Shakespeare’s Mirror

Grant that, and then is death a benefit.
So are we Caesar’s friends, that have abridged
His time of fearing death. Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows and besmear our swords.
Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”
Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Act 3 Sc 1.

I was thinking about this play and how well it related to the events of this era, a time when Trump’s domestic terrorists are killing their fellow citizens. A time when an armed teenager walks blithely past the police waving his assault rifle after murdering unarmed protestors. A time when the neo-Nazis in the Repugnican camp kill their fellow citizens for a twisted vision of freedom and liberty.

Casca’s description  of walking through Rome the night before Caesar’s murder is full of omens and portents. He asks Cicero what might be asked of politicians today, “Are not you moved, when all the sway of earth/ Shakes like a thing unfirm?” And in the antifa and Black Lives Matter protests, people today see similar omens and portents, see their fears and hopes in the flames.*

King TrumpI was thinking about how in this play Shakespeare showed us a nation polarized into two deeply-divided camps, surrounded by the swirling violence of mobs, as demagogues railed at the citizenry inciting them to madness. There’s a dictator who wants to be king, and those who fight to restore the republic. There are corrupt and honest people on both sides, opportunists and true believers. The only thing missing from the comparison between Shakespeare’s ancient Rome and today’s USA is the overt racism that motivates Trump’s followers.

Earlier in the play, Brutus mulls over the nature of tyranny and power, saying,

Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.
Julius Caesar (Act 2, Sc.1)

Again, how well this could be applied to the narcissistic Trump and his callous disregard for the consequences of his actions, or for the victims of his blundering and misadventures (e.g. the 183,000 dead from his mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic). One could easily find more lines that relate equally well in this and the Bard’s other works. Like the line from Coriolanus, Act 2, Sc. 2,

“…there had been many great men that have flattered the people, who ne’er loved them…”

Or how about Queen Margaret, in Henry VI Part 3 (Act 3, Sc. 3) saying,

For how can tyrants safely govern home,
Unless abroad they purchase great alliance?

Now think about Trump and his kowtowing subservience to Vladimir Putin and America’s enemy, Russia, and all Trump has done to further Russian interests… or how about Pericles warning in Pericles, Act 1 Sc. 2, that,

‘Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss.

And then consider Trump’s passionate, even homoerotic, affection for North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un…

And you can easily hear the spineless sycophants in the Senate and throughout the Repugnican Party echo Brutus’s words as they refuse to disparage or disavow Trump even when he is openly venal and corrupt:

Let us not break with him,
For he will never follow anything
That other men begin.
Julius Caesar from Act 2. Sc 1

And does this not so aptly describe Trump’s contempt for the Repugnicans who pander and kowtow to him:

The eagle suffers little birds to sing,
And is not careful what they mean thereby,
Knowing that with the shadow of his wings
He can at pleasure stint their melody:
Titus Andronicus,Act 4, Sc. 4

Not that Shakespeare, writing more than 400 years ago, could predict the dumpster fire that is running the USA today. He wasn’t about prognostication, but about literature: plays, poems, stories about humans, meditations on love, jokes about sex, friendship, passion, treachery, loyalty, betrayal, wisdom and foolishness: the human condition. But because he was so universal in his descriptions of our humanity in all its glory and foibles, one can easily find something — from a single line to a whole play — that relates to events and issues at any time in our history, even today.

No, Shakespeare wasn’t an oracle like some carnival Nostradamus, rather he offered us a mirror in which we could see ourselves. The play is listed as a tragedy, but in the mirror we can see the elements of comedy and farce.

The late Harold Bloom, in his 1998 book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, says the Bard, “…went beyond all precedents (even Chaucer) and invented the human as we continue to know it.” Reviewing Bloom’s book on BookPage, Roger Bishop wrote,

In his exhilarating new book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom illuminates our understanding of the human, or human nature, or personality as we understand those terms in a secular sense. What Shakespeare invents is ways of representing human changes, alterations not only caused by flaws and by decay, but effected by the will as well, and by the will’s temporal vulnerabilities. Bloom notes that the representation of human character and personality remain always the supreme literary value. And Shakespeare did it better than anyone else.

(Bloom’s book, as delightful as it is, is also an idiosyncratic, sometimes challenging look at the canon of Shakespeare’s plays; a personal evaluation that often defies convention and counters contemporary criticism. It belongs on your bookshelf beside your collected works of the Bard — surely even a modest home library has his collected works in some form).

Open any collection of quotations from Shakespeare (one hopes a collection of quotations can also be found nearby on your shelf) and browse**. You’ll find snippets from the Bard that, even removed from their contemporary context, spring into meaning as you read them. Not simply resonating in modern events and politics, but in everyday life.***

Other writers have drawn from Shakespeare to frame Trump and his corrupt regime in Bardian terms. In The Globalist in late 2019 César Chelala paired trump’s tweets with lines from Richard III. In MarketWatch, spring of 2020, Jeffrey R. Wilson wrote 10 scenes from Shakespeare that fit Donald Trump’s presidency, opening with, “a story of an amoral Machiavellian, hungry for power, manipulating the people’s anger, fear, and hatred of the government…” In a recently released book, Shakespeare and Trump, author Jeffrey Wilson asked, “Should we draw an analogy between Shakespeare’s tyrants—Richard III, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and King Lear—and Donald Trump?”

Yes, I think is the appropriate response. We must always be careful when drawing conclusions from analogies, especially when we pair modern events and people with those from the past, but as Wilson himself wrote in his book,

Shakespeare’s tragedies show that when power is centralized at the top, the state hangs on the fragile emotions of privileged men, 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.


* Casca’s full comment to Cicero about the trouble Roman night was in two parts:

Are not you moved, when all the sway of earth
Shakes like a thing unfirm? O Cicero,
I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds:
But never till to-night, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is a civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.

Against the Capitol I met a lion,
Who glared upon me, and went surly by,
Without annoying me: and there were drawn
Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they saw
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons; they are natural;’
For, I believe, they are portentous things
Unto the climate that they point upon.
Julius Caesar, Act 1, Sc. 3

** A few other quotations about power and politics from the Bard you can look up for yourself:

  • “Woe to the land that’s governed by a child.”
  • “Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician, seem to See the things thou dost not.”
  • “’Tis much when scepters are in children’s hands, but more when envy breeds unkind division; there comes the ruin, there begins confusion.”
  • “A politician… one that would circumvent God.”
  • “I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl. The secret mischiefs that I set abroach. I lay unto the grievous charge of others.”
  • “I sigh and, with a piece of scripture, Tell them that God bids us do good for evil; And thus I clothe my naked villainy With odd old ends stol’n forth of Holy Writ, And seem a saint when most I play the devil.”
  • “When levity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.”
  • “I have been long a sleeper; but I trust my absence doth neglect no great design which by my presence might have been concluded.”
  • “I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways, not as it hath power, but as it is suffered.”
  • “I would with such perfection govern, sir, t’excel the golden age.”
  • “For conspiracy, I know not how it tastes, though it be dished for me to try how.”
  • “Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit; all with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.”
  • “My one be pardon’d and retain the offense? In the corrupted currents of this world, offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice. And oft is seen the wicked prize itself buys out the law.”
  • “…Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed, That he is grown so great?”
  • “Let me have men about me that are fat sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights. You’d Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.”
  • “It is the bright day that brings forth the adder …And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous, and kill him in the shell.”
  • “There’s growing feathers plucked from Caesar’s wing will make him fly an ordinary pitch, who else would soar above the view of men and keep us all in servile fearfulness.”

*** My favourite collection is the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations from Shakespeare, edited by Mary and Reginald Foakes, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998. But there are many others available (Arden has a nice volume, too). I recommend against using online clickbait sites like brainyquote or azquotes to find material simply because they have no moderator to confirm the citations or authority, and they allow users to post content and ascribe it to anyone they want, without any checking or confirmation. Stick to credible sites like the Folger Shakespeare site.

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