The uproar over the Trump-like “Julius Caesar” production misses Shakespeare’s point

The bard.
The bard.
Image: Reuters/Dylan Martinez
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A production of Julius Caesar by New York’s Public Theater has raised an outcry for plainly recasting Caesar as US president Donald Trump. This Caesar wears a suit and has a coiffed crown of blondish hair. His wife, Calpurnia, even speaks with a vaguely Slavic accent, much like Melania Trump. The real controversy, though, is that Caesar, you’ll likely remember, is assassinated in the play.

Delta Air Lines and Bank of America have both pulled their funding (paywall) of the production, which is part of the free Shakespeare in the Park series, as critics have slammed its “poor taste.” It’s a fair point: How appropriate is it to publicly depict the murder of a barely fictionalized sitting president?

But much of the vitriol, particularly that claiming the play suggests a wish to see the president harmed, seems to ignore or forget the fact that the assassination in the play comes off as a despicable act with disastrous consequences. However viewers may feel about president Trump, they’re likely to walk away from the play siding with Caesar, or at least against his murderers, and convinced that violence is never an appropriate response.

If you haven’t read Julius Caesar in some time, the plot is basically this: When the play starts, Caesar is a beloved figure among the Roman people. But through his military prowess and popularity, he has dissolved the Roman republic and essentially established himself as dictator, which is why Brutus and Cassius conspire against him. Brutus is an idealist who believes in republican government, while Cassius is jealous of Caesar’s power and charisma. With Rome’s other senators, they murder Caesar, but rather than return Rome to republican rule, the power vacuum created by Caesar’s assassination sparks a riot by the people and ultimately leads to a civil war. Brutus and Cassius lose, and ultimately kill themselves.

Despite the fact that the play is named Julius Caesar, it’s as much about Brutus, Cassius, and their motivations, and it would take some real interpretative gymnastics to conclude that it suggests they are justified in murdering Caesar. Oskar Eustis, the director of the Public Theather’s production at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, points out as much. “Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means,” he says in a statement on the Public Theater’s site.

It’s a point I imagine anyone would take away from watching the play, and it’s what sprung to mind for me when I learned about the uproar. In a previous job, I was the literature editor at SparkNotes, where I edited guides on classic and contemporary literature and made short, low-budget video summaries of works including Julius Caesar. (Keep in mind it was meant mostly for young high school students.):

More offensive to president Trump than the assassination scene is the fact that Eustis cast him as Caesar to begin with, since Caesar brings an end to hundreds of years of democratic rule in Rome. But Trump, the consummate showman, might be heartened to know that with Caesar out of the picture, New York Times critic Jesse Green found the second half of the play a bit flat.

Green, who nonetheless selected the play as a Times critics pick, concludes that the moral burden of sorting out the consequences of Caesar’s murder is on the audience. It’s no small ask, but it’s something great literature often does, and Shakespeare was a master at it.

Is the play deliberately provocative? Undoubtedly. Is it patently offensive? Only if you’re afraid to think.