The 2016 presidential election saw the rise of a new kind of criticism: the Shakespeare-inspired commentary on modern US politics. The ascent of Donald Trump has drawn comparisons to the Netflix hit House of Cards, based on Shakespeare’s Richard III. Trump’s chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, wrote two absurd Shakespeare adaptations in the 1990s. Days after the election, students at the University of Pennsylvania protested Trump by tearing down a portrait of Shakespeare. And in the summer of 2016, the assassination of a Trump-esque Julius Caesar led corporate sponsors to pull out of the famed Shakespeare in the Park in New York City. Taking stock of these flashes of Shakespeare in recent US politics, and holding nostalgically to the notion that literature can help us understand life, this book explores the wayward connections between William Shakespeare and Donald Trump.
Why Shakespeare and Trump? Why not Chaucer and Trump, or Austen and Trump, or Faulkner and Trump? There were blips of Shakespeare-and-Clinton, Shakespeare-and-Bush, and Shakespeare-and-Obama, but nothing like what we’ve seen in the age of Trump. Why have these two figures – so different in so many ways, the one a provincial English playwright from an age of monarchy, the other a billionaire and the President of the United States – been constantly paired over the past couple of years? Why are Shakespeare scholars who usually think about Renaissance drama suddenly thinking about twenty-first-century American politics? Why are political commentators suddenly turning to Shakespeare? What’s the relationship between art and politics? And how can our attention to the Shakespeare-and-Trump discourse help us understand these two prominent figures in ways that more traditional analysis might miss?
An answer to these questions starts to emerge when we recognize that, as someone from what scholars call the “early modern” age, Shakespeare stood between two epochs. He represented the politics of medieval times – brute force, kingship, dynasty, feudalism, servitude, the haves and the have-nots perpetuated over time through family inheritance and structural social inequality – coming into contact with the new politics of modernity, which increasingly emphasized liberty, equality, justice for all, and individual self-determination. In a sense, all of Shakespeare’s political rulers – whether Roman, European, or English – were medieval kings living in the modern worlds he created. Donald Trump, with his privileged background, massive wealth, petulant personality, and pension for making knee-jerk decisions based on his emotions of the day, has thrown us back into medieval politics. He can be seen as a medieval king living in a modern world. Shakespeare had a strategy for dealing with this situation. He called it tragedy: stark social inequality, self-important leaders of privilege, rampant corruption and hypocrisy in government, fear, anger, resentment, hostility, incivility, warring factions, and then some random event ignites this political powder keg, leading to widespread violence, pain, suffering, death, and the downfall of nations. Let’s hope he was wrong.