TYRANT: SHAKESPEARE ON POLITICS
By Stephen Greenblatt
Tyrant announces itself as a book about Shakespeare on politics, but this is a bit of subterfuge. In fact it is a livre à clef, a book ostensibly on Shakespeare that is really about the rise to power of Donald Trump, as seen through the lens of Shakespeare’s drama. Trump is never mentioned by name, at least that I recall, but in his acknowledgments Greenblatt describes the book’s genesis as being in a dispirited conversation that took place “in a verdant garden in Sardinia” about a certain upcoming election. When the outcome of that election confirmed Greenblatt’s worst fears he felt compelled to pursue his reflections on “Shakespeare’s uncanny relevance to the political world in which we now find ourselves.”
So, when things begin with a discussion of “oblique angles,” which is to say Shakespeare’s way of dealing with contemporary politics by way of the material of history and legend, we’re also being introduced to Greenblatt’s own method, which is to use Shakespeare as an oblique angle on the present.
There is nothing particularly subtle about any of this. York in the Henry VI plays “sees an opportunity to forge an alliance with the miserable, overlooked, and ignorant lower classes, and he seizes upon it. And we learn that the hitherto invisible and silent poor are seething with anger.” The rabble-rousing Jack Cade is a “loudmouthed demagogue” who invites the masses to enter his own fantasyland while he “promises to make England great again.” “In ordinary times, when a public figure is caught in a lie or simply reveals blatant ignorance of the truth, his standing is diminished. But these are not ordinary times. If a dispassionate bystander were to point out all of Cade’s grotesque distortions, mistakes, and downright lies, the crowd’s anger would light on the skeptic and not on Cade.” Meanwhile, the House of York seeks to establish a family dynasty and make secret contact with the country’s traditional enemy (France). This sleeping-with-the-enemy motif is repeated in the story of Coriolanus going over to the Volscians: “It is as if the leader of a political party long identified with hatred of Russia – forever sabre-rattling and accusing the rival politicians of treason – should secretly make his way to the Moscow and offer his services to the Kremlin.” Macbeth is another cautionary tale, forcing us to consider what happens when “observers, particularly those with privileged access, see clearly that the leader is mentally unstable.”
This is laying it on thick, but it gets a lot thicker when Greenblatt comes to Richard III. Here he really gets to enjoy himself:
Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.
He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt. He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning.
He has always had wealth; he was born into it and makes ample use of it. But though he enjoys having what money can get him, it is not what most excites him. What excites him is the joy of domination. He is a bully. Easily enraged, he strikes out at anyone who stands in his way. He enjoys seeing others cringe, tremble, or wince with pain. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult. The skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delight, even if they cannot have it to his unmatched degree. Though they know that he is dangerous, the followers help him advance to his goal, which is the possession of supreme power.
His possession of power includes the domination of women, but he despises them far more than he desires them. Sexual conquest excites him, but only for the endlessly reiterated proof that he can have anything he likes. He knows that those he grabs hate him . . .
Whew! And it goes on in much the same vein. Do you get the point? It’s really hard to miss.
Now this sort of thing is nothing new. Richard Nixon was likened to Richard as well, and I still have a copy of an adaptation of Richard III set in the Nixon administration somewhere in my library. But while such analysis can be entertaining, it has its limits. Specifically, it doesn’t tell us much either about Shakespeare’s play (would you even recognize Richard III from this description?) or about Trump. The figure Greenblatt presents us with is an amalgam that doesn’t have a solid foot in either world.
Another effect of such comparisons is also problematic. I remember a book on the presidency of George W. Bush making him out to be a tragic figure and thinking that he didn’t quite rise to that level. I felt the same thing, even more, when reading Tyrant. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a great villain. Donald Trump wields great power, but is he as interesting? Is anything about him as compelling? I mean, at least Richard was articulate. In comparison, Trump is almost an anti-anti-hero.
Finally, as a reading of Shakespeare’s politics the anti-Trump message takes over entirely. If you want to understand Shakespeare’s politics the starting point is probably still E. M. W. Tillyard’s book on the The Elizabethan World Picture, a book that is now some 70 years old. In trying to make Shakespeare’s plays into warnings for what’s happening in the U.S. today Greenblatt seems to me to overstate the analogy, and his case, leading to some curious readings. For example, is it really true that the heroes of Coriolanus are the Roman tribunes? I’ve always seen them as a pair of cynical and self-serving jerks. Seeing the tribunes as heroes only serves to make Greenblatt’s point about people power being the only way to stand up to Trump.
But there’s nothing new in this. Every generation re-invents Shakespeare, giving itself the Shakespeare it needs while also keeping his message relevant. All commentary is of its historical moment. Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time, and Tyrant is addressed to us.
Review first published online July 8, 2018.