Tyrant, Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt book review

All roads lead to Shakespeare.

Atlas of emotions, roadmap of the soul, landscape of the inner terrain. These things are the geography of Shakespeare’s world. In his depiction and exploration of this place the internal battles do not change over the centuries. For at heart, the base elements of thought and deed are recognisable whether it be the ancient, the Middle Ages or post-modern.

Stephen Greenblatt, in his latest book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, has tried to make sense of our troubled times, to bring an order of thought amid the chaos, through the pen of William Shakespeare. Greenblatt is looking backwards to see more clearly the present and, in its hazardous way, the future.

As John Cogan University Professor of Humanities at Harvard University, he is eminently suited to the task. His lauded work on Shakespeare, Will in the World, was a New York Times bestseller. He is the general editor of the Norton Shakespeare, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction for The Swerve: how the world became modern.

In Tyrant, Greenblatt sets the scene on the first page: “From the early 1590s, at the beginning of his career, Shakespeare grappled again and again with a deeply unsettling question: how is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant? Under what circumstances, Shakespeare asked himself, do such cherished institutions, seemingly deep-rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile? Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to? How does a figure like Richard III or Macbeth ascend to the throne?”

The shadow of Donald Trump looms throughout Tyrant, but he is never named. He doesn’t need to be. Through the house of history there are many rooms inhabited by men more devious than the 45th President. Trump does not carry the stench of murder most foul, as did Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot. His is not so much a tyrannosaurus rex of naked power but tyrannosaurus hex. His is a curse.

Greenblatt takes us, compellingly page by page, so that we see through the playwright’s eyes what makes a tyrant of a man.

It is only in the acknowledgements, at book’s end, Greenblatt mentions how in conversation he ‘’expressed my growing apprehensions about the possible outcome of an upcoming election”. And so, what does an expert of Shakespeare do? He walks among the bard’s words, sifts through the layers of meaning, feels along the nuances and angles of action and consequence, and then extracts this exquisite polemic.

The study of the tyrant can be traced purely in terms of conquest and casualty. How much land, how many deaths, how much oppression. But Shakespeare’s genius, as Greenblatt illustrates, is to take the vaults of ambition of such men and compress it onto the stage.

Greenblatt takes us, compellingly page by page, so that we see through the playwright’s eyes what makes a tyrant of a man. In Henry VI, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale and Cariolanus the traits of the particular are rendered such as to be applicable at any time.

It is an aspect of Shakespeare’s art that in such dangerous times, where to merely curse a monarch was death, he was able to speak truth to power without finding himself hanged, drawn and quartered. Tyrant takes the events of each play and runs a line to the present day in language and context that makes it both harrowing, fearful and a warning.

Of Henry VI, he writes: “In depicting the aspiring tyrant’s strategy, Shakespeare carefully noted among the landed classes of his time the strong current of contempt for the masses and for democracy as a viable political possibility.

“Populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation. The unscrupulous leader has no actual interest in bettering the lot of the poor. Surrounded from birth with great wealth, his tastes run to extravagant luxuries and he finds nothing remotely appealing in the lives of underclasses.

“In fact, he despises them, hates the smell of their breath, fears that they carry diseases and regards them as fickly, stupid, worthless and expendable. But he sees that they can be made to further his ambitions.”

Of Richard III,  “he is not merely indifferent to the law, he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in the 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 . . . What he likes to talk about is winning.”

In a chilling echo of tweets, “One of Richard’s uncanny skills – and in  Shakespeare’s view, one of the tyrant’s most characteristic qualities – is the ability to force his way into the minds of those around him, whether they wish him there or not.

“Within the play, Richard’s rise is made possible by various degrees of complicity from those around him. But in the theatre, it is we, the audience, watching it all happening, who are lured into a peculiar form of collaboration. We are charmed again and again by the villain’s outrageousness, by his indifference to the ordinary norms of human decency, by lies that seem to be effective even though no one believes them. The tyrant is, in effect, the enemy of hope.”

The glimmer of hope is that the reign of the tyrant never lasts forever, though in their time they lay waste to everything they perceive to be their enemy. Greenblatt argues that Macbeth’s famous soliloquy that includes:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Is not a comment on the existential issue of everyman and woman, but exactly that of the tyrant.

In Lear, and in a telling parallel with present-day politics, he writes that when the king expresses his wishes, his only expectation is to be obeyed. “But the whole system depends on the assumption that he is in his right mind. Even in systems that have multiple moderating institutions, the chief executive almost always has considerable power. But what happens when the executive is not mentally fit to hold office? Lear insists that he is “more sinned against than sinning”.

There is no redemption for the tyrant, no atonement for their sins. But there is always a calling to account. In totalitarian states, such as Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union or North Korea, the victims of the regime may be many, but the survivors will always be more.

In Cariolanus, and as Greenblatt highlights, there is hope against the tyrant with simply this: “What is the city but the people.”

All roads lead to the city.

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