Gregg Henry as a Trumpian Julius Caesar at the Public Theater’s production. Credit: Handout

What Shakespeare can teach us about Trump

Performances of Shakespeare's works reflect America's tumultuous past
March 31, 2020

As an American who loves his country, as well as being a formidable Shakespeare scholar, James Shapiro is the perfect person to write this book—a history of political division told through the diverse ways the playwright has been performed in the US.  

Shapiro’s forensic analysis will be familiar to readers of his two earlier studies of single years in Shakespeare’s life—1599 and 1606. This time each chapter focuses on a significant year in American history matched to a theme, ranging from “1833: Miscegenation” to “2017: Left/Right.” Along the way we learn how US theatre was interwoven with politics and cultural ideology, how key figures read Shakespeare and how the plays speak to issues such as slavery, immigration, class and sexuality. 

There are some startling facts: Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth came from a Shakespearean acting family. Cross-gender casting (including women playing Romeo) was part of a rich history of early American theatre. The gentrification of Shakespeare caused violence. When the Astor Place Opera House imposed an upper-class dress code it caused a riot.  

Shapiro hopes that getting to know America’s past through the lens of Shakespeare may help towards healing some of the country’s current divisions. But he also knows this is unlikely. He opens by describing a controversial production of Julius Caesar at the Public Theatre in New York after Donald Trump was elected. As Shapiro reports, the director “didn’t have to work very hard to identify Trump with Caesar.” Like Trump, Caesar “was easily flattered and scornful of political adversaries.” The negative reaction to this staging from fervent Trump supporters proves Shapiro’s point that, for Americans, Shakespeare still speaks to their hearts.  

At a time when politicians no longer seem accountable, America needs Shakespeare’s simultaneous indictment of tyranny and collective violence more than ever. 

Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro (Faber, £20)