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Shakespeare and Trump: What’s in a Name?

Thoughts on headless bodies in tombless graves

“I am Richard II, know ye not that?” –Queen Elizabeth I

“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” –Carly Simon

“Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump.” –Othello

One seeks in vain for references to Shakespeare in Carly Fiorina’s Tough Choices: A Memoir (2007) and Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey (2015). There are no lessons from Shakespeare in Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us (1996). Nor are there any in her more recent books Living History (2003) and Hard Choices (2014). Ditto for Jeb Bush’s Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution (2013, co-authored with Clint Bolick).

But Donald Trump puts Shakespeare on the syllabus in Think Like a Champion: An Informal Education in Business and Life (2009, with Meredith McIver):

Shakespeare spends a great deal of time dwelling on the characteristics of human nature … One of his greatest achievements was King Lear, which is a good lesson in how good intentions don’t always work out for the best, and it becomes a virtual wipeout while showing the complexities of human relations. (p. 107)

Another good lesson can be found in Romeo and Juliet:

I was having a conversation a few years ago with a few people when one guy mentioned that the Trump name had become a famous brand around the world and then added, “What’s in a name?” He then sort of laughed and said to me, “in your case, a lot!” I noticed that one guy seemed out of the loop about the quip. So I said “That’s Shakespeare. ‘What’s in a name’ is a famous line from Shakespeare.” So he still looked perplexed and asked “From what?” And although I knew it was from Romeo and Juliet, I said, “Look it up. You might learn some interesting things along the way.”

I’m not proposing that you spend years studying Shakespeare, but a topical knowledge of certain things will greatly enhance your capabilities for dealing in the major leagues with people who are well educated in a variety of subjects. Don’t be left out! (Think Like a Champion, p. 49)

In an earlier book called How to Get Rich (2004, also co-authored with Meredith McIver), Trump muses that neither Shakespeare nor he ever could have imagined how much a name could be worth:

[U]sing my name on a building carries with it a promise of the highest quality available and at least a $5-million price tag. That’s just for the name … When I remember the line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — “What’s in a name?” — I have to laugh. What’s in a name can be far more than the Bard or I ever could have imagined. (p. 52)

Juliet insists that a name is just a meaningless tag, signifying nothing more than its arbitrary bearer:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.43-44)

But the choice of a name can make a big difference:

I was originally going to call Trump Tower by another name — Tiffany Tower, for the famous jewelry store next door. I asked a friend, “Do you think it should be Trump Tower or Tiffany Tower?” He said, “When you change your name to Tiffany, call it Tiffany Tower.” (How to Get Rich, p. 51)

When Tiffany Tower became Trump Tower, something happened to Trump himself. He became a brand name — another thing he couldn’t have imagined:

I never planned on becoming a brand name , but the fit of my aesthetic nature with each product I became involved with has resulted in an expanding network of interests. The success of the Trump name worldwide has been a surprise. (How to Get Rich, 52, my italics)

In being branded by his name, Trump became a kind of calligram — an image of his own name. In our culture, something similar has happened to Romeo and Juliet. They have become “Romeo and Juliet,” or “Romeo” and “Juliet,” or even “‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’.”

We sometimes speak of people who have become famous as if at a certain point in their careers they became their famous names — as when we ask, “When did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?” Shakespeare’s case is additionally fraught by the authorship controversy. Consider the vertiginous depths of the quip that Shakespeare’s plays weren’t written by Shakespeare, but by someone else with the same name. Separated from his name, Shakespeare has become what Michel Foucault — apropos Magritte’s “This Is Not a Pipe” — calls an “unraveled calligram”: a juxtaposition of the man himself with the statement “This Is Not a Shakespeare.”

Trump is not an unraveled calligram. He is an unrivaled calligram:

By now, my name is big enough and equated with the gold standard to the extent that I don’t have to say too much about it. The name Trump is a guarantee of a certain level of quality. (Think Like a Champion, p. 4)

Whether Trump could imagine it or not, Shakespeare knew that it is possible to over-identify with one’s name. He illustrates this in Cymbeline. When Cloten, the queen’s privileged son, meets Guiderius in the Welsh woods, he expects his presumed social inferior to tremble at the sound of his name. (Guiderius doesn’t know that he himself is the king’s son, or that his name is Guiderius.)

Cloten: Thou injurious thief,
Hear but my name and tremble.

Guiderius: What’s thy name?

Cloten: Cloten, thou villain.

Guiderius: Cloten, thou double villain, be thy name,
I cannot tremble at it, were it Toad, or Adder, Spider,
’Twould move me sooner. (Cymbeline, 4.2.86-91)

Cloten is quickly dispatched and decapitated. His headless body is buried alongside the apparently dead Imogen, who has changed her name to Fidele. She is resurrected as Fidele-Imogen. Cloten is forgotten as Cloten.

The separation of Cloten’s head from his body symbolically materializes the unraveling of the powerful calligram he had taken himself to be in life. This is the opposite of the predicament of Yorick in Hamlet. The eulogy that his bodiless head (or skull) receives (“Alas, poor Yorick!”) amounts to a restitution of his name. Yorick is more fortunate than Cloten, whom no one remembers fondly. As Hamlet tells Polonius, however, there is something even worse than having a “bad epitaph” after one is dead, namely, having an “ill report” while one is alive (as Cloten does) (Hamlet, 2.2.526-527).

This too is a good lesson. Yet another good lesson is given by Lear, amidst his virtual wipeout, and timely for us, as the Shakespearean insult still lives: “Take physic, pomp.” (King Lear, 3.4.33.)

Andrew Cutrofello

  • Julia Lupton

    Lovely discussion, lightly handled. The quotations from Trump undo themselves, like bubbles of the earth.

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