Checkpoint: The Colossal Fault of Our Time

The stabbing truth of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not directed at the looming despot, nor the conspirators, but at the failure of the masses, the plebs: the public. The recent controversy that has erupted around the New York Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park production of the play has managed, if unintentionally, and perhaps even tastelessly, to prove the Bard’s point.

Oskar Eustis, the director of the Public Theatre’s production, decided, somewhat unnecessarily, to interpret Shakespeare’s work in an unambiguously Trump-centric manner. Indeed, the staging and costume design are strikingly modern. Gregg Henry, the actor playing Caesar, wears a red tie that, like Trump’s own poor compensatory efforts, sits several awkward inches too long. Throw in a wig previously used as a prop forest animal and the play is about as subtle as a vegan at a barbecue.

Eustis’ production has been met with outrage by members of the political right, and apparently by those who didn’t realize (Spoiler Alert!) that Caesar is, as always, violently assassinated in the third act. Members of the political right, particularly from Breitbart and Fox News claim the production endorses the assassination of President Trump. In response to the apparent controversy, two of the Public Theatre’s main corporate sponsors, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, withdrew their financial support.

In wimpish and ironic defense of their actions: Delta said the production “crossed the line on the standards of good taste,” and Bank of America suggested choices made by the production team “intended to provoke and offend.” Of course, Shakespeare’s play has been reinterpreted innumerable times to reflect the particular political climate of the age.  Not five years ago the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis staged a production with an Obama-esque portrayal of the fated Caesar. Orson Welles staged a 1937 Mercury Theatre production of the play with a Mussolini figure as the emperor. More recently, The Royal Shakespeare Company recently put on a production of the play set within the political backdrop of Africa’s dictators and civil wars.

To interpret Shakespeare’s tragedy as an endorsement of political violence is to have not read or consumed the play in any fashion - or to not have the faculties to digest it. Despite the rather vulgar and unsophisticated Trump interpretation, suggesting any production of Julius Caesar advocates assassination is no less absurd than suggesting a production of The Lion King advocates fratricide. Although, considering The Lion King is based on Hamlet, we shouldn’t underestimate the ability of many to misread it, or to not read it at all - preferring instead to take for truth the first opinion that absolves itself of blame.

Eustis made this point quite clearly before a recent performance of the play: “Neither Shakespeare, nor the Public Theater could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems…This play, on the contrary, warns about what happens when you try to preserve democracy by non-democratic means.”

While Eustis’ explicit interpretation is certainly excusable from the charges laid against it by the political right, it is perhaps less so from the charge of lacking in style. After all, if the public aren’t competent enough to draw their own conclusions from the timeless truth and beauty of Shakespeare, what’s the point of putting on the play in the first place? The message of the play is already incisive to the hubris and ambition of anti-Democratic and anti-liberal figures like Trump. Throwing it out there like a crude neon billboard is hardly necessary.  

Despite the Trump/Caesar analogy falling short of being an astute political point, it is also quite incoherent. Shakespeare entitled his play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, but I see no tragedy here today. Tragedy has occurred in the past to lead us here - that is, as Donald Trump would say, ‘a great surety.’ There has been catastrophic failure in our history. But Trump is not, as Cassius would have depicted Caesar - “a Colossus” under which we are  “to find ourselves dishonorable graves.” The 'Colossus', as Thomas Jefferson foresaw in 1816, is America itself. And so our contemporary situation is no longer tragic, for it is entirely absurd, and thus, comic. Comedy is after all, tragedy plus time.

I must admit that I have not seen Oskar Eustis’ Public Theater production, although not from lack of trying. For those who are not familiar, Shakespeare in the Park is free to the public, or at least free to those who wait. As will be shown, the controversy surrounding this production is the public’s own denouncement, however, it must be said, that from personal experience with the masses waiting and hoping for tickets to the show - not all masses are equal. New Yorkers, despite seemingly being in a bustling hurry for most of their lives, forget themselves entirely when confronted with a long line. Indeed, even if confronted with a line so long that it could be conceivably viewed from space, New Yorkers will corporally reassemble themselves as unremitting optimists on the grounds that whatever lies at the head of the line is free. The daily line for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park is one of the New York’s most infamous lines, and by nature of its course and its destination, one of the city's most enjoyable as well.

In 1946, the poet W. H. Auden gave a series of famous lectures on Shakespeare at the New School. Auden argued that despite the continual interpretations of the play as responses to powerful figures and ideologies; be it Mussolini and European Fascism, or Donald Trump and let’s just call it Marketing Regressivism - these are a “misreading.” The play, argued Auden, is not about the “evil passions of selfish individuals” but rather the “intellectual and spiritual failure of nerve that made the society incapable of coping with its situation.” Like a timeless line taken from Shakespeare himself, Auden’s criticism is a hauntingly accurate depiction of our age, and the failure of our society to deal with the pressures and complexities of it.

It is the masses that are so easily swayed by superficiality and propaganda. It is the masses that prefer to be told what to think, instead of thinking freely. It is the masses that sway with, to borrow a phrase from Cassius, “feeble temper.” Lastly, it is the masses that are so eager to place blame anywhere but at their own cloven feet. Figures like Trump play the masses on their stupidity; they tell the masses that their predicament is the fault of some devil or demon. However, reading Shakespeare with any clarity reveals that evil is never foreign; evil is human, “The evil that men do,” as Mark Antony says. Indeed, it is said plainly in one of the play’s most famous lines: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves,”.

Shakespeare doesn’t accept the devil’s work. You are responsible for your own actions. Such were the actions of Brutus: “For Brutus only overcame himself, And no man else hath honor by his death.” Even in one of Shakespeare’s most conspiring and evil characters, Iago in Othello, the Moor is unable to cast him a devil: “I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable.” Our world is our own, and therefore evil is ours as well. As another great reader of Shakespeare, Salman Rushdie, so eloquently puts it: “The evil that men do, in Shakespeare, is always a kind of excess…How far is too far, how far is not far enough?” This, says Rushdie is “at the heart of Shakespeare’s world; also, now, of ours.”

In Eustis’ production of Julius Caesar, it is not the profound insight of Shakespeare’s timeless words that produces an important message about our contemporary predicament. Rather, it is the ridiculous attitudes that revealed themselves upon its viewing, and in doing so, proved Shakespeare and Auden right - the fault is in ourselves.