Sponsorship, a British director once told me, is implicit censorship. As if to prove the point Delta Airlines and Bank of America have pulled out of funding a New York Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Julius Caesar on the grounds that the Roman dictator is played as a blond-haired bully with an American tie-pin and a Slavic wife. A spokesperson for one of the sponsors said the portrayal of Caesar was clearly designed “to provoke and offend”, which some of us thought was one of theatre’s basic functions.
But is there scope for re-casting other Shakespeare plays with Trump lookalikes? Some may be tempted by the idea of a Trump Lear in that Shakespeare’s monarch has a shaky grasp of reality, carves up his kingdom among his family and is confronted by his daughters’ ingratitude; but, although Ivanka Trump allegedly tried to persuade her father not to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, the mad Lear has a tragic grandeur entirely missing in Trump. It’s easier to envisage a Trump-like Richard III. After all, the character is a satanic joker who systematically wipes out all obstacles to ultimate power, puts on a false face to deceive the populace and is ultimately confronted by his own hollowness. As he says on the eve of battle: “There is no creature loves me; and if I die, no soul shall pity me.”
But there is one character who shows that Shakespeare had an uncanny understanding of the Trump type and that is the lying braggart, Parolles, in the rarely revived All’s Well That Ends Well. Parolles has a repugnant chauvinism that leads him to accost Helena with the words, “Are you meditating on virginity?”, and go on to assail her sexuality by claiming that virginity is like a withered pear in that “it looks ill, it eats dryly”. That sounds very like a Trump chat-up line. Moreover, Parolles poses as a military hero but is exposed as a treacherous coward when he is ambushed by his fellow-soldiers and tricked into revealing their strategies: this could almost be Trump subverting the FBI or engaging in reckless dialogue with the Russians. There’s even a shamelessness about Parolles that allows him to survive exposure and declare: “Simply the thing I am shall make me live.”
I wait eagerly to see Parolles played as a bombastic back-combed bully. In the meantime, there is bound to be a big laugh next time we hear Timon of Athens ask: “What means that trump?” It’s a question to which we would all like to know the answer.