Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Thursday, June 15th, 2017.

On Political Violence, Do Listen to Shakespeare

Trump Maladministration

There have been 154 mass shootings, 6,880 gun-related deaths, and 13,504 firearm injuries in the U.S. in 2017, so far, according to Fortune. But some are shocked, shocked I tell you, that a powerful white male pro-gun Congressperson would be a victim of gun violence. And it must be liberals’ fault.

I don’t want to talk about fault just yet. This one guy decided to shoot at congressmen. As far as I know, he didn’t consult with anybody first. Nobody took a vote to ask him to shoot people. He did this by himself.

I do want to talk about rhetoric. Violent rhetoric does, I think, encourage people to become violent. Whether Kathy Griffin’s stupid stunt of a few days ago played any part in the shooter’s motivation to shoot we cannot know, but it certainly didn’t help.

But there’s another expression of political violence being blamed for the shooting, and this one is entirely unjust, and I want to say something about it.


Even before this week’s shooting in Virginia, righties were throwing fits over the new production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar going on in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Manhattan. The director, Oskar Eustis, dresses his characters to look like current-day politicians, and Caesar himself unmistakably resembles Donald Trump. And, as you might remember, Caesar is assassinated in this play. So the wingnuts interpreted this as expressing a desire to kill Donald Trump. In an act of massive cultural cowardice, Bank of America and Delta Air Lines had both withdrawn sponsorship money from the theater even before the shooting because of the play.

The terrible irony here is that Shakespeare’s sympathies in this play are with Caesar, not the assassins. As director Eustis said,

“Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” 

This play does not glorify assassination; just the opposite. All the bedwetting about the assassination scene just reveals how culturally illiterate Americans are. This play is one of the jewels of English literature. Anyone who has graduated high school, never mind college, ought to be familiar with it even if you’re not a Shakespeare fan.

The play is really about Brutus, a man absorbed with notions of honor and morality, who allows himself to be talked into joining the assassins to kill his friend Caesar. The first part of the play is about Brutus coming to that decision, the assassination scene is roughly in the middle, and the second part is about Brutus being haunted by Caesar’s ghost while being driven into disgrace and exile, and eventual suicide. And rather than restore the Republic, the fallout of Caesar’s assassination helped reinforce the Empire. J.C. was followed by Augustus, then Tiberius, then Caligula, etc. pretty much going from bad to worse.

So, basically, the moral of the play is, don’t assassinate people. Even if it looks like a good idea at the time. It may not turn out well.

The genetically defective Donald Trump, Jr., naturally shared an opinion that the play was about “NY elites glorifying the assassination of our President.” We can’t expect anything more from the Trump offspring. But people with normal chromosomes should have no such excuse.

I do think conflating Caesar with Trump is a terrible slander of Julius Caesar.  Sophie Gilbert wrote for The Atlantic,

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.”

So maybe the production doesn’t quite work; I haven’t seen it and cannot comment. (I did see a Julius Caesar at the Delacorte many years ago, with David McCallum as Caesar. The production had traditional staging but suffered from Brutus being played by a guy from the Kevin Costner School of Under-Acting. Instead of a man tormented by a gut-wrenching decision he came to regret, this Brutus was more like a nice mook who fell in with the wrong crowd. Oh, well)

The great turning point of the play is, of course, the funeral scene, when Mark Antony turned the crowd against the assassins. I regret this isn’t the whole scene, but IMO nobody did it better than Brando.

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