The Misplaced Outrage Over a Trumpian Julius Caesar

For as long as the Shakespeare play has been staged, it’s been referencing contemporary political leaders.

Gregg Henry (center) and the company in The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar (Joan Marcus / The Public Theatre)

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 Caesarread 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.

Since the 16th century, a wide variety of productions have used modern costumes to draw explicit parallels between the events of the play and politicians of all stripes. The most famous is arguably Orson Welles’s 1937 anti-fascist production at the Mercury Theatre in New York, which used a minimal set and military costumes to evoke Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. The show was described by The Nation as “the most vivid production of Shakespeare seen in New York in this generation.” It also inspired a fleet of imitators, spawning a modern-dress production in Cambridge in 1938, and the first televised adaptation of Julius Caesar by the BBC the same year, which appropriated Welles’s imagery.

More recently, modern-dress productions have not-so-subtly pointed to politicians across the political spectrum. The current Julius Caesar at the Public Theater is directed by Oskar Eustis, who also helmed a 1990 production set in ’60s America that nodded to the assassination of President Kennedy. “Against the step-by-step dirge of Matthias Gohl’s loud and haunting music, the TV screens unreel Kennedy’s funeral in black-and-white,” a Boston Globe review read. “Later, in color, there are scenes of mass protest and police brutality. Caesar and his cronies wear dark business suits, white shirts, glossy shoes. (When Calpurnia arrives she wears a Jackie Kennedy pillbox.)”

A 2012 production by The Acting Company cast Bjorn DuPaty as Caesar, an actor whose resemblance to President Obama was noted by many critics. Noah Millman of The American Conservative praised the show’s timely inferences:

Director Rob Melrose has set his Caesar at our precise historical moment, in Obama’s Washington, D.C. The capital is rocked by “Occupy Rome” protests. His Caesar (the suavely confident Bjorn DuPaty) is a tall, charismatic African-American politician; he doesn’t look or sound much like Obama (he more closely recalls Michael Jordan), but the audience is unquestionably going to read him as an Obama stand-in nonetheless, particularly when his opponents bear a marked resemblance to Eric Cantor (Sid Solomon’s snappy terrier Cassius) and Mitch McConnell (Kevin Orton’s cynical old pol Casca). Even Mark Antony is recognizable as a standard Democratic politician type, Clinton/Gore division.

Clearly, the temptation to use the play to reference current political events is nothing new. So much so that the director Jules Aaron, helming a show at the Grove Shakespeare Festival in 1987, explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that his choice of period costumes was a deliberate one, given the play’s timing—it premiered right in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal. “The modern political resonances are so relevant,” Aaron said, “so clear and vivid, that they speak for themselves. To make it about Central America or Reagan would be beating you over the head.”

Aaron’s restraint speaks to the common impulse among theater practitioners to illustrate the timelessness of Shakespeare’s plays by linking them to the present day. But other productions—featuring everything from a Hillary-esque Caesar to an Obama-esque Caesar to a Cheney-esque Caesar—haven’t generated the same pushback. So why is a Trumpian Caesar so controversial?

The easy answer is that right-wing media outlets have generated outrage, amplified both by Donald Trump Jr. and by Griffin’s earlier stunt. But it’s also possible that the issue with the Public’s current production is that the point it’s making doesn’t fully compute, no matter your affiliation. “Shakespeare’s Caesar is a war hero and, as smartly played by Gregg Henry, a deeply charismatic one,” wrote The New York Times’s Jesse Green. “When offered the chance, three times, to become emperor, he chooses three times to remain a senator. This is more like George Washington than Mr. Trump.”

Many commentators have argued that, rather than advocate for the assassination of a controversial political figure, Julius Caesar does the opposite, warning of the chaos that comes from such action. But the subtlety of such a point is considerably easier to miss than the symbolism of a blond-coiffed businessman in a red tie being graphically executed onstage. “We are asked to consider how far citizens may go in removing a destructive leader, and we are warned about unforeseen consequences,” Green writes. “Dressing Caesar as Trump gives that agenda its juice but leaves the production a bit desiccated and incoherent thereafter.”

None of this is to say theater can’t have real impact on history. An 1864 production at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York starred John Wilkes Booth as Marc Antony and his two brothers as Cassius and Brutus, and critics have since speculated that the nature of the play might have inspired Booth to assassinate Abraham Lincoln the following year. But the outrage fomenting around the Public Theater production obscures the fact that Julius Caesar as a play has been used for centuries to explore politics and ambition. Donald Trump is only the latest figure to remind a director of the pitfalls of power.