When Shakespeare wrote “Julius Caesar,” he did so at a time when England was deeply anxious about its political future. There had been threats against the monarch’s life, and since nobody knew who would succeed the childless queen, civil war was a real possibility. In taking on Caesar, Shakespeare decided to confront the most divisive and provocative political question of the day: Under what circumstances is it justified to depose a tyrant?
As long as politicians resemble Caesar and as long as their opponents seek to justify their overthrow, “Julius Caesar” will continue to matter. It’s too bad Delta Air Lines and Bank of America don’t see it that way.
In the wake of fierce criticism of the current Manhattan production of the play, which opened Monday night at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater as part of the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park festival, they withdrew their financial support for the Public Theater. Why? Because the production features a distinctly Trumpian Caesar, down to his golden bathtub.
In doing so, they have proved more sensitive than even Queen Elizabeth I. “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” she famously remarked around 1601. Yet the queen pointedly refused to pull her support for Shakespeare’s company, which continued to perform at court, or even for that play, though “Richard II” had been staged on the eve of an uprising against her near the end of her reign.
America has been producing bold and timely interpretations of “Julius Caesar” since before its founding. A production in Philadelphia in 1770 was the first in a long line that celebrated the conspirators as heroes, foregrounding the “noble struggles for Liberty by that renowned patriot Marcus Brutus.” When Edwin Booth, the greatest American actor of the 19th century, staged it in New York in 1871, he too saw it as a play about “a noble past which shamed a decadent present.” Orson Welles’s landmark production at New York’s Mercury Theater in 1937 — subtitled “The Death of a Dictator” — pushed this anti-Caesar case even further, helping draw the nation’s attention to the looming threat of fascism, most memorably in a long cut scene in which Cinna the Poet, an innocent man out for a walk, is beaten to death by security forces.
More recently, a 2012 production at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis modeled its Caesar on Barack Obama. Now, Donald Trump takes his turn as the tyrant.
But to assume — as critics attacking the play seem to have done, I suspect without having seen more than a photograph — that the Central Park production is simply anti-Caesar ignores the nuance of director Oskar Eustis’s vision. Anyone who sits through the final scene will see the consequences of deposing the tyrant: The brutality of the victors, Antony and Octavius, is far worse than that of Caesar. This production, for which I served as a consultant, makes it clear that their conspiracy, however well intended, will destroy the possibility of democracy in the West for 2,000 years.
If anyone would have understood the current controversy, it would be Shakespeare himself. In his time, there was always someone taking offense, wanting a name changed or a line cut, demanding that the players be rounded up and thrown in prison. We now call the comic star of “Henry the Fourth” Falstaff rather than Oldcastle because an influential power broker complained about it, and Shakespeare’s company’s “Tragedy of Gowrie,” about a failed assassination attempt on the life of King James was censored and closed after two sold-out performances.
I write this on a day in which President Vladimir Putin of Russia ordered the arrest of protesters, many of them just teenagers, who dare to articulate their political opposition to him — a scene that is eerily anticipated at the opening of “Julius Caesar” in Central Park. It is the mark of a tolerant society that we don’t try to shut down the expression of words or viewpoints that some might find disagreeable, least of all Shakespeare’s, whose works we all share.
We rely on newspapers to learn what is happening in the world. But we turn to productions of Shakespeare to make sense of it. It’s why people flocked to the Globe in 1599 — and why I hope they will rush to the Delacorte.
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