On Political Violence, Do Listen to Shakespeare

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 In an act of massive cultural cowardice, Bank of America and Delta Air Lines had both withdrawn sponsorship money from the theater even before the shooting because of the play.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.

6 thoughts on “On Political Violence, Do Listen to Shakespeare

  1. The point of the play, at least to me, is fairly clear:
    ‘If you decide to assassinate a potential Tyrant, then you might very well invite a full-blown tyranny!”
    It’s not a difficult message to get.
    It’s not difficult to read.
    I love Shakespeare’s languange, but some might find it a bit archaic, or difficult to understand.
    I don’t know.
    Because there are copious side notes in pretty much every printing of this and every one of his plays.

    And, I hate to say this, but I can’t shed a whole lot of tears for a GOP Congressman who whole heartily advocated gun rights for everyone – regardless of sanity.

    And, as much as I abhor violence, I think this hideous incident opened the eyes of the conserative gun advocates:
    “What do you mean a LIBTARD had a gun, and shot a Republican Congressman?!?!”
    I think it might have shocked them that the 2nd Amendment istn’t a wholly-owned monopoly of the Republican Party!

    I don’t advocate violence.
    But I find it CAN be instructive at times…

  2. Hey republican congress-critters, welcome to the club, your a member now, the people affected by mass-shootings club. Fortunately none of you died cause you had tax-payer provided security. And you’ll most likely recover cause you got tax-payer funded insurance. Too bad the rest of us schmucks have to live in this society where your policies have armed all the loons. Not just armed but they are outgunning the police. Soon your latest foray into legislative advances will take away 20 million peoples health care. I hope none of them get shot. It’s really too bad that nothing can be done, it would be great if maybe one day a victim of gun violence actually had the power to make a change. Like introduce some common sense laws or at least stop overturning the ones we already have. Oh well maybe next time? Oh and three people died in a mass shooting after Scalice was already out of his first surgery. Nobody knows their names?

  3. I’m away from home, with some distractions from the usual activities. But, I decided to check in with the gang.

    I think you may be right about Brando’s Brutus. Often, I think that the best performances of Shakespeare are those where the actors are unladen with the weight of the words of the great bard, and remember that the characters are simply speaking.

    It is ironic that For all the talk about the contributions of Western European culture, some on the right seem to have missed the point, or so they pretend.

    Several years back, I decided to read the Shakespeare plays that had escaped the required reading of my years at college. The biggest surprise was “Titus Andronicus.” If you read it as a Monty Python sketch, that is, a comic parody of the Spanish vengeance genre, it makes perfect sense. But, somehow, it seems to have been more widely and comfortably placed in the category of a very bad play by a very gifted writer.

    I am truly sorry for what happened to Scalise, no one deserves that. At least tragedy offers the possibility of learning and changing, sometimes for the good, sometimes not.

  4. The basic premise of democracy, on issues which are in contention, proposes we agree to ‘hire’ representatives who will debate and decide by the vote of the majority. The side who looses feel aggrieved BUT, they abide by the decision. Please note that republicans DID abide by Obamacare once passed.

    The alternative system of deciding matters is thuggery. This method has dominated the history of almost every civilization. The tyranny was almost always legitimized by religion – in ancient Rome and Egypt, the leaders were self-proclaimed gods – by the 1600s they were appointed by god as kings, and they had the backing of the church (different countries, different churches) who guaranteed that god had appointed the ruler.

    There’s only one legitimate claim the USA has on exceptionalism. We were the first modern country to declare a secular democracy, totally independent and separate from ANY religion. We were the first to declare that just authority is not divinely ordered and backed up by force of arms, but that power originates from the consent of the governed.

    Jesus H. Christ! How stupid do you have to be to resort to violence to impose your political will? That’s exactly – completely and totally antithetical to principles of democracy. As long as we have free and fair elections, and I admit it’s a long way from perfect, resorting to violence HAS to be rejected in order to win.

    In the time of Nixon, violence against the establishment fueled conservatism – the tide turned against Nixon when four students were slaughtered by National Guard troops at Kent State. Violence against protesters turned the tide in civil rights. Conservatives AND Liberal citizens who have accepted democracy will not side with violence.

    We have social media – we are all armed with a device which allows us to record and transmit actual events in real time. No fantsy writer of the 70s or 80s anticipated the power that would fall into our hands. We have to demonstrate, in large numbers & peacefully. We will be set upon – just look at Standing Rock as a guide – but we can take the punishment and sway popular opinion. It’s an either/or choice – there’s no middle road on the path Gandhi trod.

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