An American Tragedy? Shakespeare on CNN
How poor is he who has not patience? To Iago’s question, through whose unscrupulous lips Shakespeare’s genius finds a most dastardly voice, the answer is very poor indeed. Though poorer still, if I might be so bold as to attempt an improvement upon the words of that greatest of bards, is he who hasn’t prudence. He who lacks prudence more than patience is the worse off. The former is undervalued, the latter overestimated. It’s for this reason that Iago finds himself exiting Shakespeare’s stage as if he were leaving that of Chekov. That’s to say, unlike so many ill-fated stars of that English poet’s macabre mind, Iago leaves it in one piece. In the work of Chekov, on the contrary, though always the rifle which hangs on the wall is by the final act used, one expects more than a few characters to be spared.
Iago is one such rogue. Although ultimately defeated and sentenced to the rack, we never hear of our knavish anti-hero officially breathing his last. Because, above all, he retained his prudence in near equal measure to his patience (and was cut low only by the loose lips of a woman scorned), he finds himself departing that sanguinary island of Cyprus with both heart tethered and limb attached.
For President Trump’s current lawyer, New York City’s former mayor, and every media outlet’s favorite interloper, Rudy Giuliani seems to be deficient in both. He has neither patience nor prudence and certainly operates without Iago’s wit. But what he lacks in these qualities—of which at least two had been thought once absolutely essential to the personality of a competent White House attorney—he apparently makes up for in his Shakespearean references and taste. Speaking with a CNN anchor on the network’s banner show, New Day, Giuliani compared President Trump’s erstwhile personal attorney, Michael Cohen, with the villainous Iago of Othello and the sanctimonious Brutus of Julius Caesar.
On Cohen and Trump’s relationship, Giuliani described the latter as having “a close friend (in Cohen) who betrayed him” much in the way that “Iago betrayed Othello and Brutus put the last knife in Caesar”. From tragedy to history—from Venetian to Roman and thence American forms, Giuliani went on to remind us that “George Washington didn’t know that Benedict Arnold was a traitor”. Cohen, in this instance, would be that rebel-turned-loyalist Arnold (whose good work on behalf of the American cause in Canada and New York was, lest we forget, unimaginably crucial during the Revolution’s germinal phase) while the president would be the stolid general George.
Giuliani was making reference to the fact that Cohen seems now to be backsliding on his prior devotion to Trump. Never was there an attorney, a client, a confidante, a friend, more ardently disposed toward his employer than was he. It’s not hard to see why; Cohen, by Trump’s side and in his boss’ shadow, had been through many a decade worth of thick and thin. Cohen had a hand in nearly every aspect of Trump’s life: personal, professional, presidential, financial, lecherous, indecorous, and everything in between—Cohen knew of it all. More importantly—and at least for Giuliani and President Trump, more forebodingly—he still does. And as he’s come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks (first by Robert Mueller’s investigation into his connections with Russia and then by the Southern District of New York’s further dive into his shady business dealings and international entanglements), Cohen appears ready to sing. And singing, in this case, sounds a lot more like Cohen stabbing. It’s precisely this knife to the back, wielded by a desperate man bent on his own self-preservation, that Trump and Giuliani fear. Perhaps, in this way, Cohen will prove himself the perfect traitor.
Yet it’s important to remember the lives and the fates that befell those other characters and men. Doing so, we begin with Othello. Once an ambitious and amorous Moor, a pompous and martial fellow of some repute back in the Venetian court, he became a deranged and intractable and egotistical fiend. Susceptible to gossip and pervious to every slithering deceit and machination that found his ear, he was quickly undone. By his own hand, acting, as it were, independent of his sanity, he smote not only his dear Desdemona but himself as well. To compare President Trump with Othello (as one necessarily does if Cohen is to be our ignoble Iago) is to pay him no flattery. You see, Othello was a power-hungry, unstable, self-aggrandizing, and narcissistic political upstart as lascivious as he was ambitious. None could discern equal qualities in Trump…
Envisaging him as a Caesar works better to that end. But like Othello, Caesar was ambitious, and Brutus—so we’re told repeatedly by Antony—was an honorable man. Caesar fought the Germans and crossed the Rubicon while Brutus pined for the restoration of the Republic. Only one could finally achieve his aim. A formidable general, albeit a slightly less capable statesman, Caesar drove his only living adversary, Pompey, to the furthest reaches of Rome. There, in that bounteous and fertile land known then as now as Egypt, the runner-up of the First Triumvirate was killed. It was an assassination effectuated by Ptolemy. Caesar mourned his death and bid his regal opponent adieu, but there awaited him on the continent greater feats. Thus, Caesar marched forth.
Ignoring the portents, of which there were at least four, Caesar—in his marching—wouldn’t hesitate and he wouldn’t relent. He continued unperturbed to his rightful place atop the senate floor. He’d only just recently become the de facto king—ending an interregnum of nearly four hundred years. Not since Tarquin the Proud had so much imperial authority been consolidated in so singular a man, and Caesar was prepared for its use. Yet the dais—snatched as it was from that now dying republic’s hand, which itself once saw to Tarquin’s end—was not to be his before the ides were through. There, in the atrium of Pompey’s theater, begirded by his angry underlings (amongst whom could be numbered not only his dearest friend Brutus—who probably was not only a colleague, but the new emperor’s misbegotten son—but Decius Brutus, Cassius, Trebonius, and Casca) he was brought to kneel.
Stabbed twenty-three times, Caesar fell. The assassins fled the capital and Brutus bathed his palms in his dead king’s blood. Perhaps quietly fancying himself an inheritor of this now vacant realm and this always turbulent Rome, Brutus exclaimed sic semper tyrannis to bury all doubts. Thus always to tyrants! Saying so much might’ve been his way of nipping in the bud any suspicion amongst the crowd that he rather than Caesar was in fact the ambitious one. Thinking that autocrats were démodé, he emerged to assure the gathered Romans and countrymen and friends that his coup d’état was something that the circumstances demanded. It was absolutely vital if the empire of seven hills were to survive. Clearly, the citizens, the Second Triumvirate, and hundreds of successive emperors contemptuously disagreed. Rome would never again flirt with the concept of republicanism until the modern day.
Still, this story reads not as a Shakespearean nor a Roman tale, but an originally American one. And, knowing not how it ends, we must be patient and, above all, prudent. The stage is set. Let the players, the presidents, the attorneys, and the fools (that includes you, Rudy Giuliani) play on.