As we say farewell to President Trump, why is no one discussing Timon?
I don’t mean the loafing tan meerkat from “The Lion King,” though he might do. Rather, I refer to the title character of “Timon of Athens,” the Shakespeare tragedy in which a bankrupt businessman, deserted by his sycophants and bereft of power, renounces society with wild curses (“Matrons, turn incontinent!”) to take up a miserly life by the sea at Mar-a-Lago.
Wait, sorry, wrong sea — Timon’s is “outside the walls of Athens.”
The confusion is natural; Shakespeare is doing double duty these days. While maintaining his career as the most-produced playwright in the world, he is also moonlighting as the most-cited provider of metaphors for the Trump era — and particularly its denouement. Hardly a thumb-sucking political analysis goes by without allusion to one of the 37 canonical plays, however limited or far-fetched the comparison may be.
Not that Shakespeare is a newcomer to the gratuitous allusion game. For decades if not centuries, he has been the go-to brand for instant gravitas. (More than one U.S. politician has been referred to as the “American Macbeth.”) But something about the Trump presidency, which comes to an end Wednesday, has from its start sent writers on a scavenger hunt through the First Folio.
It’s not Timon they usually come back with. (The play, circa 1605, is among Shakespeare’s least loved.) Scholarly references in popular culture only work if the reference is popular. Googling the terms “Trump” and “Timon of Athens” returned fewer than 150,000 hits, about as many as “Trump” and, say, “The Lucy Show.”
But when I entered “Trump” and “King Lear,” more than 2.8 million links popped up. Many of those led to a show actually called “Trump Lear,” a biting comparison of the two leaders that ran Off Broadway in the summer of 2017.
The comparison isn’t entirely inapt. Both the king and the president are known for playing loyalty games: Lear with his daughters, Trump with his minions. (Is Mike Pence a Regan or a Cordelia?) Both have been, shall we say, ambivalent about turning over the power of office. Both are divisive — in Lear’s case literally, slicing up his kingdom like a pizza.
But you can make that kind of comparison between any two products of human culture once you narrow your scope enough. (Like Lucy, Trump is always getting into trouble.) If Shakespeare’s plays are so often the first choice of pundits seeking to add grandeur to their accounts of the uses and abuses of power, it’s less because they are apt than because they are ubiquitous, overflowing with rulers of every tragic stripe.
Not that recent coverage has restricted itself to the tragedies. Trump has been detected in the deluded, preening Malvolio of “Twelfth Night” and in the overconfident, malaprop-prone Nick Bottom of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — the one who’s transformed into an ass.
Mostly, though, it’s the tragedies and histories — led in my informal survey by “Julius Caesar,” “King Lear,” “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” “Coriolanus,” “Richard III” and “Henry V” — that have been cited to get at the core of Trumpism. But do they really?
Look at just a few of the correspondences:
Sampling “King Lear” as a touchstone for the incoherent rage of a deteriorating personality became almost de rigueur in the chaotic last months of the Trump presidency.
In “Hamlet,” the vengeful prince is mad only “north-north-west,” but otherwise knows “a hawk from a handsaw.” Journalists cite the play to suggest that Trump deliberately stirs up chaos and confusion as a screen behind which to cannily pursue his goals.
“Demand me nothing: What you know, you know,” says Iago when finally apprehended for masterminding a seditious plot in “Othello.” Iago’s moral nullity has reminded writers of the president, who similarly said, in dismissing the Covid-19 death toll: “It is what it is.”
The seldom-seen “Coriolanus,” about a leader who disdains the common people he claims to serve, has likewise been cited as a way of thinking about the president’s response to the coronavirus.
How a man of “fathomless cynicism, cruelty and treacherousness” achieves power is the subject of “Richard III” — and many editorials warning about the 2016 election.
So there you have it: Trump is pretty much the entire Shakespeare canon of tragedies — even “Romeo and Juliet” — rolled into one. Yet this mania for comparison depends on a thin analysis of both the president and the plays.
For one thing, pundits are ignoring the traits that do not match. Richard was born disabled; Hamlet was avenging a murder. Most of the others were victorious warriors; President “Bone Spurs” wasn’t.
Beyond that, the plays, with all their faults, have a profound and noble goal that Trump does not: to provide insight into life. The comedies offer insight into love; the rest, into the corruption of power. But there are no bright lines: The genres blur — as does the moral status of the characters. Rarely does Shakespeare present anyone as entirely evil; perhaps only Iago, who does not deny it. Everyone else is made of flecks of good and bad, revealed and partly justified in the glinting light of language.
But like most real people, only more so because of his psychological and political makeup, Trump is not capturable in that way. He does not advertently open his heart in public, and our time has not required that he make himself understood through words. (Twitter doesn’t count.) Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln come alive in their letters, diaries and tracts. Hamlet has some 1,500 lines in which to explain himself. But Trump remains forever impenetrable in 280-character outbursts, which is why commentators have gone to such extreme lengths to dig up precedents that are easier to fathom.
I admit that I do it too. I look to “Julius Caesar” for a guide to demagoguery. And to “King Lear” to understand how a man who has “ever but slenderly known himself” could know others well enough to rule them.
But even these comparisons are reductive — in both directions. Shakespeare’s characters are much richer and more readable than someone as unforthcoming as Trump. At the same time, we’d be lucky if he were merely Shakespearean; no made-up villain, even Iago, is as alarming as someone for whom all the world is truly a stage.
Still, there’s something to be said for the Iago comparison. His final line, as he is dragged off to justice, is “From this time forth I never will speak word” — a consummation devoutly to be wished.