June 27, 2017
Julius Caesar in action (JOAN MARCUS/THE PUBLIC THEATER)
Shakespeare, Our Outrageous Contemporary
Is recourse to political violence ever justifiable in order to preserve the democratic structures of a state? How does the political and rhetorical appropriation of violence affect the democratic foundations of a country? These are two of the most important issues that Shakespeare explored in his 1599 tragedy Julius Caesar. The play lays bare a series of contradictions all too familiar to today’s audiences. In dramatizing the perilous descent of democracy into tyranny, Shakespeare formulates a compelling cautionary tale in which the Republic’s savior of today becomes the regicidal assassin of tomorrow.
Oskar Eustis’ recent “Shakespeare in the Park” production featuring a Trumpesque Caesar, complete with blonde hair, overlong ties, and a Slavic-accented wife Calpurnia, has ignited a right-wing media firestorm. Although two recent productions of the play depicted Caesar as an Obama figure (Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis) or set the play in post-independence Africa with an all-black cast (Gregory Doran’s RSC production), the conservative media was up in arms over the Delacorte production, calling it “a disgusting New York City play depicting the president brutally assassinated” and putting out bardophobic pieces with incendiary titles like “The Left’s Flirtation With Trumpicide” or “Trump Stabbed And Liberal Audience Stood Up And Cheered.” Most of the outrage seems to stem from the production’s graphic assassination scene and the alleged message of violence against Trump and the right. An even more dire message was voiced by two pro-Trump protesters who stormed the stage during the assassination scene shouting “stop the normalization of political violence against the right,” and “Goebbels will be proud,” a reference to Hitler’s infamous propaganda minister. Troubling news of death threats and abusive messages directed against Shakespeare theaters across the nation over the past few days are moving the controversy from the realm of rhetoric and theatrical fiction into the dangerous territory of reality.
Shakespeare has a long history of causing public outrage, in no small part because almost every generation since the Renaissance has claimed some ownership of his work. Shakspeare has been our perpetual contemporary since the days of the Elizabethan Globe. The notion was for the first time formulated by the Polish critic Jan Kott in his groundbreaking study Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, published in 1964. Inspired by Shakespeare’s dramatic use of historical material, Kott argued that Shakespeare is “like the world, or life itself”: “Every historical period finds in him what it is looking for and what it wants to see.” For the 1960s viewers who were only twenty years removed from the atrocities of World War II, Shakespeare’s cruelty offered not simply a terrifying blood spectacle, but rather a cautionary tale for their own historical moment. “Violent deaths of the principal characters are now regarded rather as a historical necessity, or as something altogether natural,” Kott argued. In other words, in giving the audience a safe historical and aesthetic distance from the violent events of the past, Shakespeare’s theater provided an opportunity for insightful rather than inciting action.
This sense of perpetual contemporaneity stems, in fact, from the Shakespearean notion that understanding history is always key to deciphering the present. Shakespeare’s interest in the past was far from an antiquarian pursuit. By revisiting the troubling events surrounding the assassination of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare did not seek to incite social violence against the long-reigning Queen Elizabeth (who, at sixty-six, was considered old by sixteenth-century standards), but rather to ponder the deep political contradictions of his time. Shakespeare understood very well that the European Renaissance had occasioned not only a moment of cultural efflorescence but also a troubling drift toward unchecked absolutism.
Autocratic monarchs, from the fifteenth-century Duke of Milan, Filippo Visconti, to Elizabeth herself and then Louis XIII of France, threatened the consolidate state power at the expense of the traditional prerogatives of the aristocracy. During an age of intense political and religious strife, there was a palpable sense of anxiety among the populace about the aging, childless Queen, and the kind of political chaos her death could have potentially triggered. In a period when tight state censorship made any straightforward political commentary virtually impossible, the story of Caesar became a theatrical means to confront these dilemmas and predicaments.
Shakespeare’s scandalous contemporaneity has often been fought over odd or trivial issues, be it a ghost, a handkerchief, or a mischievous gravedigger. But Caesar’s assassination is no mere trifle. Like Shakespeare, we live in times of deep contradictions. The Trump presidency and the controversies surrounding it have captured the media’s and the public’s attention in unprecedented ways. The reason Shakespeare is once again embroiled in controversy is precisely because of his ability to expose the uncomfortable truths of our times. We need Shakespeare’s masterful exploration of history to navigate our deeply-divided present.