Bloomberg Opinion: Forget Caesar. Shakespeare Has Another Role for Trump.

Jun 21, 2017, 06:00 PM

By Tyler Cowen

Are we living in a Shakespearean tragedy? A production of “Julius Caesar” that just ended in New York used an apparent Donald Trump substitute as the figure murdered by the Roman senators; a counterdemonstration was organized, with two pro-Trump activists crashing the stage in protest. Other (unconnected) Shakespeare theaters have been receiving emails and letters of protest.

Much as I love Shakespeare, I am not pleased by all the attention he’s getting in the American political scene. Too many of Shakespeare’s plays concern the corruption of power, the problems of political succession, the unreliability of alliances and the collapse of public order. His political decision-makers are rarely rational, and his most pleasing comedies and romances tend to be removed from matters of state. His most overtly legal tale, “Merchant of Venice,” stresses themes of scapegoating and preordained “justice” rather than judicial objectivity.

Which Shakespearean characters does Trump most closely resemble? Without impeachment (or worse) in place, Julius Caesar doesn’t seem to fit, and furthermore the Roman emperor had a pomp and gravitas that Trump as president lacks. “King Lear” opens with a scene of flattery of the ruler, but Lear had a long and successful political career before his descent into madness.

I see Trump as not a ruler but rather akin to the various fools, jesters or, in the case of Lear, the character of Edgar, who appears before the king in disguise and warns him of his enemies. Don’t interpret the word “fool” too literally here. The most common features of these characters is that they speak between the cracks in the action and utter sentiments that no one else dares to voice. That’s Trump on Twitter. Would the word “covfefe” be so out of place in one of those poetic rants?

The thing is, such unorthodox behavior (maybe) works for a candidate, but it is strange -- to say the least -- from a head of state with nuclear weapons. If there is any message from Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, it is that kings must lead, for better or worse. Trump’s defenders who blame the president’s failures or troubles on his adversaries are, from a Shakespearean perspective, Trump’s most acute critics. The king or leader cannot play victim for very long, and is obliged, one way or another, to find a way to climb out of that role. Trump has not.

Trump repeatedly speaks of government as something that victimizes him, and something he does not lead, and in the process he sounds pathetic or whiny to some audiences. Yet he is essentially right, and that is Trump as truth-teller returning to the fore. He is the one who can express his own impotency, and most of us simply are not listening, in part because he does not put on a very objective tone (nor is he objective). We’re so upset by the notion of “fool” as “king” that we don’t digest the real message, just as Shakespearean kings and their bystanders typically do not. In this regard, we are indeed living in a Shakespearean world.

Ezra Klein at Vox asked one of the questions of the year when he wrote, “Has anyone told Donald Trump that he runs the government?” But does he?

And looking forward, what might a study of Shakespeare tell us to watch for in the evolution of the Trump administration? How’s this for a start?:

Blood may be thicker than water, but nonetheless power struggles can break family bonds rather easily. Power cannot be given away and still retained. Don’t overweight legitimacy and birth order in determining succession. Love is a wild card. There is no maximum limit to chaos.

Connections between Shakespeare and American politics are hardly new. Hillary Clinton in the 1990s was compared to Lady Macbeth, and George W. Bush was linked to Henry V (an unfortunate analogy once you grasp the anti-war messages in the play). Abraham Lincoln took a strong interest in the political meaning of “Othello” and “Macbeth.” John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams were b...