Trump in Chaucer, Shakespeare & Conrad


I have two Trump items today. First, at the risk of taking too lightly what is a very, very serious situation, I have some thoughts on the epithet  that Kim Jong-un hurled at Donald Trump in their escalating exchange. The Wife of Bath applies the word “dotard” to her three old husbands and Goneril speaks of the dotage of her father in King Lear. There are so many resemblances between those old men and Donald Trump that my respect for the North Korean leader’s perspicacity goes up considerably.

Jong-un apparently called Trump a “mentally deranged dotard.” According to Webster’s, “dotage” means “a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness.” A dotard is one who is in such a state.

The Wife of Bath blasts her dotard husbands because they are full of misogynist bluster, even though they don’t have the courage to voice their attacks directly to her. Weak and toothless complaining, therefore, is one characteristic of a dotard.

The other literary use of the word is more disturbing. Goneril is refusing to house her father’s 100 knights. In his dotage, she says, there’s a chance that he will turn those knights against her. She’s being sarcastic when she says “politic and safe.” She’s genuinely worried that a rumor (“buzz”) or complaint could unleash the knights:

This man hath had good counsel:–a hundred knights!
‘Tis politic and safe to let him keep
At point a hundred knights: yes, that, on every dream,
Each buzz, each fancy, each complaint, dislike,
He may enguard his dotage with their powers,
And hold our lives in mercy. 

Trump has many more than 100 knights at his command, and who knows what buzz, fancy, complaint or dislike might not set him off. In the play, Lear sends his country down the road to civil war, and his American equivalent is doing his best to divide America against itself. An unbridled narcissist with a lot of power can do immense damage. Pray that Trump isn’t setting a Lear-like tragedy in motion.

My second Trump note has to do with his appalling comment to African leaders at the United Nations, which makes him sound like Willy’s fantasy in Death of a Salesman or one of the colonialists in Heart of Darkness. Here’s what Trump said:

I’ve so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you. They’re spending a lot of money.

Willy fantasizes about his brother Ben, who supposedly went to Africa and came out with a fortune. Nothing is said of the blood spilled by the colonial powers to obtain Africa’s mineral resources:

The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy.

Conrad’s Europeans think the same way, of course. Marlow must do all in his power to stay free of their money obsession:

I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. 

The worship of money corrupts Kurtz and it is corrupting Trump and all who come within his orbit, including GOP legislators and rightwing evangelicals. He has revealed the taint of capitalism’s imbecilic rapacity for all to see.

This entry was posted in Conrad (Joseph), Shakespeare (William) and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!