Shakespeare and Political Commentary in 2017

So I was reading a Shakespeare play today (Richard II) and came across this line:
For heaven’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories about the death of kings:
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed–
All murdered. For within the hallow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene
To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit.
This portion of a speech, and the play itself got me thinking about Trump, specifically that issue not too long ago where groups protested a performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” that placed Donald Trump in the role of the murdered Roman leader. I’ll tell you why.
Richard II tells the tale of a weak and ineffective monarch who is forced to abandon his crown after rebellion; the leader of that rebellion becomes Henry IV. Throughout the play the idea of monarchy is constantly questioned– kings ruled by a believed divine right and to rebel against a king was blasphemy; any one who disagreed with the king was committing the gravest sin of hating God. However, Shakespeare shows how Richard II was a tyrant, and ignorant of what his people wanted, and the characters in the play reason that no loving God would work through such a cruel person.
If you would like to watch Richard II, I highly recommend this 2012 version from BBC starring Ben Whishaw, Patrick Stewart, and David Morrissey.

When Shakespeare wrote the play, Elizabeth I sat on the throne, and there are many obvious parallels Shakespeare draws between the tyranny of Richard II and the current monarch. Upon seeing the play, Elizabeth is reputed to have said: “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” Records hold that this particular performance in 1601 was sponsored by the Earl of Essex, who paid Shakespeare’s company forty shillings above the normal rate. Shortly after the performance, the Earl of Essex led a rebellion against Elizabeth with a band of 300 armed men (known as the Essex Rebellion of 1601). Shakespeare’s play directly criticized the current leader of their country and his open questions about the nature of monarchy fueled open rebellion. This is not the only play of his to speak out against the government. It should be noted that the English Civil War which shifted political power away away from the monarch and created the more Democratic system they have today began in 1642, only a handful of years after Shakespeare’s death. (You can read more about the history of this play and its connections to Elizabeth I here and here )

The point I’m trying to make is that Art is a tool for questioning the political system. Richard II doesn’t SAY that the people should revolt–nor does that modern production of Julius Caesar SAY that people should kill Trump–it merely asks the viewer (or reader) to question their leadership. Richard II, a history play, says, essentially, “Don’t think the country’s leader is infallible because remember the ones who weren’t?”
So a 2017 production of a Shakespeare play that openly criticizes its nation’s leader is exactly what Shakespeare was doing when he wrote in over 400 years ago. I’m not advocating an open rebellion against Trump, think about his administration however you want, I’m just saying that any critique of it shouldn’t be silenced. Who knows what people 400 years from now will say when they look back on his administration and the works we produced (or were prevented from producing) during that period.
For Doctor Who fanboys (like myself) here is a photo of David Tenant performing as Richard II in a 2013 stage production.

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