Has American politics ever truly deserved the epithet until now? King Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Richard II: each an overweening blowhard, undone by a combination of hubris and derangement. The Public Theater has produced Julius Caesar with a leading man who closely resembles the president of the United States. This, of course, means that Trump gets metaphorically stabbed. As a result, sponsors Bank of America and Delta have withdrawn their funding.
Delta’s statement of Sunday night read: “No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values.” Meanwhile Bank of America told the New York Daily News that, “The Public Theater chose to present Julius Caesar in a way that was intended to provoke and offend. Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it.”
But Shakespeare’s plays are a well-established medium for political critique. Four years ago, Charles Isherwood wrote in the Times that we could see “the far-right wing of the Republican Party as similar to at least some of the Roman conspirators who are determined to bring down the mighty Caesar in Shakespeare’s play.” Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes’s Richard III commented on Qaddafi. A 2012 production of Julius Caesar, sponsored by Delta, modeled Caesar after Barack Obama. And last year, Glenda Jackson returned to the stage after decades as a politician to star in King Lear. How else could she have understood the role?
But Trump embodies Caesar like no other politician. His maniacal self-belief and the aura of doom that surrounds him seem to beg for comparison to the hubristic men of the past. As Shakespeare wrote: “What we wish, we readily believe, and what we ourselves think, we imagine others think also.”
Update: The Public Theater has issued the following statement to the New Republic in an email.
We stand completely behind our production of Julius Caesar. We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions. Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy. Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.