Wednesday, July 1, 2020

"True ornaments to know a holy man": Holy-Book-Waving in Shakespeare and Washington

A stereotypical sign of moral hypocrisy is the waving of a Bible. The phrase "Bible thumper" refers not to a genuinely inspired Christian zealot, but to a Pharisee more intent on cramming Biblical dicta into others' heads than on repenting for his own sins (who will not remove the mote in his own eye, in that same Bible's words). While "Bible thumper" goes back only a century or so, these scripture-waving types are as old as the Pharisees Christ chastises in that very book. They've always abounded in life, and representations of them in literature precede Shakespeare. (Think of Chaucer's licentious fire-and-brimstone preacher, the Pardoner.) So when the puffed-up libertine Donald Trump appeared waving a Bible in front of a Washington D.C. church last month, using that book as a prop to help him condemn the folks in that city who were protesting police violence against black citizens, he was a familiar trope. (A Trump trope.) He was the real-life embodiment of a humorous literary and dramatic cliche. He didn't know that, of course, because he doesn't read books. But the fact was evident to others.

The joke was especially rich for Shakespeareans, who saw the resemblance of the ridiculous scene to the comic moment in Richard III when wicked Richard, Duke of Gloucester, stage-manages his own appearance in front of a crowd of London citizenry. He stands between two clergymen, holding a prayer book and claiming he is "earnest in the service of my God." He's suborned the mayor and his henchman Buckingham to urge him to leave his prayerful contemplation and ascend to the English throne -- a position to which he is not, in fact, entitled, but which he is determined to occupy. In Richard Loncraine's filmed adaptation of the play, Richard (Ian McKellen) and his sinister cronies wear Nazi-ish uniforms as they plot the scene.

Richard is certainly more comfortable with his religious prop than Trump was with that there Bible book of which he'd heard, and from which, when once challenged to do so, he could quote not a syllable. Richard holds his prayer book gracefully, looking as though he's actually been reading it. Trump, as seen above, holds the Bible up for the television audience as though it's an exotic object, which, for him, it is. I don't know what's in this thing, but I think it's about making money, like my second-favorite book, '"The Art of the Deal"! Ivanka said I could get re-elected by waving it around. But how do you hold a book? Also unlike Trump, Richard is a versatile actor skilled in pious oratory. "God be thanked, there is no need of me!," he says, to prompt the scripted denials and entreaties of his followers. Trump just stands and stares belligerently like a Bible-toting orangutan.

Still, despite the evident discrepancy between Trump's and Richard's levels of education, intelligence, and skill, these two scenes of religous hypocrisy, as witnessed by the theater or television viewer, are hilariously similar. Both Richard and Trump appear flanked by "supporters" meant to shore up their public legitimacy. Trump drags the uniformed head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, White House Spokesbimbo Kayleigh McEnany, Attorney General William Barr, and several other statesfolk into his photo op. Richard appears between two robed priests, and requires London's Lord Mayor and the Duke of Buckingham to "voice-over" the scene, to ensure that its moral point is not lost: "See where his Grace stands, 'tween two clergymen!" These "right reverend fathers" are "two props of virtue for a Christian prince" -- props, indeed! -- "To stay him from the fall of vanity; / And see, a book of prayer in his hand, / True ornaments to know a holy man." Shakespeare's scene might have served as an instruction manual for Trump's awkward enactment of Christian leadership. But we know the apparent connection between the scenes is a mere coincidence. The idea of Trump digesting even a tenth of a Shakespeare play is laughable.

The citizens' reactions to Richard III's hypocritical tour-de-force are also applicable to this shameful (yet funny) Trumpian episode. Several (not all) members of Trump's photo-op group wore horrified "Help Me!" expressions as Trump herded them in for the shot. Like the English commoners when told of Richard's claim to the throne, "[T]hey spake not a word / But, like dumb statues or breathing stones, / Stared each on other and looked deadly pale."

But they did it. They walked with him to the church, and they stood with him and aided his hypocrisy. Barr, a well-educated Catholic and supposedly a Christian, knew, even if Trump didn't, that inside the book Trump was holding up were exhortations to behave not like these white House Pharisees, but like the peaceful citizens standing up for love of one's neighbor whom their attack force had just tear-gassed out of Lafayette Square. Still, as have "good Christian" senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and many others, they stood with the hypocrite. And this is the problem.

Let's give full credit to General Mark Milley for publicly regretting that bad choice, and also to Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who, on the same day as the infamous photo-op, sponsored the painting of defiant words signifying human brotherhood on the road that leads to the White House. Her spine is clearly stiffer than Richard III's Lord Mayor's. But let us notice as well the religious hypocrites, the ones who know their leader's moral hollowness and help to puff him up, who speak "not a word" against his betrayal of Christian teaching and abuse of Christian symbols -- along with his many other moral abuses. The Duke of Buckingham got his head cut off, in the end: a victim of King Richard's punitive (and Trumpian) treatment of defectors. Richard himself died of a hundred hurts at Bosworth Field. I'd be happy if Trump and Barr were just kicked out of office.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. But Gloucester deserves a better comparison.