The past four years have confronted Shakespeare scholars with endless obvious comparisons between our president and Shakespeare's most villainous tragic heroes. We've compared him to Macbeth, Claudius, and Richard III, along with the more morally ambiguous Richard II, King Lear, and Julius Caesar. We all agree that Trump shares almost every vice of these characters and none of their redeeming features, like eloquence, courage, or wit. He's a would-be hero, just as he's a would-be strong man. As Sacha Baron Cohen recently put it, Trump, like Cohen, is a professional phony.
That being the case, it may be best to close (I hope) this horrid Trump chapter in American life by drawing attention to the resemblances, not between Trump and a character of tragic stature, but between Trump and the most bloated and shameless Shakespearean phony. That would be Falstaff. It goes without saying that Trump shares this character's vices, but not his talents: his ingenuity, his articulateness, and his teeming imagination. In "Henry IV, part 2," Falstaff says he is not only "witty in [him]self, but the cause that wit is in other men." For Trump, only the second half of that statement is true. However, the past year has shown his remarkable likeness to Falstaff in other, unfunny ways: his chilling indifference to the value of human life, his colossal vanity, his insistence on calling himself the winner of contests he's obviously lost, his contempt for honor, his obesity, his ill health, his steadily decreasing appeal, his pretense of youthfulness, and his need -- or the need with which he presents us -- to banish him from the stage, finally, for good. His scene is done.
Shakespeare developed the initially highly entertaining figure of Falstaff over two plays, "Henry IV, part 1," and "Henry IV, part 2," but implanted within him a kind of built-in obsolescence. Falstaff needed to be fun enough to justify young Prince Hal's attraction to him and to keep the audience laughing through one play, but to fade in his attractions for both Hal and the audience in part two, so that his dismissal -- his ultimate banishment, when Hal ascended to the throne of England -- could be applauded. At the beginning, Falstaff's reckoning himself one of the kingdom's "youth" (he's sixty), and his habit of talking his way out of trouble by changing the subject, prompt laughter in both Hal and the playgoers (or readers, as the case may be). But by the end of his first play, Falstaff's charm is already waning. It's hard to maintain warm feelings for him after a long speech in which he brags that he is capitalizing on the misery of the kingdom's unfortunates, "younger sons to younger brothers" and "ostlers tradefallen," by impressing them for military service and marching them off to be sacrificed in the king's wars. "Food for [gun]powder," he tells the prince. "They'll fill a pit." Falstaff has enriched himself by allowing luckier, wealthier men to buy their way out of military service, fulfilling his commission by drafting those whose means allow them no choice but to serve. Almost all of them die in the Battle of Shrewsbury; those who remain are maimed. Falstaff doesn't care, as long as he can escape with his money and his life. It's hard for audiences, then, to feel sympathy for him when he shows up in the next play ill with gout, and making jokes which aren't as funny as they used to be, but still trying every trick he can think of to cash in (literally) on his connections to the prince. When the crowned Hal finally publicly repudiates him, calling him "old man" and telling him, "fall to thy prayers," Falstaff doesn't know it's really time for him to go. He tells his followers he will be sent for "at night." But it's different for us. Like Prince Hal, we know this clown's moment is over.
And so it is for Trump. The comic value of his shamelessness, like that of Falstaff's, has worn thin. Falstaff will go to any absurd length to justify his behavior and his lies, like Trump, who, when challenged regarding his statement that Covid would simply disappear, said, "I'll be right eventually." (So is a stopped clock. And the earth will disappear eventually.) Like Falstaff, who doesn't care how many bodies fill a pit as long as he gets his commission, Trump and his son declare 230,000 American deaths "almost nothing." They're nothing to the Trumps. With less success than Falstaff first enjoys, Trump plays the comedian -- for incredibly, as he leers and grimaces at crowds at his rallies and says whatever comes into his head, he appears to think he is funny. The cascade of crude insults which delight his followers are a far cry from Falstaff's clever pin-pointing of his opponents' deficiencies ("elfskin" and "dried neat's tongue," meaning the prince, are terms which show some imagination; the same cannot be said for "Little Marco," "Sleepy Joe," etc.). But the dwindling, tired taunts with which Falstaff mocks his unfortunate draftees' names in "Henry IV, part 2," begin to put him in Trump's low-wit category. ("Moldy ... 'tis time you were used," he tells one such poor soul.)
Like Falstaff, Trump claimed, at the time he got Covid, to have survived because he was "very young," and for months Trump has been mocking Joseph Biden for his age-related gaffes without seeming to understand that he is almost Biden's age himself, and has shown at least as many eyebrow-raising "senior moments" as his political foe in the last four years -- and even less physical stamina. Like Falstaff the fat, Trump lumbers around like a gouty water buffalo, not even able to stand upright behind a podium without leaning on it, spray-tanning himself so as not to show his natural ghastly pallor, dyeing and combing-over his sparse grey hair, and surrounding himself with women more than twenty years younger than himself, with whose energy he can clearly not keep up. Towards the end of his stage-time, Falstaff laments, at last, "I am old." Was Trump experiencing such a Falstaff moment when, in his bizarre TV pitch to seniors some weeks ago, he actually admitted that he was one? Does he know he's going to die?
I doubt it. Very likely he was only desperately trolling for votes. But to me, it seems his act is finished. "Fall to thy prayers," Falstaff is told by the newly crowned king. In other words, "Repent, but do it elsewhere." I hope that this month, we invite our orange fool to do the same.
And, by the way, Falstaff's next stop, after that dismissal, is prison, for his thievery. Just a thought.