Title: Tyrant – Shakespeare on Politics
Rating: 4 Stars
The genesis of this book is pretty hilarious. Stephen Greenblatt is a respected Shakespearean historian. Many years ago, I read his Will in the World, which I remember being impressed by. He’s introduced a new concept into his field called New Historicism. Truly he’s an academic literary / history heavyweight.
Well, he’s apparently a bit disgruntled by the results of the last presidential election. He voiced his displeasure loudly to family and friends, to the point where they basically asked him, well, what are you going to do about it?
Well, he only has one sword in his scabbard, and that is literary analysis with a historical emphasis.
So, he wrote a take down of Trump, in the form of a book that analyzes the tyrants in Shakespeare’s works and what properties they might be sharing with tyrants of the current day. You can guess that this current day tyrant possesses a certain orange hue.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s fucking brilliant.
He starts off with the historical environment in which Shakespeare was writing. He was active during the reign of Elizabeth I and James I. It was at best a perilous time in English history and to be a playwright. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had broken from the Catholic Church and established the Church of England. The pope immediately named Henry as a heretic and excommunicated all followers of the Church of England. There were Catholic kingdoms that were actively trying to bring down the English government. There were rumors of assassins that were targeting Elizabeth I. There were still large numbers of Catholics in England secretly practicing their religion. Underground Catholic priests were tortured and executed.
Elizabeth I had no heir, so there was crazy jockeying for position for her succession during this time of tumult. Depending upon the successor, England might rejoin the Catholic Church, so there was much plotting around this.
And, oh yeah, there was a law on the books that made calling the English head of state a tyrant a capital offense.
So, into this political chaos, Shakespeare proceeded to write a number of histories and tragedies that had a not so subtle political backdrop. How did he do this? Mostly by setting his plays in far off locales or a long ago time. As long as he could reasonably point at a historical source that kinda / sorta backed up his play, the censors left him alone.
Basically Shakespeare used the past to make political commentary upon his present, and by discussing Shakespeare’s plays here, Greenblatt does the same thing. He uses Shakespeare’s plays to highlight the tyranny that he sees today.
The plays that he discusses are the three parts of Henry VI, Richard III, Othello, MacBeth, King Lear, and Coriolanus.
I have to emphasize that I think he does this in a hilarious fashion. He wields his literary analysis with the subtly of a wood chipper.
What are the properties of a tyrant? Well, they are narcissist to an amazing degree. They surround themselves with craven sycophants interested in nothing more than licking their boots. Truth tellers are destroyed. Those in their circle that are truly public servants are falsely charged and removed. The acquiring of power is all that they seek, once they have the power they prove themselves to be utterly incompetent to govern. They hold their subjects in contempt. Intellectuals are to be ignored if not actually destroyed.
Does that sound like anyone we know?
I really, truly, in the deepest part of my heart, hope that Donald Trump somehow picks up this book, reads it, and has a lightning bolt of self realization. Of all of the criticism that he receives from news outlets, late night comedy hosts, sketch comedy shows, Never Trump Republicans, Twitter trolls, bemused world leaders, and everyone else, I want THIS book to be the vehicle that drops him to his knees in repentance, admit to the world that yes, I am an incompetent asshole, and resigns in disgrace.
I want so bad for Donald Trump to be laid low by a Shakespearean scholar writing a primal scream screed (as of this moment, with 375 ratings and 114 reviews on Goodreads).