Q&A: A Tale Told by an Idiot: Shakespeare and Trump

Cheriss May/NurPhoto/Sipa via AP Images

President Donald Trump walks across the South Lawn of the White House to board Marine One. 

Allyn Burrows was recently named the artistic director of Shakespeare and Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts, one of the nation’s leading festivals of Shakespeare and other theatre. Burrows has directed or acted in dozens of Shakespeare productions. Previously, he served for seven years as artistic director of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Boston. He spoke with Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner about Shakespearean themes in the Trump administration.

Robert Kuttner: It seems to me that the Trump drama has just about everything in Shakespeare—a mad king, enablers, manipulators, people who are weak. We've got the whole cast of characters, not to mention the intrigue. What does Shakespeare have to teach us about Trump?

Allyn Burrows: Well, the classic madman was Macbeth, or Richard III. But Trump is less interesting as a madman than either of those, because I’m not sure Trump is capable of introspection, or regret or remorse. Steve Bannon is a lot more interesting, as a villain, a Iago kind of figure. And in the play Henry VIII, for example, a play that's rarely done, Cardinal Wolsey was very much a Iago figure to Henry VIII. He was able to manipulate the mind of the man and also was in it for money.

What happens with these figures who have been manipulated is that they often turn on their manipulators. So, everyone's kind of waiting, wondering in what week is Trump going to pop off? Or who is going to turn on him? Or at what point is he going to turn on Bannon? It’s Shakespearean in the sense of plot, but not really as character study as far as Trump is concerned.

So if Shakespeare were portraying a Trump-like King, how do you think he might portray him?

Probably as a clown. I don't think he'd find him that interesting.

A clown?! Not as a sociopath? Not even as a Richard III kind of figure?

No, because of the lack of transparency that's involved. Trump is not a tragic figure. I just don't know whether Trump would measure up substantively in Shakespeare's view. I think Shakespeare would be unimpressed with Trump’s intelligence. He’s not complex enough to be a Shakespearean protagonist.

Well how about Bannon? Is Bannon, say, Lady Macbeth, manipulating the king for his own dark purposes?

Bannon may be Lady Macbeth. But it’s almost more like the love stories. Bannon and Trump feel more like Romeo and Juliet to me than Othello and Iago. It feels more like something that's taken them over. Is mad love stronger than the hunger for power? And remember that Bannon perceives Trump as a vessel into which he can pour his ideas. It feels much more obsessive. When you look at what happened with Bannon’s internal power grab, he and Trump are under the influence of something that's stronger than them just forming alliances.

We're into Troilus and Cressida and Titus Andronicus material now. They’re both spoiling for a fight against “the other,” like the Greeks and the Romans, or when Titus cooks Tamora’s sons into a stew. This is stuff that cannot be laid out in a linear fashion. Or pure obsession, that someone like Malvolio in Twelfth Night has for Olivia and how he is so deluded in thinking that Olivia is so deeply in love with him that it affects everything he does. What kind of twisted love affair are they engaged in? Let's throw the military analogy out the window. Let's go down the road of obsessiveness here, something where they're going to lead to their own destruction because they overexpose themselves, they overreach.

The other thing that feels very Shakespearean, situationally, is that you have Bannon elbowing aside very powerful figures—the Duke of Mattis or the Earl of Exxon. And they're angry and spoiling for revenge. They're powerful people with strong egos. They're worldly people. And that's a setup for really interesting conflict.

Right. That's unmistakable. Once you put military men into the arena, then you really get into a Julius Caesar dynamic, where Mark Antony pulls a fast one in the marketplace and uses the emotion of the vox populi to say, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

Is there a Shakespearean theme to Trump's rapport with the masses?

Yes, and the question is whether that will undo him. In The Tempest, one of the reasons that Prospero got exiled and not destroyed was “So dear the love my people bore me,” he says. The people’s love is really a real threat to enemies, and rivals will work rapidly to undermine it. Unfortunately for that analogy, Prospero is kind of a sympathetic figure, so it doesn’t apply it to Trump so much.

Timon of Athens was a very popular figure among the people who he touched. Of course, he gave a lot of money away. He had a huge fall from grace. So did Caesar. These characters have an ability to take advantage of some kind of empathic energy that kicks in, and that's what Trump is able to do.

So in a Shakespearean sense, Trump is almost less interesting as a character study in pathology than as a protagonist in a situation. If this were Shakespeare, we would know from the outset that Trump—like most of Shakespeare’s flawed kings, is doomed, he looks like he's going to destroy himself. We hope he doesn't destroy his kingdom. But it's more the intrigue that feels very Shakespearean than the character study. He's not interesting as tragic hero or as a madman. While we may be able to psychoanalyze him and explain how he became a thug, that's less interesting than the kind of chess game that he's in the middle of, and the rivalries that are going to be stoked.

Absolutely. It's a dynamic that, if you reflect on something like Macbeth: Macbeth is a far less interesting character than either his wife or his self-destruction. If you really want to watch this guy unravel—he deserves it 100 percent, but he's not really a mental adversary.

Look at someone like Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew in a much more comical way. It's that sense of confusion that lands on the audience that makes them stay with it in every single one of Shakespeare's plays, even the comedies like Midsummer Night's Dream or Much Ado About Nothing. It's when people get hooked on an unsympathetic character and they either want to know how the others are going to vanquish him or how he's going to really undo himself. We are leaning in, waiting to see when those who are creating havoc are going to get their comeuppance.

In Shakespeare, the theme time and again is some powerful person unraveling, either doing himself in, or somebody else doing him in, or the protagonist doing himself in, helped along by somebody who's doing him in.

Look at The Winter's Tale. Leontes absolutely self-immolates. He eats himself from the inside from this jealousy, this paranoia. Same with Othello, and with Lear. It’s in the doing or in the undoing that we really get drawn into these plays. If Trump starts losing battles, or the battle for public opinion, we could imagine him unraveling.

In the Trump drama, you've got all these Shakespearean archetypes. You've got the press secretary as the fool. Putin as the rival kingdom could be out of any number of plays. Macbeth really does seem on point, almost more than Richard III.

If you can say that Trump is Macbeth and Bannon is Lady Macbeth, you have the opposition that represents good in Macduff, then you have all these characters caught in between, who are worried about losing their heads one way or another in the process. But, alas, there is no Macduff who is really coming forward. We don't have an opposition where we feel like, “We're going to be OK.” For a little while some of the masses that felt they could get behind Bernie. And Hillary, unfortunately, brought her own baggage and that helped lead to her downfall.

We have a whole set of Shakespearean characters whose flaw is that they're weak. Hillary is weak, and Ryan is weak and Obama is weak, Maybe McCain is Macduff?

It seems to me that the strongest characters are the ones that listen most, and then, when it gets quiet, that's when they speak. Like Kent in Lear, trying to stop the madness. Of course, speaking up can get you banished. The problem is that you really don't have an atmosphere where there's any silence into which wisdom can be spoken.

So, if this were Shakespeare, what would Acts 4 and 5 be like?

Act 4 is where the set up for the denouement happens. Then you have Act 5 where Birnam Wood is coming forward and the trees are moving. The landscape is closing in around him, really just the enemy carrying shrubs as camouflage. That's when the synapses start to snap and he starts to lose his mind. And that's where regret comes in.

What isn't evident with Trump is any sense of introspection or even the mildest form of regret for what he says or does. Eventually, with a character like Macbeth, you have those moments of self-doubt, but they're brief. The doctor comes in and says to the king, “The queen, my lord, is dead.” And immediately he says, “She should have died hereafter.” And people often interpret that as if he's just blowing it off, but it's something that crawls up into his psyche, and then what does he do? He goes into one of the most famous speeches written, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” He's able to put this whole thing in perspective, but only through a sense of grasping at life’s meaning. And we haven't seen that yet with Trump.

I don't think we'll ever see it.

That's Act 5 material, because that's right when he buckles. He's got a lot of people propping him up right now. His staff is almost like the stretcher that holds Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

You can't really have Shakespeare without a moment of self-knowledge, can you? Is there any major figure in Shakespeare who never gets there?

Whoever gets their comeuppance and then subsequently comes to self-knowledge? With Lear, it comes in spades, right? It’s this long, protracted enlightenment and realization. Everyone calls him crazy, but actually we kind of know where he's going. King Richard II: long moments of introspection. But the exceptional case is Iago. He's never repentant. Even at the end, he just stops speaking.

So at least we have Iago as a model.

With Trump, it might come in a way that we don't even recognize. It's almost like when Timon of Athens buries his head in the sand at the end. He becomes like a caged dog and then it's just not within his capacity to say, “I'm sorry.” Every time there's some form of an apology, it just doesn't ring true. I think that his circle around him is so much more dangerous at this point.

So much more dangerous, why?

Even if he were to buckle, if he is like Dick Nixon going around and talking to the portraits on the walls—these are figures who are going to make sure that all the quadrant doors are locked and shut, that their own legacy is locked into place.

They're just not going to give him up. That's the danger of it—that they're all completely attached to him now. He goes; they all go. They're not going to scapegoat him.

It's more the outer circle; it's the McCains and it's the Republicans in Congress who, maybe, have a moment where they see what he's doing in the country and he's doing in them, and they might try to constrain him.

They'll look for higher ground. I agree with you. I think within six months you're going to have people scrambling for higher ground. Those individuals, in Shakespearean terms, those can be counted on multiple hands, as well.

You also have the palace intrigue among the inner circle. You've got Bannon, and then everyone else who is threatened by Bannon. That also feels quite Shakespearean.

And his family, too. There's blood in there. So, there's blood within the palace walls, with his daughter and his son-in-law. There's a whole play right there, whatever's going on between his son-in-law and Christie, and how he threw Christie onto the coals, because Christie put his father into jail.

You really can't make this stuff up!

You can't!

If you handed this to Shakespeare, and said “Write a play about this,” he'd say “Nah, too unbelievable.”

Well, it would be right in his wheelhouse, because Shakespeare was a very derivative writer. He didn’t make things up. He didn't intend for any of his plays to be published. He just intended for them to be heard. It was his stage managers who scooped it up and said, “We got to save this stuff!” He only had, like, two original stories, one of them being The Tempest, and even that was maybe not that original.

Any closing thoughts?

We haven't touched on Hamlet. Who is Hamlet in this play? Hamlet is us, I guess. We're seeing what's happening and we're wondering, what the hell is going on? And Hamlet's ghost is, kind of, Obama coming back and saying, “I didn't say that! He poured poison in my ear!”

Hamlet is everybody who might have taken this guy on seriously, who dithered! Hamlet is Hillary!


Well, let's leave it at, “we're all Hamlet.” That's not very encouraging!

We all want to play Hamlet, and we all are Hamlet.

You may also like