The Public Theater's controversial production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar reached its scheduled close yesterday, just as its most vehement critics had learned to adopt the tactics that they, as avowed champions of free expression against political correctness, had affected to despise. Two of the last performances, including one yesterday, were disrupted by hecklers running onto the stage to denounce the production and the audience for envisioning the assassination of President Trump. Had the play's run gone on longer, things may have escalated to a scale not seen since the Astor Place riots of long ago. As is now well known, the old play was made freshly controversial and popular by dressing its Caesar and giving him stage business in the manner of Donald Trump. More provocative than this creative license, no doubt, was the fact that audiences, thus prompted, cheered the assassination scene. The Alexandria shootings last week made this sort of playacting more intolerable to partisans of Trump, to whom the Caesar production typified the American left's hypocritical claim of artistic license to vent its partisan hatreds, while the shootings themselves belied the condescending assumption that their venting should never be taken literally.
And yet, however inexcusable it may have been for audiences to cheer a symbolic assassination, a case probably can be made for a Trumpian portrayal of Caesar. The case would have nothing to do with any supposed parallels between the two men, nor should the point of any experiment be to get the crowd to cheer an act of murder. Julius Caesar, after all, is quite ambivalent about the assassination and the motives behind it, to the point where defenders of Trump could well find a useful moral in it. In the play, Brutus is goaded into joining a conspiracy that would gain credibility from his honorable reputation. He claims to act disinterestedly, proclaiming that "I know no personal cause to spurn at him/But for the general," i.e. Caesar's apparent desire to become a king. Cassius, the head conspirator who brings Brutus into the plot, is quite obviously motivated by envy. As far as he's concerned, Caesar is no better than anyone else in the senatorial class. He remembers having to rescue Caesar from drowning, or seeing him wretchedly ill, and wonders aloud why this guy bestrides the world like a colossus. His answer makes him sound like one of our modern paranoid misanthropes: "I know he would not be a wolf/But that he sees the Romans are but sheep." Today Cassius would be the guy telling everyone on the internet to "wake up!" And for all that Brutus may see himself defending the people of Rome, Cassius says, "What trash is Rome,/What rubbish and what offal, when it serves/For the base matter to illuminate/So vile a thing as Caesar!"
What makes Julius Caesar a tragedy, I think, is that Brutus's noble motives can't be separated from Cassius's base motives; the conspiracy is hopelessly tainted. If anything, Cassius's conspiracy of rage only hastens the final fall of the republic Brutus would protect, by opening the door to Octavian, the future Augustus. It might be argued that Shakespeare himself saw that Rome's problems were bigger than any one man's ambition. Brutus is doubly naive when he refuses to have Marc Antony (played by a woman in what had originally been the Public Theater's most controversial move) killed along with Caesar, not just because Antony will be the ruin of the conspirators by teaming up with Octavian, but also because Brutus's belief that he can save the republic with a decapitation strike misses the point of the moment. That's why it would make sense to turn Caesar into Trump; to show audiences -- as one hopes the Public Theater did show after the hype died down -- that simple solutions of that sort will most likely make matters worse for everyone. Shakespeare's been dead for 400 years, but he may have a better grasp of today's political culture than most of our politicians and pundits. I hope people won't hold the Public Theater against him.