“What means that Trump?” asks Timon in Shakespeare’s play Timon of Athens. Good question, that, and one that all of America and all of the world is asking. But the answer is in another play, the oft-performed Julius Caesar.
It was written more than 400 years ago, but its story about a fight to the death over control of the Roman world has eerie similarities to the news coming from Washington DC. Its characters could be talking heads on CNN: an authoritarian leader, humiliated senators, a cynical elite, and the “rabblement”, the deplorables.
Begin with Caesar. High school English classes have transformed Julius Caesar into a noble martyr. But that is not how his contemporaries saw him. Rome was a kingdom once, like neighbouring nations. But — so the legends tell — the rape of Lucrece (narrated in one of Shakespeare’s long poems) by the son of a despotic king sparked a rebellion. Lucius Brutus — an ancestor of Marcus Brutus — established the Republic. The Romans had a visceral hatred of government by monarchs.
Times changed; Rome ruled over vast territories; powerful men were tempted to seize the reins. And chief amongst them was Julius Caesar. He was idolised by the mob. “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers”, the people would have forgiven him, observes Casca, one of the conspirators. This sounds very much like Trump’s boast that: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters”.
Caesar was a clear and present danger to the ancient freedoms of the Republic. He had to be eliminated to stop him from mounting a coup. Sound familiar?
And the senators? Chief among them was Caesar’s dear friend Marcus Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all”, a true patriot who thought only of the “common good” of the Republic. But his fellow conspirators, Casca, Cassius, Cinna, Decimus Brutus et al, are spurred on by spite and resentment.
Amazingly, what they lacked was a plan, any sense of how the assassination would alter the balance of power in Rome. With Caesar out of the way, they thought, their own privileges would be secure. They failed to craft a media strategy to win over the “tag-rag people” with their “stinking breath”.
That naivete is spectacularly exposed after the assassination. Brutus declares, in a moment of characteristic simplemindness:
Stoop, Romans, stoop, And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords: Then walk we forth, even to the market-place, And, waving our red weapons o'er our heads, Let's all cry 'Peace, freedom and liberty'!
His bumbling media strategy sets up the climax of the play. He addresses the people in logical, laboured prose, outlining the reasons why Caesar had to be killed. “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” It all makes sense; it’s very rational. And it’s not persuasive.
When Brutus leaves, Marc Antony whips the crowd into a frenzy of rage against the honourable conspirators. He plays on the emotions of the rabble like a violin. Using every trick in classical rhetoric, he wins their sympathy; he makes them weep; he turns them against the senators. He even uses fake news about Caesar’s will to win them over. His media strategy is masterful.
What happens is perfectly predictable. The crowd goes wild, burning and looting. The conspirators flee for their lives. An innocent poet named Cinna is torn to pieces. He protests that he had nothing to do with the Caesar’s murder. No matter. “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses,” the enraged citizens shout.
There will be no peaceful return to the golden days of the Republic. Instead, in the last two acts an army led by Brutus and Cassius meets an army led by Marc Antony and Octavius on “the plains of Philippi”. The two conspirators quarrel on the eve of the battle; Caesar’s ghost warns Brutus that he is doomed. Both Brutus and Cassius end up committing suicide when their troops are overwhelmed.
“So call the field to rest; and let’s away, To part the glories of this happy day,” says the victorious Octavius. But as Shakespeare’s audience knew, there was no rest once Rome’s political conventions had been shattered. For 12 more years the Roman world was torn apart as Marc Antony and Octavius battled for supremacy. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died. Marc Antony (and Cleopatra) committed suicide when he was defeated by Octavius, who ended up as Augustus, the first Roman emperor.
Shakespeare named the play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, but it is really The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus. A noble but clueless politician executes a tyrant and unleashes forces that he had never anticipated and is completely unable to control.
In 2017 Julius Caesar was staged in Central Park with a Donald Trump lookalike as Julius Caesar and an actress with a vaguely Slovenian accent as his wife Calpurnia. The theatre company explained that the play’s message was that “those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save”.
But that misinterprets Julius Caesar. It’s not about the death of democracy; neither the Romans nor the Elizabethans had any experience of democracy. It’s about how the law of unintended consequences kicks in after violent political change. Brutus became a murderer to preserve the Roman Republic and paved the way for a tyrant who was revered as a god.
It’s a play that Nancy Pelosi ought to study carefully. She has managed to have President Trump impeached for “incitement of insurrection”. Her next move will be a trial in the Senate and blocking him from running for President in 2024. Much as Brutus thought about Caesar, Pelosi thinks that removing Trump will remove the discontents of the Republic. Good luck with that!