King Lear and Donald Trump: Two Peas in a Pod

In his “Poetics,” Aristotle was likely to have been the first critic to have formally outlined the structure and guiding principles by which 5th century BC Greek dramatists had to abide.

Aristotle stated that drama, especially tragedies, should have one: 1) One Action (such as a plague, a mysterious murder, a war, or a national crisis). 2) A hero of great stature (a king, prince or a person of noble birth who possesses a tragic flaw such as pride, arrogance, ambition, short temper). 3) Events that must unravel and come to a resolution within the span of twenty-four hours. 4) A hero who, because of his human frailty (a tragic flaw) moves from good to bad. Ultimately, the hero’s tragic flaw, an infirmity often supplanted by the gods, visits calamity on the hero, his loved ones, and the nation.

Aristotle also stated that a tragedy’s denouement should bring catharsis, a cleansing that brings order and harmony to individual and communal pathos so as to wipe the slate clean and herald a new beginning in the social order.

While William Shakespeare adhered to most Aristotelian dramatic tenets, he took liberty in intertwining and weaving a sub plot into the main plot; in giving his audiences gut wrenching bloody scenes where knives sink deep, heads roll, eyes are gouged, court intrigue runs rampant, and characters are dispatched in twos, threes, and fours. The aforementioned were enacted, much to the delight of Elizabethan audiences, on the stage, and in full gruesome narrative and gory, blood-soaked visual depictions. (“Out, damned spot; out, I say …” – Lady Macbeth; “Out, vile jelly” – as Cornwall gouges Gloucester’s eyes, throws them on the floor, and steps on them.) And last, Shakespeare added minor scenes for comic relief and stretched his plays’ plots and actions over days, weeks, months, and years.

The brilliant Samuel Johnson, the Great 18th critic, states that:

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour [sic.] of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised [sic.] by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species…

This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed [sic.] his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” (Samuel Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare.”)

Act I, Scene I of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is perhaps one of the very best dramatic strokes of genius. With an economy of dialogue and action, this first scene of Act I, call it a fast-paced exposition, foretells the doddering aged king’s weakened judgment, his petulant temperament, and his propensity for making impulsively rash and unwise decisions that backfire on him.

Having ruled England for a long while, Lear is ready to give up his throne and slide into the life of Riley retirement. Much like Donald Trump’s staged and choreographed ballyhooed official briefings and public campaign orations, Lear invites his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, to hear his very important announcement. The two older daughters’ husbands are in attendance, Cordelia, the youngest, is attended by two suitors vying for her hand.

Because Lear decides to go out with a big bang, he cherishes the moment and decides to stage his last courtly deliberations as a grand retirement spectacle replete with self-serving aggrandizement. With no male heir to succeed him to the throne, and because of his penchant for having had his way for a long time, Lear invites courtiers, earls, dukes, knights, and foreign dignitaries to witness the disposition of his kingdom, a kind of conditional bequeathing of his large real estate holdings (but, as is later revealed, not the power of the throne), to his three daughters.

In the presence of family members and a large number of courtiers and dignitaries, Lear’s announcement comes with strings attached. To summarize, Lear declares that he is giving up his responsibilities as a monarch and wishes to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. First, each of the daughters had to publically declare the extent of her love for him. Competing with each other and fully aware of their doddering father’s need for glorification and adulation, Goneril and Regan spew some very sappy, sophomoric bromides about the extent of their love. Regan outperforms her older sister’s inflated fibs with extremely exaggerated expressions of love. Not only does she overstate the intensity of her own love and adoration, but she also, and much to Lear’s pleasure, outdoes her sister with decidedly extravagant boot-licking flattery.

The senescent, self-centered Lear is incapable of seeing through the spurious fabrications and highly inflated self-serving lies – he points to a map, and draws demarcation lines allotting two-thirds of his kingdom to the two older daughters, gifting one-third of his kingdom to the each of the imposters. While trying to recall Goneril’s name, years back a former student mistakenly called her Gonorrhea, an apropos moniker for one so evil.

His ego boosted by these insincere remarks, Lear invites Cordelia, his youngest and dearest daughter, to declare her love for him. Expecting Cordelia’s platitudes to dwarf her sister’s feigned remarks, Lear is shocked at her brief yet sincere response (“Nothing, my Lord. Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty/According to my bond; no more, no less.” To which the impetuous Lear angrily responds: “Nothing begets you nothing.” Greatly angered by Cordelia’s honesty, his inertly reflexive and indignant response was swift and harsh. Lear divides Cordelia’s third of the kingdom in two and bestows one half of her inheritance to each of her two older sisters; he then angrily tells the King of France, one of two suitors, he could have her without a dowry, to which France responds: “She is herself a dowry,” an assertion that comes to fruition in the last two acts.

Trustworthy Cordelia is banished from the kingdom.

When the Duke of Kent attempts to intercede on Cordelia’s behalf, he too, is summarily banished from the kingdom.

Perhaps because of a diminishing mental capacity, Act I, Scene I succinctly exposes Lear’s love for spectacle, pageantry, pettiness, petulance, impetuousness, impulsiveness, vengefulness, retribution, and rashness in making viscerally emotional, instead of rational decisions.

Beginning in 2004 Donald Trump hosted “The Apprentice” television show and pretended to be the program’s playwright, director, stage manager, choreographer, set designer, and protagonist. He hosted the show through 2015, and treated the participants as antagonists to be harangued, insulted, and humiliated.

There is no doubt that from 2004 to 2015 Trump honed his acting, communication, verbal hectoring (often downright insults), self-aggrandizing, manipulative, and self-serving skills into an art form. Having never watched this show, the only thing I remember were the brief station adverts – portraying a ruddy-faced man whose superficially pouffed, thinning, fake hairdo (no doubt held up with an abundance of hair spray) glistened in the ugliest orange tint. Serving as judge, jury, and executioner, the Orange Menace pointed a stubby finger at cowering victims, and pronounced his egomaniacal dictatorial verdict: “You’re fired,” a phrase he would later ejaculate in his campaign speeches, and always to the delight of his adulating supporters.

Having mastered the art of manipulating his audiences via a television screen, in 2015 and much like a medieval alchemist, Donald Trump took his dark magic show on the campaign trail. Using every trick in his large inventory of lies, the manipulation of facts, and vicious personal attacks on the sixteen 2016 Republican Presidential candidates, including Obama, the liberal left, and the media, Trump introduced a new low in American politics. That Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham have sniveled up to Trump after having been brutally attacked and denigrated throughout the 2016 presidential campaign is a telling comment on both, Trump’s Fascistic tactics, and his lackeys’, bought-by-dollars opportunists with no integrity , self-esteem, or self-respect.

Since January 2017 Donald Trump has refined his manipulation of public discourse into an art form by utilizing the following formats: meetings with foreign dignitaries at the White House and abroad; his almost daily readily available army of reporters on the White House lawn as he is about to embark on a Marine One excursion to a rally, a golf course, or Mara Largo; his never-ending campaign speeches, especially in Red states where wall to wall red meat is thrown to the adulating masses; and, since the COVID-19 virus has become a full-blown pandemic, his almost daily White House briefings.

The White House South Portico lawn and the ceremonial Red Room setting have been Trump’s favorite sites for photo ops with foreign dignitaries. During these brief sessions a multitude of journalists, much like piranhas, pounce on each other to ask questions. Ever the impresario, Trump seems to thrive on the barrage of questions, choosing and picking journalists as one would go through a stand of fruit or vegetables, picking and choosing one over the other, and always choosing a friendly plant whose question allows the Entertainer-in-Chief to blabber about one of his many pet peeves. Often an unfriendly question is thrown his way, to which he responds with disdain, attacks the reporter, and accuses the “leftist, socialist, liberal fake news” of bias and distortion.

The second venue for displaying his public discourse deals with his overseas trips to G20 and other international conferences and events, and, should he not get his way (or should other world leader outshine him), Trump sulks, spews some bromides (“everybody is taking advantage of us”), and plays the schoolyard bully by taking his marbles, boarding Air Force One, and heading home. A chronic misfit, Trump takes every opportunity to bad mouth friends and foes.

One of the most ridiculous foreign events on record was Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia where, with a gilded saber perched on his shoulder, he danced with some 20 Bedouins – performing a 7th century pedestrian routine akin to Druids chanting and gyrating at a Stonehenge event. Then, perched over a four ft. globe, Trump, Saudi King Salman, and Egypt’s current tyrant, General-President-for-Life Al Sissi, they conducted a hocus pocus laying of hands on a replica of the globe, a scene reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s witches den into which an ambitious Macbeth steps in to be seduced by the power the old hags were promising him.

I guess Trump will do anything for a buck. While other U.S. presidents have sold their souls by providing Saudi Arabia, its neighboring thugs, and Israel (gratis for the only democracy in the Middle East) destructive arsenals, Donald Trump stooped (literally and metaphorically) to sell 90 billion dollars’ worth of death to the Saudis.

Since his election in November of 2016, Donald Trump, the consummate pretender, has crisscrossed the country to stage campaign speeches to adulating Make America Great audiences. By not following a script, Trump, like other Fascists before him, moves from one fabrication to the other, and from one insult to the other, always inviting his audiences to repeat a refrain, to jeer at a victim de jour, and to portray himself as a victim of hoaxes and fake media.

“I am Jesus Trump, the Chosen One, and if you don’t elect me, rapists and murderers will stream into our country and the economy will tank, “ya’ll hea- me now!’ ”

One has to wonder whether the baked beans and barbequed ribs the attendees consumed prior to attending these staged rallies directed the odoriferously gaseous fumes to cloud the brains.

Restricted by COVID-19 from traveling to campaign speeches and having daily White House lawn impromptu press conferences, Donald Trump and his handlers have resorted to a controlled format to help keep his image and message alive and in perpetual public view.

For over three weeks now and almost daily, White House briefings have been held. These are staged briefings choreographed to help Trump appear presidential, the man of the hour in full control, and the Pandemic War President par excellence.

In addition to the permanent props (Mike Pence, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Brix) each day a new set of props are paraded. These human props include health experts, government officials, Trump staff members, businessmen, and an assorted number of cabinet members. Having been introduced by stage manager Trump, each of the above, and on cue, launches a laudatory statement or two about Dear Leader Trump’s leadership (bandied around repeatedly) and the “outstanding job” performance of their Dear Leader. Never one to exhibit humility, Dear Leader nods approvingly at each of these gratuitous lies.

How Lear-Like has Dear Leader become, always inviting adoration, adulation, approval, reverence, and obedience.

And like Lear, Trump is quick to summarily “fire” an underling – always in the wee hours of the morning, and with a tweet. A Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Inspectors General (thus stripping oversight powers), A Navy Commander (grotesquely maligned as “stupid” and “naïve” for having the moral fortitude to protect his men from Trumpus Pandemicus), Environmental Protection Agency personnel, whistle blowers daring to tell the whole truth about Trump’s mismanagement of relief efforts. The list includes Lt. Col. Vindman and his twin brother, FBI Director, several senior White House staff members, and Jeff Sessions, former Attorney General. Suffice it to say that as of April 7, 2020, there has been an 85% turnover in Trump’s imperial world.

During each of the briefings Trump blames his predecessors, especially Obama, for a host shortcomings; he is more concerned about the economy instead of citizens’ health; he sends much needed medical equipment to Red States, especially states whose Republican governors laud his efforts; he punishes those who criticize him by withholding much need medical supplies. And despite the fact that there is a shortage of masks in the U.S., a country Trump took an oath to protect, he sent 1 million masks to Israel, a quid pro quo gift to Sheldon Adelman and Co.

Frustrated, angry, and humiliated at having been denied stopover visits and brief domicile in Regan and Goneril’s castles, Lear, furious, and physically and emotional unhinged, he wanders the countryside and loses touch with reality and becomes a deranged vagabond.

Methinks that Donald Trump’s 4/13/2020 assertion that, “When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total,” is a sign that all his ill-advised and egregious decisions of the last three months during which Covid-19 has exploded exponentially are catching up with him – mentally, physically, and emotionally. He is short tempered, lashes out at friend and foe, is erratic, and is always self-absorbed and preoccupied with his reelection.

Donald Trump is an infinitely more complicated character than Lear. Lear could be forgiven for the unraveling of his character due to the onset of a second childhood and his desire to free himself of responsibility – to relive his younger, vibrant days, and to squeeze a carefree existence for his remaining days.

And Donald Trump?

I wonder what Shakespeare would have thought of Donald Trump, and I wonder how he would have depicted him in a Corona Virus-themed pandemic tragedy. I doubt that Lear would be a prototype. Instead, the acclaimed English bard would have created a composite character, one that is not of noble character, one that possesses myriad flaws, and a character that would be an amalgamation of an Iago, Claudius, Lady Macbeth and her weakling husband, Shylock, Richard III, and John Webster’s Bosola (“The Duchess of Malfi,” as good a tragedy as any of Shakespeare’s).

In such a play, three heroes will no doubt stand above all others. They include Governor Andrew Cuomo, Dr Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, who, even though they have been exploited as regular “briefing props,” have exhibited integrity, altruism, and professionalism.

Only time will tell whether an angry, frustrated, and unhinged Donald Trump will point his stubby finger and tell them “You’re Fired!”

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.