It has become something of a cliché to compare President Donald Trump with Shakespeare’s fictional King Lear. Over the last year half a dozen newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic have made the comparison. In fact, there is nothing new about comparing Donald Trump to Shakespeare’s old tyrant. Elizabeth Bailey did so as far back as January 2005 in The New York Sun. Back then the similarities were limited: Trump was a capricious despot of a business empire whose unequal treatment of his grown-up children was already patent. However, it is since the property magnate became President of the USA that the comparisons have supposedly accumulated to the point at which ‘the leader of the free world’ seems to be openly parodying Shakespeare’s great tragedy.
In Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear is an old widower who has three daughters. His youngest, Cordelia, is possibly from a second marriage. She is certainly his favourite. Some critics even suggest that the father feels a repressed sexual desire towards her. In any case the king decides to delegate the responsibilities of rule while maintaining the privileges of monarchy. To favour his youngest daughter he decides to divide the kingdom between his three daughters (rather than pass the realm intact to his eldest daughter and her husband). To do this, he offers portions of the kingdom to each daughter in exchange for expressions of love towards him. The eldest daughters play along and flatter their father competitively saying that they love him more than life itself. However, the youngest daughter refuses to play the game because it will mean benefiting materially from her genuine filial love. She is banished and the elder daughters, now in charge, marginalize and humiliate Lear until he goes mad. Cordelia comes to his rescue with an army from France but is defeated and, in the end, the entire family is destroyed.
Clearly, at a formal level, there is little in common between the story of Lear and the story of Donald Trump to date. There are, nevertheless, points of contact. As an old, possibly demented, self-involved, approval-obsessed autocrat, Lear does remind one of Trump (or vice-versa). The most famous scene from the play is Lear ranting against the storm at night. The temptation to compare this to Trump’s nocturnal Twitter storms is irresistible.
Before the election the Trump campaign let slip that the plan was for son-in-law Jared Kushner to run the country. When asked what Trump would be doing, the vacuous answer was, “Oh, he’ll be making America great again”. It seems that after a long life of wheeling and dealing in business, Donald Trump thought that the Presidency would be a sort of retirement in which he would receive honours and praise while others worked on the nitty-gritty.
Last year the Administration allowed the TV cameras into a cabinet meeting and what was revealed was horrifying. One by one each of the members of Trump’s Government expressed what a privilege it was to work for the President, a public display of competitive flattery that instantly reminded those of us who knew King Lear of the elder daughters’ insincere adulation. Indeed, Trump’s foreign visits confirm again and again that he is an easy victim of flatterers. Meanwhile, truth-tellers, from James Comey to Jeff Sessions, are routinely victimized, insulted and vilified by the President for not telling him what he wants to hear (but rather doing their jobs).
Other comparisons can also be made. Trump’s favouritism towards his daughter Ivanka, who he has occasionally sexualized in shockingly inappropriate ways, echo the Lear-Cordelia bond. Lear’s supporters conspire with a foreign power to undermine the independence and sovereignty of Albion – possible similarities with the collusion with the Russians? Lear promises to take care of the poor who have been forgotten and ignored by the elite in the past (but in the end does nothing for them). Likewise, Trump has promised much to the ‘forgotten Americans’ but so far has delivered little.
The end of the play bears little resemblance to the Trump Administration so far. Nevertheless, it has to be said that Trump has been in power for only 14 months. If he is eventually ousted from power through impeachment or simply in response to the incompetence and chaos of the Administration, he may still morph into the self-pitying demented Lear of Acts III, IV and V. At least in his own mind and that of his supporters he may by then have achieved the status of tragic hero “most sinned against than sinning”.
For the present, most of us consider the current US Administration a rather grotesque comedy. There is even a stage act called Trump Lear, a one-man show in which comedian David Carl impersonates and lampoons the President. However, we would do well to remember that the legend of King Lear was always considered a comedy until Shakespeare got hold of it. Its early audiences expected a happy ending and were startled and horrified when everything went pear-shaped in the final scene. The world may be laughing at President Trump but beware; this may well all end in tears.
At the end of 2016, Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom commented, “Incessantly I re-read King Lear, and find what takes my apprehension to its limits. Nature dwindles to nothing. Familial love turns destructive. Intergenerational strife becomes murderous. […] I echo Lear: ‘We cry that we are come unto this great stage of fools’.”
 as far back as – as early as, as long ago as
 back then – (in this case) in January 2005
 unequal treatment of – favouritism towards some of
 grown-up – adult
 widower – man whose wife has died
 rule – (in this case) government
 rather than – as opposed to, instead of (+ -ing)
 realm /relm/ – kingdom
 to play along – participate in a charade/farce
 to flatter – express insincere admiration for
 refuses to – is not willing to, will not
 to banish – expel, exile
 to be defeated – lose a battle
 to date – so far, up until now
 self-involved – obsessed about oneself
 to remind sb. of – cause sb. to remember, seem similar to
 to rant against – rave against, shout at
 storm – tempest
 Twitter storm – sequence of furious Tweets
 to run sth. (run-ran-run) – govern sth., administer sth., manage sth.
 wheeling and dealing – unscrupulous activities
 praise – adulation, expressions of admiration
 nitty-gritty – practical details
 to allow – permit
 display – exhibition
 flattery – insincere expressions of admiration
 to remind sb. – cause sb. to remember
 indeed – (emphatic) in fact
 but rather – instead of, as opposed to
 shockingly – scandalously
 bond – relationship, connection
 supporters – followers, fans
 to undermine – weaken, debilitate
 Albion – prehistoric Britain
 collusion – conspiracy, complicity, connivance
 likewise – similarly
 so far – up until now
 to bear little resemblance to (bear-bore-borne) – not be like, not be similar to
 eventually – (false friend) finally, in the end
 to oust from power – dethrone, impeach, depose, evict from power
 impeachment –
 self–pitying –
 to achieve – get, attain
 more sinned against than sinning – (from King Lear III.ii) more of a victim than a victimizer
 rather – somewhat, surprisingly
 stage act – theatrical performance
 to impersonate – imitate
 to lampoon – ridicule, caricature
 would do well to – should, ought to
 to get hold of (get-got-got) – (in this case) adapt
 to startle – surprise
 to go pear-shaped (go-went-gone) – go wrong, become a disaster
 beware – (interjection) be careful, be vigilant
 to end in tears – have a catastrophic result in the end
 scholar – expert
 to dwindle – decline
 strife – conflict
 to cry – (in this case) lament
 that we are come unto – (archaic) because we live in, because we find ourselves in
 this great stage of fools – this pantomime, this farcical situation