As William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opens, a boisterous crowd celebrates the victory of a charismatic strongman over a political rival. Enraged that the “vulgar” commoners would embrace this ambitious bully with an authoritarian streak and an outsized craving for public display, elected elites wail at the mob, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” As the play goes on, as you may dimly recall from your high school English class, other men in power conspire to assassinate this showman “colossus,” because he is “prodigious grown/ and fearful”—or has become monstrous and threatening—and “thunders” and “roars” as if drunk with power.
It is quite obvious why Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater in New York, decided on election night to stage this play and to turn Julius Caesar into an orange-haired stand-in for President Donald Trump in the theater’s current Shakespeare in the Park production. In fact, it is so obvious that one is tempted say, “Et tu, Euste?”
The production is now in the national news because of outrage from certain quarters and the withdrawal of funding by prominent sponsors. Breitbart and a string of guests on Fox News have denounced the production as inciting “murder,” while Bank of America’s spokesperson has accused the production of intending “to offend.” Donald Trump Jr. has even implied that Eustis’s re-interpretation of Julius Caesar is responsible for the recent shooting at a congressional baseball practice. In the latest eruption, a protester in the show’s audience jumped on stage during the assassination scene to shout, “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right.”
These responses have been as reductive as they have been predictable. One moment—the play’s famous assassination scene—is taken out of context from a complex work of art to demonize liberal elites in places like New York. For his part, Eustis has put out a press release explaining his intentions: “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.”
However, even if Eustis was trying to induce his audience to reflect, the choice to turn Caesar into Trump is as predictable and simplistic as the hostile responses to the show. Eustis is a prolific and inventive artist whose body of work (from Angels in America to Hamilton) I deeply admire, but the reductive logic in the choice evokes the incensed invective that calls the populace “senseless things” or “the common herd” and “the rabblement.” It’s simply a form of name-calling. And it invites the kind of reactive sloganeering seen on a sign by a defender of the show: “Make America Literate Again.”
In all this public high drama, both the play’s critics and its defenders are ignoring one of its major lessons: Words matter. By sparring on talk radio and social media with the same kind of distorted, demagogic rhetoric employed in Shakespeare’s Ancient Rome, they’re essentially re-enacting the play in real life. The danger is that reality could reflect the dangerous results dramatized in the play.
Julius Caesar is a powerful depiction of how seductive public speech can sway people’s opinions and enflame a crowd. The play is aware that “men may construe things after their fashion/ Clean from the purpose of the things themselves,” and thus each political action depends for its meaning on who wins the spin. The two celebrated speeches by the lead conspirator Brutus and Caesar’s friend and eulogist Mark Antony over the assassinated body of Caesar at the forum are prime examples. They amount to a kind of Roman-era Twitter battle for narrative control. There’s no room for subtlety; it’s all red meat, demagoguery, fake news and simulated authenticity—and it’s extraordinarily effective.
Some suggest that Brutus is more self-reflective than Antony and therefore more sincere as he explains why he murdered Caesar. There is certainly some truth to this. But the larger truth is that while Brutus may be sincerely committed to his enterprise, he is no less calculating than his rival. In fact, his insistence on limiting the assassination target to just Caesar and not Caesar’s close associates is driven first and foremost by a concern with PR—an attempt to manipulate how things will appear “to the common eyes” so that the conspirators will be “called purgers, not murderers.” Given to high-minded, self-consoling aphorisms, Brutus also speaks in eloquent but simplistic oppositions that reduce his thoughts to fewer than 140 characters. “Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?” Or, “Who is here so vile that will not love his country?”
Mark Antony, who speaks to the crowd directly after Brutus, ostensibly to pay tribute to Caesar but really to incite the crowd against the conspirators, is even guiltier, and far more shameless, in parading fabrications and distortions. “I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts.” “When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept.” “Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up/ To such a sudden flood of mutiny.” So sad!
This promiscuous verbal battle between two power centers of the play debases public language to such an extent that language itself becomes unmoored from reality. In an emblematic moment, a mob butchers a poet named Cinna simply for sharing his name with Cinna the conspirator. (“No matter, his name’s Cinna;” “Tear him to pieces,” citizens call out.) The ultimate result of all this debasement of language is a tragically bloody civil battle that ends up, as Eustis has pointed out, opening the way for the very kind of authoritarian rule that Caesar’s assassins tried to prevent.
And yet here we are again today, locked in a reductive “Caesar is Trump” vs. “The Public incites Murder” battle that is every bit as reductive as the forum fight between Brutus and Antony. The debate about the Public’s production, too, is marked by sententious sound-bites that distort and enflame more than they than inform or understand—the very same kind of rhetoric that paved the road to political violence and tyranny in the play. Why would we want to go down the same path?
A further irony exists. All parties to this controversy (including myself) are continuing the media feeding frenzy, whether driven by opposition or not, that boosted Trump’s candidacy. In this age of big data, editors of online publications from the Huffington Post to Breitbart know with precision how many clicks a certain article receives from readers—which means they know how powerful the name of Trump is in drawing readers to their site, and thus advertisers to their publications. And of course, the more the headlines can provoke outrage and partisan passion (You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!), the larger the number of clicks tends to be. In this sense, even opposition to Trump in the name of saving democracy from demagoguery and fake news fuels the dangerous rise in Trump’s profile and thus the likelihood that Trump will become the very thing that is most feared. Further, the hyper-ventilating obsession with all things Trump threatens to swallow everything in its path and makes it ever more difficult to distinguish between truly necessary adversarial journalism and feverish chatter. In perhaps the darkest irony, this kind of compulsive opposition recalls the “voluntary wound” that character after character in Julius Caesar inflicts upon himself, whether at the moment of suicide or through political or rhetorical violence. “Myself have to mine own turned enemy,” a conspirator says at the end, as he witnesses the realization of what a citizen fears after Caesar’s assassination: “There will a worse come in his place.”
Is there a way out? We might start by reading less about Trump, whatever the venue, and reducing the inordinate and unwarranted amount of space that Trump occupies in public discourse. And how about a moratorium on allusions to Trump in Shakespeare productions for the next 1,316 days? We might also actually read a little more Shakespeare, attuned not to messages we might express in 140 characters, but to everything that we cannot.
Yu Jin Ko is professor of English at Wellesley College.