Shakespeare is having a tough time under the Trump administration, but that shouldn’t surprise anybody. In our quest to claim him as a timeless genius, we forget how timely his work often is.
Shakespeare has always been political. That is simply a fact.
In October 2016 there was an editorial in the New York Times that compared then-GOP candidate Donald Trump to Shakespeare’s ‘bloody villain’ Richard III—a comparison that may have sent the playwright spinning in his grave, given the contrast between the erudite, dangerously charming Richard and the inarticulate buffoon that won the 2016 election. Now, over the past weekend, a production of Julius Caesar at New York’s Public Theatre lost two of its major donors—Bank of America and Delta Airlines—after their version of the doomed Caesar appeared with the orange hair and bellowing delivery that has come to encapsulate all that is shameful about America today.
But at least this time he got stabbed? Hooray?
There is nothing new about this. Theatre—and the arts in general—have always offered us an opportunity to poke powerful figures in the eye and see what happens. That is why totalitarian regimes always target the arts first—they can’t control us if we’re able to laugh at them, to see through them.
Which is why the Shakespearean adaptation I’m waiting for is Henry VI, Part II. Why, one may ask? Nobody has heard of it outside of certain circles. It’s got “Part II” in the name, so where’s Part I and why would you stage them independently? Who the hell is Henry VI and why should we care about him?
All of these are valid questions, but not to the purpose. It might help to know that the original title of the play when it was first performed was The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Noble Houses of York & Lancaster, which is frankly a more accurate representation of what happens in the play. It’s a complicated story with an enormous cast, high body count, and some seriously pointed politics—and it is one of a handful of plays that launched William Shakespeare’s theatrical career. (And, no, Game of Thrones fans, the names are not at all coincidental.)
One of the two hinges on which the plot hangs is a popular rebellion that takes up the entirety of Act Four. Although purportedly led by one Jack Cade, a bricklayer with a talent for short, pithy catchphrases, the rebellion actually represents a deadly rift in the kingdom’s power structure because the factions of York and Lancaster have come to support party over country. Cade is a symptom of a much larger disease, and the play makes this crystal-clear, as we the audience learn before Cade even appears that he has been ‘suborned’ by the powerful Duke of York to stir up trouble.
Here are a few choice examples of Cade’s political rhetoric:
“I am able to endure much.”
“I fear neither sword nor fire.”
“Ay, there’s the question; but I say, ‘tis true.” (responding to “That’s false”)
“Can he that speaks with the tongue of an enemy be a good counsellor or no?”
“Then are we in order when we are most out of order.”
“My mouth shall be the parliament of England.”
“There shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it”
If this all sounds familiar, it should.
What is vitally important to remember about Cade, however, is that he is a member of the commons. He is a bricklayer and illiterate; thus, while his methods are questionable, the rest of the play makes it clear that his actions aren’t without reason. The country is being bled dry by foreign wars. The commons are being taxed to support quarrels between aristocrats. Cade and his followers want to focus on what is most English about England, not the dying dream of conquest abroad, because they feel that that is the only way for them to hold onto what little power they have.
But Cade’s energies have been harnessed to a noble patron (York), and thus he ends up serving York’s schemes, not his own. Nor is anybody surprised by this—a character informs Cade point-blank that “The Duke of York hath taught you this”—but while Cade is eventually captured and killed, his rhetoric and his blatant disregard for truth lives on to divide England for another two plays and usher in even more bloodshed.
(Note: It is the contention of the New Oxford Shakespeare that much of Jack Cade’s Rebellion is the work of Shakespeare’s collaborator Christopher Marlowe. Given Marlowe’s track record of tackling controversial issues, I’m going to assume that he was in it to take down the man.)
Which is all to say that we may want to blame Trump and his deplorables, but the fact is that we’re all being played by those with the greatest wealth and influence, and we cannot—must not—forget that.
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