Donald Trump — a Shakespearean Tragedy
(This one’s for some friends who really know their Shakespeare: Janet, and Gina & Dennis)
Last spring there was quite the kerfuffle about a Shakespeare in the Park version of Julius Caesar, with a Trump-looking Caesar, complete with long red tie. Curiously, another version of the play at Minneapolis in 2015, with a black actor resembling Obama, received little comment. It got me thinking about Trump and Shakespeare. What would the bard have made of him? Many of his plays concern the corruption of power, the problems of political succession, and the unreliability of alliances (see “The Apprentice”). I began digging around to see how much I could put together. At first I thought King Lear was a good match. He had a shaky grasp of reality and later went mad, and he divided up his kingdom between his family members. Then I accidentally ran into an excellent article by Stephen Greenblatt in the October 8, 2016 New York Times, called “Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election.” That was exactly one month before the election.
Greenblatt convinced me I need look no further than Richard III. He writes that in the early 1590s Shakespeare asked himself, how does a great country end up being governed by a sociopath? Unlike Trump, people in the way of Richard’s succession to the throne somehow ended up being murdered. It was a time of deep political division, specifically the rivalry between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Richard tells the people they need a strong king. This wasn’t to be a violent seizure of power, but the soliciting of popular opinion, “complete with a fraudulent display of religious piety, the slandering of opponents, and a grossly exaggerated threat to national security.” Does that sound familiar?
In the play, Richard is a hunchbacked, misshapen man with a bad limp. “Haunted by self-loathing, he overcompensated in bluster and overconfidence, misogyny, and a merciless penchant for bullying . . . inwardly tormented by insecurity and rage.” Yep, that sounds like our boy, alright. And like Trump, Richard’s villainy is plainly apparent to everyone from the beginning. Greenblatt goes on with Richard’s “obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude,” with “no glimpse of anything redeemable in him and no reason to believe that he could govern the country effectively.” He was so obviously unqualified that most people dismissed him. “Their focus is always on someone else, until it’s too late.” People go into denial that he could be so bad: they know perfectly well that he has done this or he has done that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting . . . drawn irresistibly to normalize what’s not normal.” And all the time, the nobles, who would become his enablers, convinced themselves that they could control him. Richard was also immensely wealthy and privileged, and accustomed to getting his own way.
The nobles support him because they’d rather see him on the throne than Edward’s children. Richard condemns Henry Tudor, who was living in Europe at the time, as well as his army, mostly Welshmen, whom Richard considered foreigners. “Richard’s success in attaining the crown depended on a fatal conjunction of diverse but equally self-destructive responses from those around him.” Look at the ineptness of the Democrats and Republicans to stop this man. The play suggests that the characters sketch a whole country’s collective failure. Ouch, that stings a little, because the truth sometimes hurts.
Richard’s remains were discovered in 2012 beneath a parking lot in Leicester. My comment at the time was “Now is the winter of our disconnect.” Leicester is only a few miles from Bosworth Field, where he fell in battle in 1485. Forensic examination has produced some fascinating new information. Richard was not a hunchback, which is usually caused by severe curvature of the spine. His spine was twisted, a condition known as scoliosis. His right shoulder would have been slightly higher than the left, which could easily have been disguised by clothing. His family and court would have known though, explaining his nickname, ‘crouchback.’ He had blond hair and blue eyes, and the skull has a distinctive orange tint. It’s not from the lighting in the photograph either, because the teeth are white. But why would Shakespeare depict him as crippled and repulsive? Maybe he used physical deformity as a metaphor of Richard’s depravity and lack of morals.
There are differences between these two psychopaths, of course. Richard was neither mad nor dimwitted, but intelligent and shrewd. Trump is a dullard. Richard died in battle, whereas Trump used ‘bone spurs in his heel’ to get five deferments from military service (at least he got the heel part right). At the end of the play, everyone is dead, but in the White House everyone gets fired. And finally, Richard didn’t have the nuclear launch codes.
I wonder what Shakespeare would have thought about Trump. Would his presidency make a good tragedy? Well, there’s plenty of Shakespearean palace intrigue. A few weeks ago it was “Shark Week” on some TV show. In the White House, every week is Shark Week. But in the end, Trump himself doesn’t have any depth of character that might make him compelling. He’s as shallow as water on a sidewalk. He doesn’t read, isn’t curious, and seems to delight in his own ignorance. So I think if Shakespeare wrote a play about all this, Trump wouldn’t be the central character; someone more complex like Steve Bannon would.
On Inauguration Day, as I thought of the new president compared to Obama, I was reminded of a scene in Hamlet. He wears a medallion with a likeness of his father, while his mother wears one with the likeness of his wicked uncle, the murderer. “Look here upon this picture, and on this,” he says. “See what a grace was seated on this brow,” he says of his father, and of the uncle, “like a mildewed ear. Have you eyes?” In this scenario, the mother would be the American people. There’s a treasure chest of other appropriate Shakespeare quotes sprinkled throughout his canon of work. Allow me to share some that I found.
“Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,” from Othello.
“What means that trump?” from Timon of Athens.
“If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” — Twelfth Night.
Much Ado about Nothing has this: “Oh, that he were here to write me down an ass! But masters, remember that I am an ass, though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass.” Oh, don’t worry, Mr. President, we won’t forget. You’ve make that impossible.
Here’s one from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s reminiscent of Trump’s paranoia: “I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me, to fright me if they could.” (Fake News?)
“I will praise any man that will praise me,” from Anthony and Cleopatra, oh my.
I saved the best for last, as one would with dessert. It’s from The Comedy of Errors, and it’s absolutely perfect: “Many a man hath more hair than wit.”
There’s one more intriguing comparison, especially for numerologists. Richard III only ruled a little over two years, 777 days, to be exact. That number has resonance in many areas. In Christian mythology, Revelations has 7 angels blowing 7 trumpets and pouring out 7 vials, but the number 7 is important in many religions and dogmas. It even has a meaning in the science of computation. In Unix chmod, whatever that is, the value 777 grants all file access permissions to all user types. The flag of the Boer separatist movement Afrikaners Resistance flag has a black triskelion of three 7s on a white circle, surrounded by red. It does remind one of the Nazi swastika flag. Trump has his own variation, though it’s not properly a 777. On Jan. 21st, his first full day in office, he had been alive 70 years, 7 months, and 7 days. Maybe he’s that antichrist we’ve been warned about. Avon to say one more thing about Will. He knew human nature, and his plays don’t so much prove that history repeats, but more like what Mark Twain said, that it rhymes. Now all we need is for some enterprising individual or group to write down the present situation in iambic pentameter. Don’t worry about the plot; the play writes itself.