There have been several productions of Shakespeare plays which have chosen to directly and explicitly use said play to comment on politics; the idea goes surely even further back than Orson Welles' 1937 production of Caesar which focused on the rise of Fascism with a 'Hitler, Mussolini clone'. Caesar has resembled, in various productions, Huey Long, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and even Obama. And yet there was something not quite right for me about Shakespeare in the Park's recent production of Julius Caesar which had funding pulled due to controversy.
As I have discussed already under a slightly different topic, I will not for a second claim anyone shouldn't have the right to do this. However, I would say this: everybody should have the right to express their ideas and creativity; nobody should have the right to stand beyond criticism. So here is some criticism.
The relatively recent production of Julius Caesar which positioned Donald Trump in the role of Caesar, I found troubling. But for different reasons than you'd think. Many for instance, were angry because of the criticism of and 'violence against' the president, or because it was inappropriate etc. I was not. I think criticism of anyone and everyone should be allowed, and that criticism of people in very high and powerful positions is in fact necessary. I was angry because it wasn't very good criticism.
Classics such as Shakespeare plays, or even 20th-century American plays, which are of course wonderfully written, are very frequently used when a director or producer wants to make a point about how much we're living in the past, or about how similar we are to what we used to be. What's more, Caesar is a great and indeed timeless play in this case because of its politics. However, sometimes in the excitement of the idea of controversy, people can forget things.
Marc Anthony's famous monologue in Act III Scene II immediately came to my mind when I heard about this particular production. And other lines surrounding it such as Brutus' "not that I love him less, but that I love Rome more", seem actually to place a new and perhaps more sympathetic perspective upon the idea that Caesar was a good man but not right for Rome at the time- at least in the eyes of the characters. Furthermore, the fact that "he would not take the crown" reminds us of a distinct modesty in Caesar's character. These things do not criticize Caesar, they absolve him, at least on some level, and present him in a sympathetic light. The way Shakespeare has his characters (predominantly Brutus and Anthony- who are Shakespeare's main voices I would argue) talk about Caesar is caring, careful, respectful and admiring. Now, I don't know Trump personally, but I know I'm not the only one who finds it very difficult to believe that he is in reality 'a nice guy' as some of his political pals declare. What's more, I think we can agree that the modesty element requires no second thought.
Caesar is great for most of these political-commentary situations, but not as much in this case. The complexity in Shakespeare's presentation almost always benefits the view we have of our leaders. However, there comes every so often a time, and in my opinion, we have reached it, when we don't need complexity and we don't need ambiguity.
This play paints its eponymous hero as a hero. The real controversy should have been why has the director chosen a play that doesn't really criticise its main character, in order to criticise its main character? If we are to criticise our leaders, and by all means let's, there are better and more effective ways of doing so. The controversial response surrounding the 'violence' towards Trump was met with the obvious point about how Caesar argues against violence, but this was not the only point missed.
My argument is not, let me be clear, that we need to criticise Donald Trump more than we already do. My argument is that we need to be cleverer with how we criticise him; and when we're choosing a play with which to do so, we pick something that goes as far as it needs to, whilst also in a safer way- which might mean we need to write something new. Up and coming playwrights, I know you're out there: come on, let's get on with it!