Writers often reference the Shakespeare protagonist King Lear in order to understand Donald Trump. The New York Times' Maureen Dowd is obsessed with the Shakespearean Trump: "As he rages in the storm, Lear-like …" Her colleague Roger Cohen imagines Trump gold-robed at night like Lear on the cliffs, or as Shakespeare put it: "fantastically dressed with wild flowers."
There's much to the analogy. As self-involved and approval-obsessed as his nonfiction counterpart, Lear attaches a condition to dividing his kingdom among his three daughters: "Which of you shall we say doth love us most? (See: Trump's Cabinet in ritual hero-worship.) The most loving daughter expects to earn the largest share.
The two oldest daughters, the married Goneril and Regan, make insincere and rehearsed proclamations: "dearer than eyesight, space and liberty," "I profess / Myself an enemy to all other joys."
Lear promises to reward them generously. Now he turns to his best-loved, youngest daughter Cordelia, who is unmarried but courted by the king of France and the duke of Burgundy. Lear asks her, "what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?"
Cordelia replies that she will obey, love and honor the king, but that when she marries, half her love will go to her husband. For this honest and affectionate answer, Lear banishes Cordelia. Anything less than blind obedience is unacceptable, much the way Trump sees Jeff Sessions. Gold-digging Burgundy abandons his courtship. France is charmed by Cordelia, and they leave the stage together.
Lear expects to divide his time between the castles of Goneril and Regan. Offended by his initial preference for Cordelia, they mistreat their father, sending him spiraling into bombast and self-pity ("I am a man more sinned against than sinning") in the stormy heath. Sound familiar?
Lear changes. For one thing, he becomes more empathetic, reaching out to "poor naked wretches," and admitting, "O, I have taken / Too little care of this!"
In at least a rhetorical parallel, Trump has spoken about "forgotten Americans." It remains to be seen whether he'll act on their behalf when he's not planning tax cuts for the rich. In any case, many find him narcissistic, boastful, vulgar, ignorant and dishonest. So this is where the comparison to Lear begins to fray: there's nothing noble or tragic about the president.
Seeing Cordelia anew, Lear wishes nothing less than to be with her. They're eventually reunited, albeit as prisoners of war. Cordelia bemoans their status. Lear replies with one of the most eloquent speeches Shakespeare ever wrote:
No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds in the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;
And take upon us the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.
Now we admire Lear. That's stretching our tolerance for the Donald and his "distorted reality and warped values," as Dowd writes. If only Trump had a Cordelia speaking truth to power.
In the end Lear and Trump become opposites, but their worlds are strikingly similar. Everything in King Lear falls apart, and the stage is littered with bodies, including those of Lear and Cordelia, as the play concludes. Trump eviscerates much we hold dear.
Harold Bloom is a respected American literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. Asked by the New York Times Book Review what he read in 2016, he replied: "Incessantly I reread King Lear, and find what takes my apprehension to its limits. Nature dwindles to nothing. Familial love turns destructive. Intergenerational strife becomes murderous. In this bad autumn I echo Lear: 'We cry that we are come unto this great stage of fools.' "
Jim Kaplan, the author of "Clearing the Bases: A Veteran Sportswriter on the National Pastime" and a forthcoming appreciation of King Lear, wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times. He can be reached at [email protected]