So Much Pith

Scott McLemee reviews Shakespeare and Trump by Jeffrey R. Wilson.

May 29, 2020
 
 

The prospect of reading a book about Donald Trump and William Shakespeare initially struck me as dubious, on what seem like obvious grounds. Trump is manifestly un-Shakespearean. He is fond of monologues, to be sure, but they reveal nothing. His character is too thin, his motives too blatant. Trump's lies are uninspired and self-defeating, not through averse consequences but simply from the sheer volume and transparency of them. His failures do not elicit pathos -- resolving themselves, time and again, into bankruptcy of the most literal sort, with no lasting consequences, at least for him. He is often incoherent but never enigmatic. Nothing could make Trump a tragic figure, and Shakespeare has clowns of greater moral complexity.

And yet Jeffrey R. Wilson’s Shakespeare and Trump (Temple University Press) is a worthwhile book, even so. My first impression was wrong -- and with hindsight, the blind spot is easy to locate: focusing too much on Trump’s limitations made me underestimate the capaciousness of Shakespeare’s imagination. Bits and pieces of the Trump mystique are embedded in a number of the plays. Wilson’s role is that of a dramaturge of sorts, staging passages from Shakespeare in the reader’s mind to bring out the subtext.

Historians use the term “presentism” to describe interpretations of the past that see it through the lens of contemporary standards and priorities. The concept has migrated, as evident from a formulation Wilson quotes from the British literary theorist Terence Hawkes:

A presentist criticism’s engagement with the text takes place precisely in terms of those dimensions of the modern world that most ringingly chime -- perhaps as ends to its beginnings -- with the events of the past. Its center of gravity is accordingly “now,” rather than “then.”

Clearly aware of the danger that presentist criticism might well devolve into the spirit of creative anachronism running amok, Wilson (a faculty member in the writing program at Harvard University) establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the literary and political connections between Shakespeare and Trump are a matter of public record. References to Shakespearean characters and quotations peppered the commentary on the 2016 election as it was unfolding. One satirical piece rendered Hamlet’s “conscience doth make cowards of us all” into Trump-speak: “When people say I don’t have a conscience -- trust me, I have a conscience, and it’s a very big conscience, OK? And the native hue of my resolution is not sicklied o’er, that’s a lie! If anyone tells you that the native hue of my resolution is sicklied o’er, they’re trying to sell you a load of you-know-what. And enterprises of great pith -- listen, my enterprises are so pithy. So pithy. Fantastic pith.”

More serious pundits compared Trump rallies to the mob scenes in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, and they quoted Timon of Athens on the raw power of money: “This yellow slave will knit and break religions, bless the accursed, make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves and give them title, knee and approbation.” And a number of Shakespeare scholars intervened to remind the public that, in Wilson’s words, “interpreting the plays is all about deciphering the forces -- social, mental, and emotional -- that bring events into existence: hidden causes and manifold levels of causality.”

The abundance of such references (due in part perhaps to 2016 also being the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death) pales in significance compared to the topic of Wilson's opening chapter: Steve Bannon's interest in adapting Shakespeare for the movie screen. The chief executive officer for Trump’s campaign and chief strategist in the White House for the first seven months of the administration, Bannon wrote, directed and produced a number of films before taking the helm of the Breitbart News website and turning it into the public face of the alt-right. Among the projects lost in development hell were movies based on Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus -- reimagined as, respectively, a science fiction adventure in outer space and a hip-hop musical set in South Central Los Angeles.

Besides interviewing Bannon’s co-author on the scripts, Julia Jones, Wilson analyzes the adaptations, written in the 1990s, as early renderings of the apocalyptic political vision that Bannon has expressed more recently. The screenplays sound dreadful. (One of the directions for the Andronicus film reads, “He climbs onto her and their forms dissolve, blend and blur in an erotic scene of ectoplasmic sex.”) But Wilson credits them as the work of “a capable and sincere thinker” who “sees ethics as moot when brute forces clash” and “tragedy as the necessary evil we must suffer for order and stability to re-emerge.”

The connection between the Elizabethan text and current American political mores comes more clearly into view in Wilson’s treatment of Richard III and its updated Netflix spin-off House of Cards -- both ultimately deriving from Vice, a stock figure in Tudor morality plays. In allegorical depiction of Everyman being tempted by personifications of the seven deadly sins, Vice would turn to the audience to brag about his own seductive power and cunning. It is not hard to imagine the actor who played this part hamming things up shamelessly. Crowds loved it. The defeat of Vice and company by the forces of righteousness was a given, of course, but the devil got his due for a little while. The title character’s soliloquies in Richard III -- and Francis Underwood's regular breaking of the fourth wall in House of Cards -- enlist the audience in his cause, at least for part of the action. To quote Wilson:

He turns his disregard for everyday ethics from a liability into an asset by proclaiming it unapologetically, presenting himself as the embodiment of our own unchecked desires. He actually does what we would all do in the name of stony-hearted self-interest were we not held back (thank goodness) by our consciences and our concerns about how our actions might harm others … When the con man explains the con outright, it imparts the illusion of value and power to someone who might otherwise might be an opponent but who, when brought in on the con, instead becomes an accomplice.

It’s pretty clear that in this context “he” is not referring to fictional characters alone. Someone more recent comes to mind.

Like the chapter on Bannon’s Shakespeare scripts, Wilson’s account of the Public Theater staging of Julius Caesar in Central Park in June 2017 is a wonderfully researched and probing analysis of adaptation as an interpretive process. The sheer nerve of the whole production (the title character wearing a red tie, an expensive suit and improbable hair) makes Wilson’s record of the production (including an interview with the Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis) a valuable addition to the historical record of the last decade.

The howls of outrage over the show -- with its mock assassination of the president just a few months after the inauguration -- are preserved on YouTube for posterity. Corporate donors withdrew their sponsorship, and furious commentators demanded to know what would have happened if it were Barack Obama who had been the one assassinated on stage. The elites never would have allowed that!

Well, in fact they did: a production of Julius Caesar in Minneapolis five years earlier had “a tall, charismatic, confident, basketball-playing Obama Caesar who was stabbed by right-wing conspirators.” The National Endowment for the Arts and the corporate donors made no grand gestures of disavowal. The list of politicians depicted bestriding the narrow work like a colossus, and paying for it with their lives, is too long to run through, but George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton number among them. “Using Caesar for veiled critique is not politicizing a literary figure,” Wilson writes; “that is what the literary figure is designed to do and has always done.” (Here an essay by Kenneth Burke omitted from Wilson’s survey would bolster his point: “Antony in Behalf of the Play,” reprinted in Burke’s collection The Philosophy of Literary Form.)

"Shakespeare's tragedies show that when power is centralized at the top, the state hangs on the fragile emotions of privileged men," Wilson writes, "and bad government amplifies routine individual moral failings -- like deceit, revenge and ambition -- into social catastrophe, the suffering of helpless citizens, death, and the downfall of dynasties. Every empire falls; America will, too. We might be watching it without knowing." If only this tragedy were less like a farce.

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