Two years ago, I wrote “Comrade with the Wolf and Owl,” a short piece arguing that King Lear offers powerful commentary on the consumer culture of the twenty-first century. I have continued to read and teach the play to university students since then, and last month as the summer semester began, standing in front of a full lecture hall, I was struck by a revelation. I found myself making this comment: “This is the first time I’m reading King Lear in the Age of Trump. I’m not quite sure how that will change the play for me. But I know it will.”
Trump the brain virus. Trump the black hole. Trump the psychic vampire feasting on the bloodstream of our minds. (How much time have you spent thinking and talking and fretting about him in the past year? What else could you have accomplished with that time? Even at this very moment, typing these words, I deeply resent having to spend some small part of my finite life trying to organize some thoughts about him.)
We are desperate to explain Trump, to somehow make sense of him, and comparisons to Shakespeare’s vain, mad king seem inevitable. They are also becoming more and more compelling, and they are starting to appear with greater frequency as the Trump administration crumbles before our eyes. Anna North, writing in The New York Times on May 17, noted that “Donald Trump is looking a bit like King Lear these days,” with his penchant for playing the victim “more sinned against than sinning,” his childish petulance, and the unrelenting (media) storms that rage about his head. Less that two weeks later in the Washington Post, Ron Charles put forth the “turbulent eruptions” of King Lear as “the best literary precedent for what we’re enduring.”
This past week, as controversy swirled around a Trump-inspired Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York City, The Telegraph published “Seven Ways Donald Trump is Just Like King Lear.” And then there was That Cabinet Meeting, with the inner circle fawning over their doddering leader, the bullshit dripping from their oily lips. Gonoril and Regan, Lear’s sycophantic daughters, would be impressed. If I was directing the play, I would point actors to this clip to help them navigate the opening scene. It’s all there. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”
Gonoril and Regan are cunning and power-hungry, but Shakespeare ensures that we know they are not stupid. Indeed, they offer some of the most insightful commentary on their father’s character. It is because they perceive their father so clearly that they can dupe and manipulate him. Regan speaks of “the infirmity of his age,” that “he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” Gonoril recalls the “imperfection of long-engrafted condition,” the “unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them.” I’m not sure these assessments of King Lear are ever improved upon. I also think they could serve as accurate assessments of Trump. These were lines that changed for me, that became something new, something different than what I had encountered in previous readings.
There were other ways in which the play changed for me. The omnipresence of Trump heightened my awareness of Lear’s tenuous grip on his own identity. Furious at Gonoril’s refusal to acquiesce to his every desire, Lear explodes: “I am ashamed / That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus.” Lear’s manliness is threatened, as he sees it, by powerful, nasty women who speak their minds, who dare to speak the truth. I can imagine his efforts to curse these women, to dehumanize and humiliate them, coming from Trump’s mouth: among many disparaging remarks, he refers to Gonoril’s “wolfish visage,” and elsewhere, he claims that all women are inherently monstrous: “Down from the waist / They’re centaurs, though women all above.” Lear also has a strange habit of projecting his own faults on to others; after Cordelia refuses to quantify her love for him, the egotistical king cruelly rejects and diminishes her: “Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.” 48 characters. Very tweet-able.
But while Trump loomed in the background of my latest encounter with the play, and while certain lines and basic plot points removed from their context make for great copy, what soon became apparent was the insufficiency of a Trump/Lear comparison. If Lear tells us anything about Trump, it is that what we are witnessing, day by day, leak by leak, is not a tragic fall from the height of American power. The difference is Trump’s utter lack of self-awareness, his inability to feel, or even perform, humility. Lear fascinates and repulses because there are glimmers of remorse and insight on his part. At an early moment in the play, as his familial relationships continue to splinter, a distressed Lear confides in his Fool, sharing a dark fear and a grim prophecy: “O, let me not be mad, sweet heaven! / I would not be mad. / Keep me in temper. I would not be mad.” I’m not sure if an actor should bark these lines, or scream them; sometimes I think a terrified whisper might work best.
Elsewhere, after his mind and body have been thoroughly ravaged, a meek, somewhat incoherent Lear manages to give voice to his frailties: “I am a very foolish, fond old man,” he says to Cordelia as he awakens to find her at his bedside, “I fear I am not in my perfect mind.” When Cordelia begins to weep, Lear comforts her; he concedes that because of his behaviour, “You have some cause” to not love him any longer. This is not quite an apology, but it is an expression marked by both guilt and empathy. Lear is repugnant, but he is also brave, and humble, and indignant, and frightened, and tender, and heartbroken. Lear is, in other words, recognizably human. Trump repulses — and only repulses — because he is merely gross, in the fullest sense of that word. (Look it up).
The faithful Kent tries to warn Lear of the potential consequences “When majesty stoops to folly” — but this line only works in a theatre or in one’s readerly imagination if there is some lingering glow of the majestic that still hovers around Lear even as he makes horrible decisions. While facing the brunt of the storm, Lear’s exposure leads him to recognize that the world is filled with “Poor naked wretches [with] houseless heads and unfed sides” who face elemental trauma on a regular basis; in another brief flash of empathy, he “wants to feel what wretches feel.” It is a remarkable moment that dignifies both the suffering of the unfortunate and Lear himself. But there is nothing majestic about Trump, nor has there ever been. He is an incompetent, racist, misogynistic pig. To think otherwise is to earn the incisive rebuke of Kent when he implores his oblivious master to refine his perspective: “See better.” And thus comparisons between the play and The Donald can only extend so far.
There is one way, I think, that a comparison of Lear and Trump is nevertheless useful. It has to do with the importance of reading, the importance of quiet reflection, the importance of silence and humility. King Lear is a chaotic, noisy play. To experience the play is to be asked to consider the rhythms of the human condition as repeated cries of frustration, anger, heartbreak, suffering, to be asked to consider the heart of humanity — its very core — as a steady beat of trauma and pain. The rise and perpetual fall of Donald Trump is also marked by incessant noise — the noise from Trump himself, the noise from his lackspittles, the noise of a newscycle measured not in days or even minutes, but mere seconds, the noise of pathetically transparent lies, the noise of partisan bias and endless spin. In the Age of Trump, nothing seems more impossible than silence.
What I find most hauntingly powerful in King Lear, however, is its silences. The entire play hinges on the silence of Cordelia in the first scene. “Tell me, my daughters,” her father asks, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” Unwilling to play Lear’s game to claim her portion of the kingdom, Cordelia decides to “Love and be silent.” Lear presses, asking, “what can you say to win a third more opulent / Than your sisters?” Cordelia’s response? “Nothing, my lord.” Her silence is the silence of truth, and knowledge, and self-assurance. It is a confident silence that speaks back to power.
Shakespeare fills his play with mirror images and echoes, and Cordelia is once again silent at the end of the play. This time, however, silence is imposed on her. Cordelia is strangled offstage, and Lear, howling with grief, enters with his dead daughter in his arms (a perverse image of parental embrace). Lear’s curses from the first scene have come true: “She’s gone for ever.” Cordelia’s silence at the end of the play is overwhelming and terrifying. The deathly silence that pride and greed inevitably leave in their wake is the play’s lasting image and perhaps its timeless warning, transmitted forever into futures unknown. Silence in King Lear is vital and urgent and essential, and it is also horrifying. Silence is a powerful form of self-fashioning and the cruelest punishment imposed on the marginalized and powerless. We would do well to listen.