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The English Bob Question: “Why Not Shoot a President?”

It's not like he's a king -- or do some of his supporters wish he were?

There’s a dignity in royalty, a majesty that precludes the likelihood of assassination. Now, if you were to point a pistol at a king or a queen, your hand would shake as though palsied . . . the sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed, and you would stand — how should I put it? — in awe.

Now: a president? Well, I mean: why not shoot a president?

                                                                           Unforgiven (1992)

In 1595 or thereabouts, Shakespeare wrote a play, Richard II, that depicted a rightful monarch being deposed. It was an extremely dangerous thing to do in Elizabethan England — indeed, Elizabeth I is supposed to have responded to a production by saying, “I am Richard II, know you not that?” — and wondering what could have compelled Shakespeare to take such a risk was part of what impelled me to about the question of legitimacy in the Henriad cycle of plays, and their relationship to the ideology of divinely-sanctioned kingship as articulated in the Hebrew bible, which was a TAC cover story a few months ago.

If (in my view) Shakespeare’s later plays depicting English kings complicate and ultimately undermine a theory in which politics derives from a transcendent source, his Roman plays take place in a world where no such derivation is even posited — that is to say: a small-r republican world. For better or worse, this is our world, where our leaders are just the people who are granted power for a time, and serve at our sufferance.

Opening tonight, in Central Park, is a production of Julius Caesar that depicts the Roman dictator as a transparently Trump-like figure. This has, unsurprisingly, caused a bit of a stir, including the abandonment of the production by two major corporate sponsors.

I have no opinion about the production, as I have not yet had the chance to see it. I hope to  do so this week, and will write about it after. But I do have opinions about depicting assassination of presidents on stage: I am absolutely fine with it. Indeed, I saw a production of Julius Caesar five years ago that depicted the assassination of a pretty transparent Obama stand-in by figures who clearly recalled Republican congressional leaders, and I mostly thought the play did an excellent job of revealing the intellectual roots of some of the more over-the-top Tea Party fury, which most assuredly included depictions of the murder of President Obama.

The last place one should expect courage is in America’s corporate boardrooms, so I can’t honestly say I’m either surprised or alarmed at Delta Airlines and Bank of America for turning tail. No one should assume that their cowardice proves the folks at the Public Theater were courageous for putting on their play; it might be genuinely in bad taste and little more, shallow and self-indulgent and not worth the price of admission (free). But I’ve seen plenty of plays that were all that, and corporations don’t pull their sponsorship because art is bad. They pull their sponsorship because of controversy, and this controversy as such tells us nothing about either the quality or importance of the work in question, but everything about the parlous state of our republic, and its desperate desire to be rid of the burden of self-government.

The president is not a king, and he does not deserve the dignities of royalty, most especially the fatuous fantasy of invulnerability that, because it is so fragile, must be preserved by treating the depiction of its violation a blasphemy. Caesar was killed by men who feared he would arrogate those dignities to himself, and feared a populace that they believed were all too ready to give him the crown. Those calling for Oskar Eustis’s head are providing excellent evidence that at a portion of our populace sufficient to make the hands of the CEOs of Delta Airlines and Bank of America shake as though palsied is all too ready to do the same.



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