President Donald Trump is quite willing to praise us and even offer us a measure of freedom–so long as we profess loyalty to him. And his sexism, benevolent or hostile, is repulsive but predictable. Trump does not, as some of his servants claim, treat men and women equally. He is not, as Kellyanne Conway just claimed, just a “counterpuncher” who does not normally draw first blood. If that were true, it would be, to give just one example, Carly Fiorina’s fault that she had the face she had. Or perhaps it’s just that any woman who, while doing her job, finds herself in the path of what Donald wants is automatically asking for trouble in the form of shaming insults.
Scholars, playgoers, and readers have long puzzled over what Hamlet meant in Act IV, Scene II when he responded to Rosencrantz’s request (“my Lord, you must tell us where the body [of Polonius] is and go with us to the king”) by saying “the body is with the king, but the king is not with the body.” Is Hamlet once again just speaking gibberish on purpose to feign madness, as G.L. Kittredge thought? Or throwing out a riddle to distract us? From what? The very next lines, though, give a good clue: Hamlet: “the king is a thing– Guildenstern: A thing, my Lord? Hamlet: Of nothing.” As Psalm 144 puts it, “man is like a thing of naught; his time passeth away like a shadow.” Our president and would-be king, especially when he attacks women for their supposed physical frailties and bloodiness, seems to be calculating that he thereby wins approval from his most fanatical base, or that he thereby settles scores with the impenitent and seditious women, or–and perhaps most important–he puts out of mind for a little while his very own perishability. Trump may believe that, having achieved kingship, he has become imperishable. But the medieval theory of the “king’s two bodies” (one body as corruptible and transitory as that of every other person, but one body divine, unchanging, and incorruptible) applies to Trump just as well as it did to any of the Plantagenets or Tudors or Holy Roman Emperors, and with a twist most unflattering to Trump: his preferred forms of communication show him at his truest and most transient. His tweets and campaign rallies are at best written in water, more often written in truly impure blood. And if we turn to his potential policy achievements, Trump’s resemblance to the dead Polonius is almost literal: our president has been hiding his decaying self offstage, trying to avoid blame while Senator McConnell battles Schumer and the Democrats, not to mention recalcitrant Republicans. Seems like a low-energy strategy at best, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Prince McConnell (though no Hamlet, to be fair) decided to stab whoever is lurking in the curtains, pity if it turns out to be the president.
President Trump’s denial of his own decrepitude and decay is even more worrisome in that he could take those of us fortunate enough to be younger and fairer and less obviously corruptible with him if he is still president when he feels himself truly falling apart. I hope and believe our president is fast approaching his (political) sell-by date. His attacks on anyone not subservient to him seem designed to ward off his consciousness of what seems close at hand: the country’s cancellation of his show. Then and only then will Hamlet’s words make sense as: the body of the king, the external appearance of the monarch, belonged to “Donald J. Trump,” but the true and lawful kingship resided elsewhere, and has passed on to someone who will seek to restore the body politic of the United States to better health.
H/T Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies; Jerah Johnson, “The Concept of the ‘King’s Two Bodies’ in Hamlet‘”