Shakespearian tyrants, then and now

(iStock; Composite: Angelo Jesus Canta)

In my senior year of high school, I did a fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., spending a couple of afternoons a week attending seminars, lectures, performances and conversations about the Folger Theatre’s slate of Shakespeare plays. I recall one afternoon in particular. We were speaking with the cast of “Hamlet,” in which the title character was rendered by four separate actors onstage at the same time. My friend Jim, then in the larval stage of what has become a career as a professor of performance studies, posed a complicated interpretive question to the director. I don’t recall the question, but I recall the director’s reaction, which went from polite interest to complete bafflement. When Jim finished up his soliloquy with, “Is that what you were going for?”, the director grinned ecstatically and said, “Sure!”

Advertisement
Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt

W. W. Norton. 224p $21.95

Part of Shakespeare’s genius is that his plays are large enough, world-filling enough, to fit any number of interpretations. All we have, after all, are the “words, words, words,” and we can do with them what we will. Still, some interpretations are better than others, and when those interpretations are coming from Stephen Greenblatt, you can be sure they are worth close attention. Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, is also general editor of The Norton Shakespeare and a literary historian; in short, he is an incredibly well-read and authoritative thinker on the Bard’s work.

With Tyrant, he has given us a slim yet supple page-turner about some of Shakespeare’s most dastardly characters. I read the book in two sittings, the literary equivalent of binge-watching a crossover between Game of Thrones, House of Cards and The Tudors.

With Tyrant, Stephen Greenblatt has given us a slim yet supple page-turner about some of Shakespeare’s most dastardly characters.

The setup for the book is simple. At the time Shakespeare was writing, Elizabeth I had been queen of England for 30 years. No longer young, she nevertheless refused to name a successor, setting up rival court factions for a potentially violent throne-grab. Worries about the kind of ruler who might succeed her would have been on everyone’s mind, and Shakespeare was no exception. He was, Greenblatt says, preoccupied with the central question of tyranny: How does a figure like Richard III or Macbeth ascend to the throne? There is also its corollary: How can a society—and for Shakespeare, it is all of us who bear responsibility—prevent his rise?

Tyrant is Greenblatt’s attempt to draw answers from the plays that tackle these questions most directly. Shakespeare “seems to have grasped that he thought more clearly about the issues that preoccupied his world when he confronted them not directly but from an oblique angle.” (It probably helped that the punishment for writing about it directly was death by dismemberment.) He did this by locating his plays in the historical and mythic past.

The book is organized into a series of themes or aspects of the tyrant’s rule, which more or less follow a “prototypical” rise to power, from ginning up support through false populism to violently seizing the throne with the help of powerful enablers.

Greenblatt turns to the plays to flesh out this trajectory, honing in on a single tyrant to illustrate each “phase.” This focus gives the analysis an immersive quality, and it is clear from the big picture that there is something of the ur-tyrant in each of them. The first half of the book is a little more coherent on this front, focusing its attention on tyrants both royal (most kings and aspirants) and non-royal (the rebel Jack Cade) in the historical plays, beginning with Richard II, diving deep into the Henry VI trilogy and finishing with the tyrant par excellence, Richard III.

Tyrant’s best chapters are about the worst villains: Richard III and Macbeth—different men, to be sure, but both emblematic of the almost incoherent narcissism that thrusts them bloodily onto their thrones and drags them mercilessly down from them.

The second half of the book moves into the ancient past, with the Romans (Caesar, Coriolanus) and the mythic tyrants (Lear, Macbeth, Leontes).

Tyrant’s best chapters are about the worst villains: Richard III and Macbeth—different men, to be sure, but both emblematic of the almost incoherent narcissism that thrusts them bloodily onto their thrones and drags them mercilessly down from them.

If this were all the book were, I would go into more detail about what a deft and masterly hand Greenblatt has used in lucidly and grippingly unpacking Shakespeare’s powerful and compelling vision of the tyrant. But that is not all there is. As the reader has no doubt anticipated, Greenblatt has emulated the Shakespearean endeavor: The book is a rumination on the current president, without once mentioning the man by name.

Much has been made of Trump’s dictatorial tendencies, and there are aspects of Trump-the-politician that certainly seem to comport with Shakespeare’s understanding of the tyrant. Trump’s presidential campaign mirrors that of the rebel leader Jack Cade, who “begins by talking vaguely about ‘reformation,’ but his actual appeal is wholesale destruction.” His rhetoric mirrors that of Coriolanus, “the plutocrat, born into every privilege and inwardly contemptuous of those beneath him, who mouths the rhetoric of populism during the electoral campaign, abandoning it as soon as it has served his purposes.”

Like the Duke of York, Trump installs unqualified family members in high positions of power, for who “can the perennially insecure tyrant trust more than the members of his own family?” Even his “governing style” echoes the likes of Macbeth, for whom “[c]onsiderations of morality, political tactics, or basic intelligence have all disappeared, and in their place is a mere calculation of the effort involved.” Indeed, I found that the book helped to make sense of the mind-bending, complicated relationship Trump has—indicted, alleged and everything in between—with Russia. The Shakespearean tyrant courts foreign assistance, even while engaging in war with the enemy, betraying his own country only to bind himself up in the mantle of the state.

Like the Duke of York, Trump installs unqualified family members in high positions of power, for who “can the perennially insecure tyrant trust more than the members of his own family?”

Still, the fact remains that something (our institutions? The deep state? His profound laziness and disinterest in the job?) has prevented Trump from either claiming or exercising tyrannical power as Shakespeare understood it. If I am left with any single sense from this book of what a tyrant is, it would be, tautologically, someone who does tyranny. Trump, in a cowardly way, fires people over Twitter; Richard III and Macbeth dispatch their predecessors by doing the stabbing themselves. Greenblatt has nothing to say on this front.

This is of a piece with one of my small frustrations with the book—namely, Greenblatt’s use of the more or less agreed-upon language about Trump from his critics in politics and culture to explicate his analysis of Shakespeare. There are references to “draining the swamp” and “a well-coiffed politician’s donning of a hard hat at a rally,” “fake news,” and a winking reference to a hypothetical president offering his services to Russia. Richard III and Trump may share some of the more off-putting tyrannical predilections (there is a compelling psychosexual parallel between Trump’s fraught language about his own daughter and Richard’s desire to marry his niece), but I prefer my analysis of Richard to take place on Richard’s terms, not Trump’s. If the point is to make the case for Trump the Tyrant, it should rely less on innuendo than argument.

The book ends on a hopeful note, recounting the story of Coriolanus’s failed attempt to ascend to the Roman consulship. He is effectively thwarted, in Greenblatt’s analysis, by the very thing that he most loathes: the self-serving political machinations of the plebeians’ elected representatives. Coriolanus, even with his wealth, power and success in war, remains ultimately a failed tyrant. May we be so lucky.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lisa Weber
2 months 2 weeks ago

"Tyrant" sounds like a fascinating and timely book! Thanks for writing about it!

Chuck Kotlarz
2 months 2 weeks ago

Some suggest George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” can also add to our understanding of Trump’s character. Google: “George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ provides the perfect guide to authoritarianism in the Trump era”.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Musician Billy Joel performs during his 100th lifetime performance at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, July 18, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Steven Hyden says he is not a religious person, but he is fervently devoted to the music that he grew up with.
Maurice Timothy ReidyAugust 14, 2018
A much-needed biography of Paul Hanly Furfey (1896-1992): priest, sociologist and urban revolutionary theorist.
Jack DowneyAugust 10, 2018
What happened to Egypt's popular uprising?
Ryan RichardsonAugust 10, 2018
A memoir that includes historical analysis as well as biographical narrative tells the tale of four Mexican-Americans unsure if they belong any longer in their adopted country.
Vivian CabreraAugust 09, 2018