

The Acting Company’s production of Julius Caesar also has a modern bent.
The Acting Company’s recent production of Julius Caesar also had a modern bent.
The Acting Company

Also in 2012, in a piece in the American Conservative titled “Obama’s Ides of March,” Noah Millman praised the Acting Company’s production of the play, which featured black actors in both the Caesar and Brutus roles, in a DC-esque Rome “rocked by Occupy Rome protests.” Of Bjorn DuPaty, who played Caesar, Millman wrote that “the audience is unquestionably going to read him as an Obama stand-in.” And thus the play worked by “connecting [the play] to ideas that people we know take seriously.”

Millman further compared the conspirators’ rhetoric to the Tea Party’s opposition of Obama, which, he wrote, “partakes of an intellectual tradition that self-consciously traces its lineage back to Brutus: republican as well as Republican, a tradition that includes both Jefferson Davis and Patrick Henry.” Delta Airlines, which dropped its support of the Public’s production, provided partial support for this production. (The Acting Company revived this production just last year, during the 2016-’17 season, with the support of the National Endowment of the Arts.)

And last month, writing about a new production of Julius Caesar at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England, the Guardian’s critic Catherine Love said the version, though set in a contemporary political world, was “deliberately non-specific” precisely because Caesar, Brutus, and Antony could “be anywhere in the world, steering any precarious democracy,” especially amid the current rise of populism.

Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar obviously targets Trump

The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production seems to have followed in the footsteps of its long list of predecessors, with its tweeting, coiffed Caesar played by Gregg Henry. Brutus is played by Corey Stoll, Antony by Elizabeth Marvel, and Cassius by John Douglas Thompson. The play’s director, Oskar Eustis, says he chose the play for this year’s Shakespeare in the Park program on election night last November.

In his June 9 review of the production, the New York Times’s Jesse Green wrote of its obvious Trump connections, “Its depiction of a petulant, blondish Caesar in a blue suit, complete with gold bathtub and a pouty Slavic wife, takes onstage Trump-trolling to a startling new level.” Several other reviews noted the resemblance as well.

And the play does seem to have some lines lifted straight from 2017, though in truth only three words have been added to the script. One character, Casca, tells Cassius in Act I, while speaking about the commoners, that “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less”; the production inserts the words “on Fifth Avenue” before the comma, an echo of Trump’s proclamation during his campaign that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters.”

The conservative outrage over the Public’s Julius Caesar as read through the lens of right-wing media outlets like Breitbart and Fox seems to stem from the fact that such a Trump/Caesar character is not just depicted but assassinated onstage. On Fox News, Guy Benson said the fact that “he is being stabbed by women and minorities gives it away.”

Elizabeth Marvel (as Mark Antony) and the cast of Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar mourn the death of the title character.
Elizabeth Marvel (as Mark Antony) and the cast of Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar mourn the death of the title character.
The Public Theater

Certainly, Trump supporters (and perhaps others) can be offended by a depiction of a sitting current president being assassinated, though one might ask (fruitlessly) why there wasn’t similar outrage when the Acting Company did the same with Obama. And there’s no question at all that this production intended to take aim directly at Trump by depicting some of his most well-known characteristics: his wealth, his hairstyle, his affinity for Twitter, and his wife Melania, who is Slovenian.

It’s also reasonable to assume that this production of Julius Caesar, staged in New York City — where the president, despite being born and raised in one of its boroughs and a famous (or infamous) resident of another, received only 19 percent of the vote — functions as a bit of a revenge fantasy, cathartic for both the politically progressive thespians at the Public and a sizable majority of those in the audience.

Is that in bad taste? Perhaps. It’s certainly not subtle. Unlike the aforementioned British production running at the Crucible on nearly the same dates, it’s the opposite of “non-specific.” Trump is being painted as a canny political leader, but it’s definitely him.

Right-wing media missed a huge opportunity to critique the Public’s production when they got offended over Julius Caesar

You can only read Julius Caesar as a simple revenge fantasy if you don’t actually read the play. And casting a Trump-like character as Julius Caesar does a lot more for him than merely let an audience watch him get assassinated onstage. Just as Julius Caesar is a play with many warnings, a specifically Trump-oriented Julius Caesar contains many warnings and implications — and bafflingly, right-wing media hasn’t bothered to point them out.

For instance, casting Trump as Julius Caesar (which presumably would be supported by those conservatives who think Caesar’s the good guy) suggests that Trump, though portrayed with petulance, is still a charismatic war hero who has earned the love of the common people by vanquishing his enemies — a narrative certainly supported by the president and his own supporters. Shakespeare’s Caesar is a mighty, courageous, determined leader whose own closest friends are so loyal they must deliberate long and hard before deciding to act on principle; loyalty is one of Trump’s most dearly held priorities.

And while Caesar/Trump is assassinated onstage by a group of elite political leaders, some played in the Public’s production by women and minorities, the story of Julius Caesar doesn’t end there. The common people are provoked by Mark Antony to an anger over Caesar’s death that’s so fierce that casualties ensue. The people are loyal to their fallen leader.

But most importantly, Julius Caesar functions as a strong warning to those who might resort to violence for purposes they believe are patriotic. Those who conspire against Caesar set in motion a violent chain reaction that leads to their own deaths, and doesn’t get the results they want anyhow.

Director Oskar Eustis — who is also the Public’s artistic director — points this out in his analysis of the play. “Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means,” he writes on the Public’s website. “To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him."

Corey Stoll as Brutus and John Douglas Thompson as Cassius in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar
Corey Stoll as Brutus and John Douglas Thompson as Cassius in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar..
The Public Theater

Opponents of the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, if they were familiar with the text, could have seized on the chance this production handed them. For one, it puts Trump in the position of the beloved leader of the people, casting him as a legendary hero. And it warns about the futility of violence against him (something that has new resonance in the wake of controversy over Kathy Griffin’s “beheading” of the president). A canny right-wing response to the production could have praised it for embedding conservative and even Trump-supporting ideas inside the more obvious, arguably even ham-fisted depiction of the president. (National Review came closest to this approach, calling it “boring.”)

For people worried about the decline of the Western canon, the Julius Caesar controversy has delivered a golden opportunity to reclaim its relevance, showing how a careful reading of the play is relevant to leaders and to citizens in every context. It also presents an opportunity to demonstrate that the world’s best literature knows there are no simple solutions to complex problems. For those worried about “Trump derangement syndrome,” the Public’s production offers a way to set up today’s quarrels as belonging to a long, long history of political disputes, and a prime moment to share a warning against violence as a means of change.

But angry right-wing news outlets have neglected to do any of this. Easy outrage gets more clicks than principled stands. High school English class was a long time ago. And — as Julius Caesar itself shows — instructing people to get mad is easier than asking them to think.

So it’s not all that shocking that right-wing media outlets have chosen to trade the possibility of complex and even sly critique for a simple freakout over Julius Caesar showing the assassination of the president, and corporations — fearful of their bottom line — have gone along with it.

And yet, whether or not you think the Public crossed a line with its production of Julius Caesar, there’s some rich — maybe even Shakespearean — irony in the whole saga, something you might even call comedy. Who could have guessed it would be the right-wing outrage machine that delivered the hit on the Western canon this time?

No matter. They’ll get another chance. Shakespeare also wrote a play about an old king with three children among whom he must divide his kingdom. Several of the Bard’s plays, including Julius Caesar, address the perils of mob rule. And he wrote another about a cynical, power-grubbing king scared witless that he isn’t a legitimate ruler — who turns out, in a twist only Shakespeare could imagine, to be the president’s distant cousin.