Does Donald Trump Read Shakespeare?

Donald Trump did not invent abuse of power. Four hundred years ago, the greatest of all writers recognized that the ways power is applied in human relationships is central to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The theme, explored from various perspectives, appears in all of his plays.

Donald Trump did not invent abuse of power. Four hundred years ago, the greatest of all writers recognized that the ways power is applied in human relationships is central to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The theme, explored from various perspectives, appears in all of his plays.

Donald Trump did not invent abuse of power. Four hundred years ago, the greatest of all writers recognized that the ways power is applied in human relationships is central to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The theme, explored from various perspectives, appears in all of his plays.


Comedy of Errors (1589)
A man searching for his long-lost wife and son is caught in a bitter feud between cities, and nearly loses his life to a cruel law. The harshness of the legal power which threatens him is undercut for the audience by hilarious confusion between his twin sons and their twin servants who have grown up in the two different cities and are mistaken for each other. The law’s power is eventually overthrown by the greater power of mercy.


Henry VI, Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 (1590 – 91)
After the death of the powerful Henry V, the country falls into the chaos of the Wars of the Roses – a ruthless power struggle between factions of the nobility, under the ineffective leadership of child-king Henry VI.

Exeter: ‘Tis much when scepters are in children’s hands.

Henry is imprisoned several times and killed by his infamous (in Shakespeare’s telling) successor Richard III, a sociopath who has been busy plotting his own route to the crown.

Richard: I have neither pity, love, nor fear.

Something like Trump, except, maybe, for the no fear. Trump has the fear of an overmatched man.


Richard III (1598)

“Was ever woman in this humour wooed? Was ever woman in this humour wed?”

Richard gleefully makes this comment after an astonishing scene in which he seduces the wife of Prince Edward whom he has just murdered. This famous scene shows power of a different kind being used by Richard – the power of deceit mixed with shamelessness, ruthlessness, and eloquence. This power, similar to that used by Donald Trump to gather his supporters (perhaps not so much the eloquence), is employed solely for Richard’s own benefit, until his abuses become too extreme, his former supporters turn on him (Trumpists, where are you?) and he dies in battle on Bosworth Field. Richard’s remains were recently found, buried beneath a parking lot in the city of Leicester.


Titus Andronicus (1593)
This is a revenge tragedy in which cycles of abuse are perpetrated on first one group and then another in retaliation, and then back again, sometimes for generations. Belonging to a community, be it a family or some larger group, does confer power upon the members of that community. But it also makes communities vulnerable to atrocities of revenge.


Taming of the Shrew (1593)

Petruchio: “For I am born to tame you, Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Comfortable as other household Kates.”

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of Petruchio using his masculine powers to tame the headstrong Kate; but maybe the ending is meant to be ironic. It is probably best played that way today, in any case.


Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594)
Okay, maybe not every play, but 36 of 37 isn’t bad.


Romeo and Juliet (1594)
Two feuding families in Verona ignore both the reasonable power of the law and the emotional power of young people’s love in order to carry on their old antagonism, until the two young lovers are destroyed by the feud.


Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594)
The power of the intellect, displayed in witty language and the desire for academic seclusion, comes up against the needs and frailties of the flesh in the pregnancy of a dairymaid, and the death of a royal father.


Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595)
Is the power of man over woman, parent over child, inherent in Nature – part of the natural way the world works? Theseus does defeat Hippolita in war, Oberon does eventually get the child away from Titania – but Hermia successfully defies her father and marries the man she loves, and forlorn Helena wins her lover too. Harmony is the final mood of the play, achieved when power gives way to compromise, good will – and a little magic.

Every Jack shall have his Jill
Naught will go ill . . .


Richard II (1595)
By dint of the power of his personality, and an army of supporters, Henry Bolingbroke takes the throne from a weak Richard and becomes Henry IV, raising questions about succession that later brought on the very bloody Wars of the Roses. Did Bolingbroke abuse his personal power to take the crown? Judging by results, it worked out well for England at first, with Henry IV, and especially Henry V, being seen as effective kings. But Henry VI, not so much. Perhaps the deeper question is – was Bolingbroke right to seize power, simply because he could? Does might make right?


King John (1596)
Like Bolingbroke, John seizes power from the rightful but weak heir, but is less successful in making use of it. Sardonically observing John’s rise, The Bastard speaks of the influence of “commodity,” by which he means self-interest or expediency, in the application of authority:

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity;
Commodity, the bias of the world,
The world who of itself is poisèd well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
From all direction, purpose, course, intent.

Merchant of Venice (1596)
Anti-Semitism flourishes in 16th century Venice; Jews are scorned by Christians, except as a needed source of moneylending. But a vengeful Shylock asks for an odd bond for his money – a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Circumstances conspire to make the bond come due and Shylock seizes on the opportunity to use his newly found legal power to punish his antagonists. He is resolute in this, even after Portia’s moving speech on mercy. But just as he is about to plunge a dagger into Antonio’s chest, Portia intervenes and saves him with a legal manoeuvre. The use and abuse of power runs through this play, with Christians systematically abusing Jews and then a Jew, temporarily, turning the tables. But it is a turn too far.

If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? Shylock


Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 (1597)
These plays explore the rise to power of Hal, who became perhaps Britain’s most celebrated king, Henry V. As a young prince, Hal hangs out with a dissolute crowd including the renowned rascal Falstaff, so as to appear all the more glorious when he finally does emerge as the king.

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

Hal becomes a master at manipulating people and extremely powerful as a result. But as he always does, Shakespeare manages to raise some questions about the way Hal uses his power over people.


Henry V (1598)
Britain’s greatest monarch, or a cynical and ruthless manipulator of power? Or both? Does the former require the latter?


Much Ado About Nothing (1598)
This play about two contrasting sets of lovers opens with soldiers returning from war, and a military mindset of male camaraderie affects the courtship of the lovers. While the aristocratic soldiers are all too ready to mistrust and shame an innocent girl, they fail to recognize the traitor in their midst – the Duke’s own brother. The powerful men are eventually shown up by a group of bumbling tradesmen, and a clever woman. Power learns to stoop and apologize.


Julius Caesar (1599)

Th’abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason.

So said Brutus, before he changed his mind.

I told him, ‘Julie don’t go.’

So said Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, according to Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster.


As You Like It (1599)
Driven into the Forest of Arden by the true Duke’s usurping brother, a group of characters who have lost their social position and political power talk of the joys and harsh realities of living rough, and of youth and age, while discovering the redemptive power of love.


Twelfth Night (1599)
Malvolio, a pompous killjoy, uses his position as steward to bully and antagonize the rest of the household. In taking their comical revenge on him, however, some of the others go too far, and become abusers themselves.


Hamlet (1600)
Procrastination, a common form of abuse of power, results in a lot of people dying. Hamlet, on his inaction:

O what a rogue and peasant slave am I …


Merry Wives of Windsor (1600)
The power of parents over children, husbands over wives, and scheming seducers over women – all are tested, and found wanting, in this comedy.


Troilus and Cressida (1601)
In his famous speech to Agamemnon, Ulysses urges that his king show restraint and moderation, and act by “degree” (proportion, order) in attacking his weakened foe in the Trojan War:

Take but degree away . . .,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: . . .
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Does this sound like anybody we know?


All’s Well that Ends Well (1602)
Who has the power to compel love? When Helena saves the life of the King and chooses, as her reward, marriage to her beloved Bertram, he – not in love, and considering her beneath him – flees. Helena pursues him and through a “bed trick” gets him to impregnate her, so he becomes doubly obligated to marry her. Bertram is a cad, so is such an enforced marriage really going to make anyone happy? This problem play leaves us with the question.


Othello (1604)
Othello, a powerful military leader, is duped by Iago into thinking his wife is unfaithful and, using his vastly superior physical power, he murders the innocent Desdemona. Iago has extraordinary powers of persuasion which he misuses in a horrifying manner.


Measure for Measure (1604)
Leaving Vienna in the command of his friend Angelo, a man widely respected as scrupulous and puritanical, the Duke disguises himself as a friar and stays around to see how Angelo will get on in his new position of power. Brutally applying his strict morality to other people, but not to himself, Angelo does not do well.

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.


Macbeth (1605)
Three witches prophesy that Macbeth will become king, and the temptation to reach for such power proves irresistible. Lady Macbeth, too, is intoxicated by the lure of power, and she urges her uneasy husband to violate his position of trust as a host and murder the sleeping king. Having achieved power in such a way, Macbeth finds that in order to maintain it, he cannot escape committing further egregious abuses.


King Lear (1605)
Lear, deprived of his kingdom and even of safe shelter from a stormy night, declares his new awareness of how he failed, in his days of power, to recognize the needs of humble people:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.


Antony and Cleopatra (1606)
Although Antony is, with Octavius Caesar, co-ruler of the vast Roman Empire, the seductive Egyptian queen Cleopatra, officially his vassal, truly rules his heart. Her power over him, however, is wielded rashly, and eventually destroys them both.

And you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transformed
Into a strumpet’s fool.


Timon of Athens (1607)
Timon, like Lear, is rich and powerful, but too generous and careless with his money, giving it away to ungrateful friends as Lear gives his kingdom away to two ungrateful daughters. Both had power and both squandered it, then discovering that gratitude is a very unreliable currency. Power is abused – and people are harmed – by its unwise stewardship.


Coriolanus (1607)
When a military leader returns in triumph to Rome, his attempt to gain the political position he considers rightfully his is blocked by the wily tribunes, who resent his arrogance. The power of a warrior does not necessarily lead to wise use of power in civil society.


Pericles (1608)
Pericles, though a good king, spends most of the play on the run from an evil neighbouring king who has used his power abusively. But it turns out well, for Pericles at least.

Cymbeline (1609)
From the court of the English king to a palace in Rome to a cave in Wales, Cymbeline shows many different kinds of attempt to gain and abuse power: the Queen, Cymbeline’s second wife, plots against the king and Imogen, his daughter and heir; Iachimo plots to make Imogen’s banished husband believe she has been unfaithful; Cloten plots to overpower and rape Imogen; and in his rage, believing her unfaithful and himself shamed, her husband sends a servant to murder Imogen. Miraculously, all this gets sorted out, and the British come out of their caves and defeat the invading Roman army. Those who scheme to gain power unjustly, often abuse it as well.


Winter’s Tale (1610)
A King’s jealous rage destroys friendship and family, leaving him desolate. In the course of time, however, the victims of his irrational outbreak become the means of healing, and the wife he believed he’d lost returns to him. (Unlike Trump, he is sorry for what he’d done.)


Tempest (1611)
Many commentators see Caliban as an example of colonial abuse of power over aboriginal people. We rather think that Caliban represents a dark side of human nature, a side that Prospero sees in himself and then triumphs over in both himself and Caliban, using the redemptive powers of his magic. Instead of using his power to exact revenge upon his brother (who had abused power in seizing the Dukedom from Prospero and setting him adrift in a small boat), he uses it to orchestrate a gentle reconciliation.

The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance. (Prospero)


Henry VIII (1612)
The King falls in love with Anne Boleyn and uses his power to dissolve his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. His desperate search for reasons to justify his action sounds like Trump’s attempts to prove he won the election. There was, of course, much worse to come in regard to Henry’s domestic difficulties (like beheadings), but not in this play. Shakespeare needed to tread cautiously because James I, Henry’s great grandnephew (or something), was king at the time.


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So, does Trump read Shakespeare? Did he use Shakespeare as a source for his multifarious ways of abusing power? Probably not. It is not clear that he can read. But when it comes to abusing power, he is a natural. ♦