Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power by Stephen Greenblatt

Bodley Head, May 2018, 212 pp

Bodley Head, May 2018, 212 pp

“From the early 1590s, at the beginning of his career, all the way through to its end, 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?” Stephen Greenblatt, the renowned Shakespeare scholar commonly associated with the New Historicist branch of literary criticism, begins his newest book on the Bard with a sentence that has clear reference to the current political climate in the US. And so, in the acknowledgments in the back of the book, he writes:

Not so very long ago, though it feels like a century has passed, I sat in a verdant garden in Sardinia and expressed my growing apprehensions about the possible outcome of an upcoming election. My historian friend Bernhard Jussen asked me what I was doing about it. “What can I do?” I asked. “You can write something,” he said. And so I did.

What Greenblatt is essentially doing in Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power is a reading of various Shakespeare’s plays with an eye on the ways that tyrants come to power and then maintain it. The history plays offer an obviously fertile ground for Greenblatt’s analysis, and in his chapter on Richard III, for instance, he says the following about the notorious king, but quite knowingly refers to his modern-day counterpart:

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. These 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. … He know that those he grabs hate him.

Greenblatt is persuasive, and it is hard not to agree with his more or less explicit sentiments, but from a purely informational basis Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power leaves a somewhat mild aftertaste – not that Greenblatt isn’t erudite, quite the opposite, but as patriarchy and Shakespeare is quite a studied combination in academia already, I couldn’t but be a little disappointed in, for example, the small number of secondary sources provided. It might give the impression that what Greenblatt is doing here is completely novel, while in truth it has decades old tradition in various books and journal articles. But for a non-academic reader, who has preferably read at least a handful of Shakespeare’s plays, Greenblatt’s intention overrides the book’s deficiencies. Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power offers a timely evaluation of the art of power and the power of art, in an age when a production of Julius Caesar in New York may be interrupted by a rightwing protester.