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The similarities between Trump and Shakespeare’s despotic Richard III have not gone unnoticed.
The similarities between Trump and Shakespeare’s despotic Richard III have not gone unnoticed.

BusinessJanuary 17, 2019

Make Shakespeare Great Again: What voters can learn from Richard III

The similarities between Trump and Shakespeare’s despotic Richard III have not gone unnoticed.
The similarities between Trump and Shakespeare’s despotic Richard III have not gone unnoticed.

President Trump has been compared with Shakespeare’s autocratic Richard III. New Zealanders watching their diminishing KiwiSaver balances should take note.

The first thing you’ll notice is this is the business editor writing about Shakespeare. It may be a summer rush of blood to the head; I prefer to think of it as a perk of working for an irreverent media startup.

The truth is I’m a Shakespeare nerd. Seeing Patrick Stewart play Shylock in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Las Vegas-themed The Merchant of Venice (complete with Elvis impersonators) a few years ago was a life-changing experience.

In recent weeks I’ve been glued to the melodrama that is the longest government shutdown in US history, but that is less life-altering than horrifying. For us tucked down here in our stable little South Pacific democracy the idea that government employees should go unpaid simply because the leader is having a tantrum is appalling.

However I have got off the Washington Post app long enough to book tickets to Richard III at the Pop Up Globe. The timing is eloquent, because more than one eagle-eyed commentator has spotted the similarities between President Trump and Shakespeare’s tyrannical king.

“When the state is weak, unscrupulous politicians can become powerful leaders,” says the Pop Up Globe’s Richard III blurb. Sound familiar? It goes on: “In a world where no-one believes that such an inappropriate candidate could ever rise to power, Richard Duke of Gloucester plays upon his own reputation and shamelessly manipulates, extorts and executes his way to the top.”

Richard declares he’ll stop at nothing to become king, and glorifies his evil nature: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy with old odd ends stolen out of holy writ, and seem a saint, when most I play the devil,” he says.

To be clear, unlike Richard Trump hasn’t had anyone knocked off. But indifference to the truth, shameless and hyperinflated self-confidence while being supremely unqualified for the job, and trading in false piety when it suits him are all hallmarks of his bizarre presidency.

The embarrassing sight of shuttered federal agencies is a crisis of Trump’s own creation. He continues to capitulate to his ultra-conservative base by demanding the exorbitantly expensive folly of a southern border wall, and displays little interest in brokering an end to the damaging impasse.

The Pop Up Globe does pretty straight, doublet-and-hose kind of Shakespeare so I’m not expecting Richard to come out in orange candy floss hair and a permatan. That would be too obvious. Nonetheless it irks me that Shakespeare is no longer routinely taught in New Zealand schools, because there is a classic richness of learning and language in his plays. If we had a better understanding of concepts such as “all that glisters is not gold” (The Merchant of Venice again) humanity might not be quite so doomed to constantly repeat its mistakes.

The latest US fiasco may seem like a far-off horror show, but it does impact us here in Aotearoa. Spotted your dwindling KiwiSaver balance lately? You have turbulence on international markets driven by factors such as the train-wreck Trump presidency and Brexit to thank for that, and market commentators are predicting we’re in for no less a bumpy ride in 2019.

There may not be much we can do about that directly but it seems to me there are key lessons to be learned from the current state of affairs in the US, and the most important of these is to vote. Ensure there is no political void to be filled by buffoons and bullies. Be grateful we don’t have a batshit crazy system where three arms of government can be deadlocked over something as basic as paying museum workers, and keep it that way.

No-one puts it better than the Bard so I’ll leave the last word to him: “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.” – Julius Caesar.

Keep going!