NEW YORK — The production of “Julius Caesar” now being put on in New York City’s Central Park is coming under intense fire due to its portrayal of the bloody assassination of a ruler who resembles President Trump. But this is hardly the first time that William Shakespeare’s masterpiece has seen a modern politician subbed in for Caesar and felled by assassins’ knives. It’s not even the first time the director of this production, Oskar Eustis, has modernized the play in that way.
“Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, the rule has been to create a recognizable political world within the production,” Andrew Hartley, the Robinson Chair of Shakespeare Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told CNN. “And often people in the title role itself look like or feel like somebody either in recent or current politics.”
According to Hartley, the modernization of “Caesar” began with the 1937 production by Orson Welles, who made his Caesar a “Hitler, Mussolini clone” and was focused on the rise of Fascism in Europe rather than the fall of the Roman Republic.
Shakespeare’s Caesar has since been made to resemble a number of other political leaders, from Lousiana’s Huey Long to British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to President Barack Obama.
“This is a pretty common trope,” Hartley said.
Before his take on the Trump era, Eustis put together “Caesar” productions in Providence and Los Angeles in the early 1990s that placed the play in a modern American setting. The playwright Tony Kushner, who has collaborated on work with Eustis, noted in a 1991 letter to the Los Angeles Times that in Eustis’ version of “Caesar” playing at the time the title character was “a deliberately composite demagogue, equal parts Huey Long, Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy.”
As he did in this version, Eustis also appears to have re-created an American First Lady in the form of Caesar’s wife Calpurnia in those two earlier productions, which made reference to Jackie Kennedy.
None of that has prevented the firestorm that has descended on the Public Theater.
Two sponsors of the Public Theater, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America, have pulled their support from the play; Delta said it would be ending its sponsorship of the theater. Another of the theater’s sponsors, American Express, said on Monday that it does not “condone the interpretation of the Julius Caesar play.”
The play has been criticized by a number of Trump’s supporters, including two of his sons.
Besides the fact that this kind of modernization of the play is not new, the other issue with the backlash, said Peter Holland, a professor in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Notre Dame, is that the play is “exactly the inverse of what the people who are angry about this production are thinking.”
“I have never read anyone suggesting that ‘Julius Caesar’ is a play that recommends assassination,” he told CNN. “Look what happens: Caesar is assassinated to stop him becoming a dictator. Result: civil war, massive slaughter, creation of an emperor, execution of many who sympathized with the conspiracy. Doesn’t look much like a successful result for the conspirators to me.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that scholars and Shakespeare fans won’t find something about the production to criticize or suggest could have been done differently. Hartley, for one, suggested that the Trump figure may be in the wrong role.
“The heart of the play is about the will to power, and people looking for an opportunist moment by which they can take over through a populist sentiment,” Hartley said. “To me, the Trump figure is Antony, not Caesar.”