At one level Stephen Greenblatt’s elegant and deftly written book is about Shakespeare’s account of tyrants, but it is intended largely as a commentary on the politics of our time. The author, editor of “The Norton Shakespeare,” says that he wrote “Tyrant” as a result of his apprehensions “about the possible outcome of an upcoming election” whose result “confirmed my worst fears.”
This is, therefore, fundamentally a book about President Trump, or at least what Greenblatt thinks Shakespeare would have made of Trump.
Much of the time, the book’s political purpose is masked by Greenblatt’s expert and shrewd reading of plays, those well-known and those less so. Sometimes, however, the light shines from behind the scrim, and the connections become obvious and somewhat forced. For instance, in his discussion of “Coriolanus,”which is more about treason, a soldier’s code of honor and the tumults of republics than it is about tyranny, Greenblatt writes:
“It is as if the leader of a political party long identified with hatred of Russia — forever saber-rattling and accusing the rival politicians of treason — should secretly make his way to Moscow and offer his services to the Kremlin.”
Now who might that be? Unfortunately, this analogy does not hold up because Coriolanus is a forthright and not always heartless warrior, rather than a draft-evading real estate guy turned politician who has a thing for Vladimir Putin.
A number of passages like this in “Tyrant” are too heavy handed and thus not entirely convincing. Greenblatt’s political anxieties are serious and his diagnoses may have merit, but they should have been made uncloaked.
The strain becomes greatest at the points where, oddly, Greenblatt’s insight and literary skill have much to teach us. He reminds readers of the underappreciated “Henry VI,” whose Parts 1, 2 and 3 might have more purchase on the popular imagination if they had exciting subtitles like “The Witch Must Burn” or “Heads on Pikes.” But it is the truly great tyrants of Shakespeare’s work, Macbeth and Richard III, who are most in the spotlight. Here, his analysis of the characters is masterly if slightly less sympathetic than they might otherwise be if he did not have the weight of the 45th president on his shoulders. Macbeth’s transition from more or less honorable and loyal servant of King Duncan to his murderer — and to the murderer of many others — is a tale of psychological development. So too is Richard III’s astounding soliloquy in “Henry VI, Part 3,” in which he describes himself as “like one lost in a thorny wood,/ That rents the thorns and is rent with the thorns,/ Seeking a way and straying from the way,/ Not knowing how to find the open air.” It is Shakespeare’s genius that in both cases we can see a complex if terrifying trajectory of a kind that would elude Trump, a considerably more static figure.
For the truth is that Trump is no Macbeth or Richard III, but one of the other characters in Shakespeare: perhaps a triumphant (but teetotaling) Caliban with a Twitter account — full of all kinds of ambitions and fantastic conceits, who secretly craves the approval of the establishment he hates. Or, more likely Cloten, stepson of King Cymbeline, a brutal, spoiled, self-absorbed, misogynistic oaf who for his attempted trickery (which includes a wild murder-rape fantasy) comes to a very sticky end, indeed.
Greenblatt is powerful and more convincing, though, in his discussion of those who aid and support tyrants. He is particularly acute on the ways in which they deceive themselves about the end that awaits them, when, like so many Shakespearean characters, they become wise too late. Indeed, a chapter titled “Enablers” is the best in the book. This is a canny guide to contemporary Washington, for Shakespeare gives us all kinds of dupes, careerists, connivers and bullies who yield to the strange magnetism of power, no matter how unappealing he who wields it is. Here “Richard III” really does work as an instructive play on the dynamics of power, and in another way too: the way in which power, once acquired, yields few satisfactions. As Greenblatt points out, the witty, even charming Richard of the first half of the play becomes increasingly dull, vicious and unimaginative toward the end. His head may be “impaled with a glorious crown,” but there is no real joy for him in it, and before long other parts of him will be impaled at Bosworth field.
Greenblatt observes that in a dangerous time when the rack, the stake and the executioner’s block awaited those who fell afoul of government, the Bard was able to raise all the great themes of politics, including some of the most sensitive. This was genius as a playwright — and extraordinary circumspection as a man. We know so little about Shakespeare’s political views because he left virtually nothing behind to tell us what they were. But we may guess, and as a guide to the guesswork, Stephen Greenblatt is, whatever his own politics may be, excellent.
Eliot A. Cohen is the Robert E. Osgood professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
By Stephen Greenblatt
W.W. Norton. 212 pp. $21.95