In 2015, a production of Julius Caesar at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence gave a spin to the Shakespearian history play by reimagining the title character as a woman. The show was largely interpreted by critics to be referencing Hillary Clinton, especially considering that when its “Caesar” was murdered at the beginning of Act Three she was wearing a striking white pantsuit.
Over the past week, outrage has swelled over the fact that a current production of Julius Caesar staged by the Public Theater imagines Caesar as a Donald Trump-like figure, complete with a Slavic wife, a cellphone addiction, and a penchant for gold bathroom fixtures. “‘Trump’ Stabbed to Death in Central Park Performance of Julius Caesar” read a Breitbart headline. “NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of Trump” said Fox News Insider. The furor, coming only weeks after the comedian Kathy Griffin was lambasted for staging a fake beheading of President Trump, was such that two corporate sponsors of the Public Theater’s show, Delta and Bank of America, withdrew their funding.
But the controversy largely ignores the history of Julius Caesar, which has been nodding to contemporary politics since its very first staging. “The play was written for a fiercely politicized and partisan people,” the playwright Tony Kushner has argued, “during a time ... when democratic institutions were seriously jeopardized by immensely arrogant, immensely popular leaders with despotic inclinations and dreams of empires.” In 1599 when Caesar premiered, Queen Elizabeth I had been in power for four decades and the question of who would succeed her was a troublesome one. A “Bishop’s Ban” imposed on literary works the same year had cracked down on satire, and many have interpreted Caesar as critiquing the monarch’s stranglehold on power while slyly evading the wrath of the censors.