Shakespeare and Trump

Jeffrey R Wilson
Temple University Press
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Shakespeare and Trump

At the time when Harvard University Writing Program faculty member Jeffrey R Wilson wrote Shakespeare and Trump, neither he nor anybody else knew whether or not one of its joint subjects would be President of the United States of America in 2021.

It is probably not too much of a stretch to predict that Mr Wilson will have welcomed the election result, when it was finally determined and confirmed beyond legal doubt at the beginning of this year.

This book might be seen as something of a hybrid. Looked at from one perspective, it is an intelligent but intelligible academic study that places the work of William Shakespeare into the context of a country at war with itself over someone who might politely have been described as an eccentric president.

At the same time, it is also a highly entertaining polemical work that analyses the actions and legacy of Donald J Trump by comparing his behaviour and actions with those of a number of Shakespearean characters.

In addition, the author has used the Shakespearean canon as a comparator to consider a number of contemporary events in the United States during President Trump’s curtailed reign.

To start at the end, the concluding chapter includes the synopsis for a five-act drama that satirically analyses the character and career of the recent past president. Repeatedly, Mr Wilson hits the nail on the head and will draw smiles from readers who recognise indisputable character traits from this flawed but not technically tragic (anti-)hero.

For those on the other side of the Atlantic, while the congruences might only be about 80% representative, the measures used can be applied to a political leader from a country that recently left the European Union to understand why Mr Johnson has so often been likened to a mini-Trump.

The introduction considers the unlikely election of Donald Trump, his impact on American society and academics and the reason why his career could be likened to the protagonist in many a Shakespearean tragedy, although at the point of writing the conclusion to his presidential tenure was unknown and might well have been more comedic than tragic.

Thereafter, five chapters look at specific issues with Trump connections in contemporary America.

The first satirically lampoons Steve Bannon, referred to as “Goldman Sachs investment banker, Hollywood film producer, executive chair of the right-wing Breitbart News Network, Donald Trump’s chief political strategist, economic nationalist, populist,… Shakespearean screenwriter?”.

In particular, Jeffrey R Wilson has great fun in poring over the screenplays that Bannon co-wrote for versions of Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus and pointing out the extent to which they reveal his extreme and not very well-hidden views, especially on race.

Next, we look at The Bard in the 2016 American Presidential Elections. The chapter is divided into sections about witty but cutting throwaway quotes, referred to as Citation Opportunism and Public Shakespeare, deeper philosophical and academic work which tends to be more character-based.

After a third chapter looking at a revolution at Penn State University comes perhaps the most entertaining entitled “Villainy and Complicity in Drama, Television, and Politics”—“Shakespeare’s Richard III, House of Cards and the Trump Administration”. At times, readers might almost wonder whether Donald Trump modelled himself on Richard III, so similar are many of the behavioural characteristics.

The last main chapter considers the extreme reactions to the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar in 2017, in which the central figure became a Donald Trump lookalike. This particularly benefits from the wisdom expressed in a long interview between the author and the production’s director, Oscar Eustis.

Shakespeare and Trump is both a witty book lampooning a comic character who somehow became the leader of the free world and, at the same time, offers some fascinating insights into both its subject’s behaviour and Shakespearean character development.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher