“Men at some time are masters of their fates”: Yes, let’s politicize Shakespeare

Hi Joel,

I appreciated your forthright statement that the NYC Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar’s theatrical assassination of a Donald Trump-like Caesar is exactly that: a dramatic retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most-read plays speaking to our time, and that includes commentary on contemporary US politics, just as, in its day, it was speaking to British anxieties about the successor to Queen Elizabeth, who had no children and instead passed the English throne to James I.

Why shouldn’t we let art–even art that is over 500 years old–speak to our present moment?

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Above, a still from the 1953 MGM production of Julius Caesar, starring Marlon Brando as Marcus Brutus. Here, he stands over the dead, bloodied body of Caesar. 

Sure, the greater point of Julius Caesar is that political assassination is a bad idea.  But I bet that the scene most of us remember in whatever version of the play we have seen is the murder scene–an anguished Caesar realizing that it is Marcus Brutus is part of the crew of assassins. Et tu, Brute? “You too, Brutus?” It may be a question, as Caesar recognizes that his protege (and possibly his illegitimate son) has literally stabbed him in the back. Even you, my dear son? Or perhaps it is the invocation of a curse: “Your turn next, Brutus!” In any case, the play invites us to think about which of the Trump inner circle will betray their leader first. Et tu, Melania?

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Above, Donald and Melanie Trump at his inauguration. The entire set up–family insiders in competition for power, loyalty oaths, naive political leaders getting gamed by Russia–begs to be understood through Shakespeare. Not a day goes by that I would surprised to find Trump poisoned, stabbed, run through with a sword, or killed by a viper bite. 

Which is to say that we don’t need to be upset about this. This is just one way that art works.

And while we are feeling confessional: Yeah, As You Like It is totally queer-positive (as the title suggests!), Titus Adronicus is anti-imperialist, Coriolanus is about the high costs of militarism, The Comedy of Errors about the arbitrary allotment of power based on birth, and The Tempest (which is my local Shakespeare in the Park’s summer offering) is a critique of colonialism.This isn’t to say that Shakespeare is always a radical; his work consistently affirms the role of the monarch as divinely ordained, for example, and he doesn’t love the Puritans and other dissenters who were offering critiques of the Virgin Queen and James I. The Merchant of Venice is rightly criticized for relying on anti-Semitic tropes, and Othello is probably racist and Taming of the Shrew is sexist.

But you don’t have to be an English PhD to see where Shakespeare speaks to modern political concerns.

If you want to support the production of Julius Caesar, which has lost some corporate donors over their politically-charged choices, you can do so here. 

Rebecca

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PS. You think it’s tacky? This is the start of Celebrity Apprentice and a man who made a guest appearance in a Playboy pornographic film. I’m not worried about degrading his brand.

 

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