Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

224 PP.; $21.95

Stephen Greenblatt’s latest, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, is about the tyrannical characters in William Shakespeare’s plays. If you think it’s a coincidence Greenblatt wrote the book now, you won’t after you’ve read it. Allusions to contemporary figures are about as subtle as a brick through your window with a note attached that reads, “I’m really talking about Trump!”

Greenblatt covers a lot of plays in his short book. Probably too many plays, in fact. But of course tyrants are everywhere in the works of Shakespeare. He lived during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I
—an imperially minded woman surrounded by courtiers and connivers, unmarried and childless, yet reluctant to name a successor even as she was dying. She was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, and years after the pope’s secretary of state called for her assassination. (Not an empty threat back then—Holland’s Prince of Orange had been killed by a Catholic fanatic.) One of her favorite generals led an insurrection against her councilors. She felt besieged so she made it treason to “imagine” the death of a ruler. Playwrights were imprisoned and even executed for treasonous subtexts. Therefore it’s understandable why Shakespeare wrote so much about tyranny and disorder. Greenblatt doubts Shakespeare thought Queen Elizabeth I was a tyrant, but it’s hard to doubt he at least thought she was a bit tyrannical.

But which of Shakespeare’s tyrants should Greenblatt have left out? First, let’s say who definitely belongs in: Henry VI’s Duke of York and his surrogate to the mob, Jack Cade. The Henry VI plays are so generally disliked that scholars have tried to prove that Shakespeare couldn’t have possibly written them, but York and Cade are most like modern authoritarians, so Greenblatt deserves praise for bringing them to our attention.

The Duke wants the throne and uses Cade to provoke disorder. Cade conflates the educated with the elite and tells his mob that anyone who can read is to blame for England’s economic and imperial frailty. Cade goes around 
London asking passersby if they can read. If they say yes, he orders the mob to hang or behead them. He promises wealth and glory to the weak and the poor. It’s all a fraud—a distraction so York can amass an army in Ireland and conquer England with little resistance.

Greenblatt’s study of Cade’s bogus populism is excellent, but it does have its flaws. For example, he isn’t comfortable admitting that Cade hates the right things; it’s the people Cade blames for those things that’s wrong. Until 1827 there was an English law exempting citizens from the death penalty if they could read. That’s morally absurd and the average Londoner was right to be angry about it. The problem with Cade’s bogus populism isn’t the populist part—although going around beheading lawyers is “problematic”—it’s that Cade’s bogus populism is bogus: it’s intended to blame the wrong people and to steer the mob toward symbolic violence and away from actual structural changes. After beheading a father-son pair of lawyers and making them kiss, the mob asks Cade when they will “go to Cheapside [one of England’s largest business and market districts] and take up commodities upon our bills?”

“Marry presently,” Cade responds, “But is this not braver?” When Cade is first trying to win over the London crowd, he promises them “seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny” and that his horse “shall…go to grass” in Cheapside; but when it comes time to actually lead them there, he deflects and makes a joke about how the educated have betrayed England by surrendering its empire to France.

Many of Shakespeare’s other tyrants are also sensibly included: Julius Caesar, 
Coriolanus, Richard III, to name a few. King Lear gets a whole chapter, although he doesn’t offer much to Greenblatt’s analysis except as another example of a tyrant turned mad by his own solipsism and authority. Heartbroken by the betrayal of his daughters, Lear comes across a homeless beggar and asks him if he wasn’t also ruined by insatiable children: “Did thou give all to thy daughters, and art come to this?” For Lear, as for many of 
Shakespeare’s tyrants, there is no pain or tragedy in the world that is different from their own. The limits of their experiences are the limits of their imaginations.

Odder than Greenblatt’s emphasis on King Lear—after all, Lear spends most of his play cracking up at his own powerlessness—is his treatment of Macbeth.

Macbeth might functionally be a tyrant—he certainly acts the role and Macduff refers to him as one multiple times (e.g., “an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptered”)—but psychologically he’s a tormented man. He’s been a soldier all his life and is clearly suffering from what we now call PTSD (see Justin Kurzel’s eponymous 2015 film adaptation for an almost flawless rendering of the play’s story and its main character). Lady Macbeth refers to having breastfed a child, but we also know the two are now childless and unable to conceive. She repeatedly questions his manhood and we repeatedly question his sanity. He has the moral solipsism of King Lear—“For my own good/All causes shall give way”—but his is brought on by 
desperation rather than by resentment. King Lear is a victim of his own foolishness; Macbeth is a victim of everything. He is, as 
William Hazlitt wrote, “the double thrall of his passions and his evil destiny.”

There’s no analytical benefit to categorizing Macbeth with Shakespeare’s other tyrants. He’s isn’t manipulative or cunning, sadistic or crude. Nor is he useful for understanding today’s would-be tyrants. No one in his broken state of mind has gotten anywhere near power since the invention of party politics and mass democracy. He is haunted by demons; he isn’t one. It’s also indefensible criticism to say, as Greenblatt does, that he “scarcely reacts” to Lady Macbeth’s suicide. His “sound and fury” soliloquy is that of a man devastated by the horrors of reality. Wailing and throwing furniture isn’t the only way to properly react in that situation. Sometimes, when the darkness is so solid and boundless, you can only whisper against it.

As alluded to earlier, the elephant on Greenblatt’s mind throughout Tyrant is Donald Trump (although he never actually writes the president’s name). Greenblatt credits Shakespeare as “the supreme master of displacement and strategic indirection,” because he used “historical distance” and “the artifice of fiction” to lambaste and lampoon contemporary Elizabethan England. While Greenblatt’s rhetorical tools are similar to Shakespeare’s (history and literary criticism, in Greenblatt’s case), his mastery of displacement and indirection is emphatically not of the same quality. For example, on Richard III Greenblatt writes, “He divides the world into winners and losers”; on King Lear, “Even in systems that have multiple moderating institutions, the chief executive almost always has considerable power. But what happens when that executive is not mentally fit to hold office?”; and on Leonte of The Winter’s Tale, “When an autocratic, paranoid, narcissistic ruler sits down with a civil servant and asks for his loyalty, the state is in danger.” With Cade, Greenblatt drops all coy pretensions, saying the mobocrat “promises to make 
England great again.”

My gripes with the book are petty though. Tyrant is essential reading. It is an extremely well-informed yet accessible book on an important but neglected subject: mainly, the obvious political content of Shakespeare’s plays. If education is self-defense against manipulation, then American education is a resounding failure. Classroom history is three or four wars devoid of ideology or context. Classroom literature is either juvenalia or juvenile-friendly interpretations of classic books. Tyrant should be on every high school’s curriculum for the much-needed pedagogical service it provides: expanding the literary and historical imagination of its readers.

Shakespeare’s plays aren’t the platonic ideals of drama that traditionalists and canon-defenders would like us all to believe they are. They aren’t somehow both eternally significant yet not relatable to anything outside our own psychoses. They have social biases and political implications. Shakespeare wrote about eternal things—love, fear, envy, anger, cruelty, empathy—but he wrote about them from a particular time and place and for a popular audience. He wrote about the corruption of justice and the sadistic impulses of England’s ruling class. He wasn’t a radical—stability was his highest political virtue—but he was an enemy of official euphemism and the powerful bullying the powerless. In Tyrant Greenblatt brings Shakespeare to life. That he needed resuscitation, despite his plays still being so widely taught and performed, is an indictment on the rest of us.