In the same desperate spirit that seeks to cast President Trump as every predictable villain from Richard Nixon to Adolf Hitler, Shakespeare in the Park has sought to connect the president with Julius Caesar. But whether out of their ignorance of history or art, these praetorians of pretension have merely fetishized another assassination scene while also butchering artistic sensibility in the process.
Neither the historical or Shakespearean Caesar was the voluptuary these adaptors make him out to be. In fact, the Roman senators opposed Caesar not for his political ambition, but for his intention to redistribute their land and wealth. Shakespeare goes further to boost Caesar’s populist credentials and does not refute the provisions in Caesar’s will that bequeath “his private arbours and new-planted orchards” to the public. (I’d make the easy comparison to modern would-be redistributors, but in actuality, you’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary politician willing to give up his own health insurance for a veteran.)
Caesar was in fact so popular that Cato and his allies flagrantly sought to handicap Caesar’s consulship by declaring the rest of his term an official holiday. Senator Bennet brought this point up in his opposition to the nuclear option earlier this year. Ironically enough, he framed the Roman Senate’s blatant abuse of power as a kind of check on Caesar’s. Meanwhile, he also never mentioned that senators then were simply oligarchs who generally looked out for only their own wealth and power. Et tu, Bennet?
In an even more ironic twist, many on the frenzied left are eager to convict Trump of crossing the proverbial Rubicon. Meanwhile, activist judges citing tweets have successfully held up a tepid executive order on visa entry, and both the Obama-era healthcare system and tax brackets remain the law of the land. President Trump has not only not crossed the Rubicon; he hasn’t been able to so much as traverse the Atlantic.
Perhaps some of those who applaud the Trump-as-Caesar rendition are aware that both Shakespeare and history judged the conspirators harshly. Brutus found no friend among his “Romans, countrymen, and lovers” after the assassination, and the violent act boded for a violent end of the Republic. However, defenders of the play’s current adaptation misunderstand our frustration. They claim that President Obama was similarly portrayed, confound the director with the writer and put up a straw man, alleging that the right wants absolutely no politics in art at all. But this shallow approach to art is precisely the problem. In connecting Caesar to whoever is in power, they sacrifice substance and coherence to be political.
These characters, both literarily and historically, prove complex and defy a simple casting. Like Julius Caesar’s artisan who puns that he is a “mender of bad soles,” Shakespeare’s art strove to portray complexity in souls, no matter how bad. Instead, this production advances an interpretation that’s more superficial and catty than Mean Girls.
Despite the wide array of modern characters that imitate the bribers and backstabbers of Caesar’s Rome, there is, alas, no credible Marc Antony who will eulogize the assassinated body of modern art, subtly show the honor that’s been lost and point to its wounds that “like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips.” The public deserves better. If only those behind the scenes cared enough to produce it.