Last August, the hard right cheered lustily when candidate Donald Trump obliquely but unmistakably raised the possibility of assassinating Hillary Clinton, should she be elected: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. … Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Now, however, Trump’s supporters have finally drawn the line at a voice too extreme to be tolerated: William Shakespeare. The Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar” in Central Park has the temerity to depict the assassination of a blond-thatched would-be dictator. According to Fox News, the production, notable for its gender-blind and colorblind casting, “appears to depict President Trump being brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities.” Caving to pressure from the right, Delta Air Lines and the Bank of America, two of the corporate sponsors of the Public’s free Shakespeare in the Park performances, have withdrawn their support.
There are, of course, obvious ironies, beginning with the fact that Fox News and its allies have ceaselessly decried political correctness when individuals and institutions have protested comparable or far greater provocations mounted from the right. And then there is the fact that “Julius Caesar” is a powerful, sustained demonstration of the risks and consequences of attempting to protect the republic through violence. Brutus and his fellow conspirators assassinate the vulgar, swaggering would-be tyrant to save their country’s freedom, but they wind up paving the way for the tyranny of the cool, uncharismatic, methodical politician Octavius.
It often goes that way: Waging war on ostentatious and obvious threats, one misses the insidious, creeping ones, which turn out to be more harmful in the end. Robust cultures, including corporate cultures, do not panic in the face of theatrical free expression but welcome it. Shakespeare’s contemporaries were wise enough to take heed. Even in a time of intense anxiety and repression, they generally left the theater alone. After all, they understood, the stage is a place where leaders and the public can think through their political conflicts and the ramifications of risky impulses to take action, heroic or otherwise. When one eliminates that space, it isn’t as though the conflicts and impulses disappear — there is simply less opportunity to consider them together in a serious, considered way.
An act of 1534, from the time of Henry VIII, made it treasonable to refer to the ruler as a tyrant. In 1554, with a deeply unpopular king on the throne, a further act declared it high treason “to compass or imagine” the ruler’s death. Though it might seem difficult to police the imagination, the courts found the language of the act useful in their prosecution of perceived enemies of the regime. A steady succession of these enemies, Catholics and Protestants alike, were tried and convicted. If they did not have the good fortune to die in prison, they received the horrible punishment reserved for traitors.
It would have been easy enough for the state to extend its scrutiny to the theater. After all, almost all of the tragedies by Shakespeare are precisely about imagining the ruler’s death. “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings,” says his Richard II, shortly before he is himself murdered; “How some have been deposed; some slain in war, …/Some poisoned by their wives; some sleeping killed;/All murdered.” Of course, in the 1590s, when Shakespeare wrote his play, Richard II was safely in the past (though not as far back in the past as Julius Caesar), but everyone knew that in the theater history is always alive and in the present.
In February 1601, on the afternoon before a failed coup attempt against Queen Elizabeth’s government, agents of the earl of Essex (himself the mastermind of the plot, and a sometimes-favorite of the queen) paid for a special public performance of “Richard II.” No one was fooled. “I am Richard II; know ye not?” asked the exasperated Elizabeth. “This tragedy,” she added hyperbolically, “was forty times played in open streets and houses.”
And though Essex and several of his key supporters were executed, the queen did nothing to punish Shakespeare or his company. On the contrary, she continued her key support for the theater — more substantial than anything that Delta Air Lines or the Bank of America provide to the Public. Perhaps Elizabeth actually listened to Shakespeare’s play and understood that it was not an incitement to violence but a deeply thoughtful exploration of the tragic dilemmas of political life. And perhaps she understood that the theater is one of those places where it is far more dangerous to police the imagination than to allow it to flourish.