The Clown and the Crook: Finding Trump in Shakespeare’s Othello

It’s hard not to see reflections of Donald Trump in art these days. Take the sudden climb up the bestseller lists for George Orwell and other dystopian authors, or the obvious comparisons between Trump and fellow dark lord Voldemort—even his White House screening of Finding Dory couldn’t pass without irony. For a man whose presidential campaign was as steeped in narcissism as it was devoid of morality, such ubiquity in popular culture must be a dream come true.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that I saw Trump again on the weekend, in a production of Othello by the Shakespeare arm of Bristol’s Tobacco Factory. He came of course in the form of the play’s antagonist, Iago, whose plot to destroy the eponymous Moor by tearing down his marriage to Desdemona makes him one of Shakespeare’s most malevolent villains.

The surface comparisons between Trump and Iago are easy to see: his blatant lies about Desdemona’s adultery, for example; or how he promises to return to Roderigo, a white Venetian, the wife he feels Othello, a black immigrant, has stolen from him. Like Game of Thrones‘ Littlefinger, he moves from character to character pretending to offer help, all the while manipulating them for his own ends instead. But what made this particular iteration so resonant was STF’s Mark Lockyer, whose portrayal of Iago, whether by design or coincidence, took those parallels to the current President to a much greater depth.

Mark Lockyer as Iago. Photo by Camilla Adams, via The Tobacco Factory.
Mark Lockyer as Iago. Photo by Camilla Adams, via The Tobacco Factory.

Lockyer’s character was full of charisma. Instead of his default portrayal as a two-faced conniver, Iago became something of an enigmatic anti-hero, drawing laughter and camaraderie from the audience as he divulged his schemes. Given his role in the play, the rapport he was able to create was downright sinister. His attacks on Othello’s marriage and mental state were received almost like the blows of a plucky, underdog gladiator—seated as we were in tiers surrounding the Tobacco Factory’s central stage, it was certainly difficult to suppress the feeling of being in a Roman arena, lapping up the bloody spectacle on the sands below.

Perhaps it would have been easier to see Iago for what he was, had his scenes not been lit invariably by a ring of hard white strip lights around the stage. Under their relentless glare, his intrigues were thrown into such a nauseating clarity that they seemed dreamlike, a little fuzzy at the edges, and that unreality gave Iago free rein to distort himself as necessary. To Roderigo he was the ever-helpful ally; to Othello and Cassio, he was crude but innocuous. On the rare occasion he let his guard slip and another character caught sight of his true self (as Desdemona does in Act Two), their criticisms are waved away—that’s just Honest Iago, they’re reminded, he’s only saying what we all wish we could.

Only to the audience is the full picture of Iago’s malice usually revealed, though on this occasion Lockyer does his very best to hide it even from them. He riffs on the dramatic irony of his character’s multiple false faces, using it to paint him with the broad, clownish strokes of many of Shakespeare’s other antagonists; in return for his seemingly humble self-awareness, Iago is allowed the confidence of those who should have all they need to condemn him. His soliloquies are punctuated with a set of all-too-familiar hand gestures—even the “Trump Pump” handshake makes an appearance—and Lockyer exaggerates his delivery until what Iago actually says gets lost beneath how he says it.

Only at the very end, as the stage lights illuminate the play’s bloody climax, does the audience realise that it too has been duped—that the buffoonery it thought was so genuine was just another layer of deception. In the tense quiet that hung about the final scene, it was hard to tell if the onlookers were more stunned by the full extent of Iago’s grand plan, or by his success in convincing them that he could never truly pull it off.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons.

It may well be that the resemblance I saw between Trump and Iago was nothing more than the influence of the times. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but compare the shock of Iago’s unmasking with that of Trump’s presidential election victory.

Like Iago, Trump’s changing faces had enabled him to pull off the impossible: he rose to prominence in a Republican party convinced that he was harmless; he won the support of millions convinced he was on his side; and, perhaps most importantly, he basked in the apathy of rivals convinced he was a candidate too ludicrous to oppose.

I can’t speak for those around me in the audience, but the Iago I saw in Bristol put me in mind of this piece by journalist Ron Rosenbaum. In comparing Donald Trump’s campaign trail image to that of Adolf Hitler in the 1920s, Rosenbaum says: “Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at others a sleeping serpent, at others a trustworthy statesman.”

It was those same tactics of bluff that allowed Lockyer’s Iago to keep the danger he posed hidden from the rest of Othello‘s characters, just as they allowed the true potency of Donald Trump’s campaign to go unnoticed beneath the mockery of his legitimacy as a candidate. In laughing at the jester the audience was played for a fool—all that remains to be seen is whether that laughter will stop now the clown paint has been removed.

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