Tyrant for These Times

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton and Company, 224 pages, release date 8 May, 2018

Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant is an absolute must-read—and I don’t say that lightly. Yes, I can find something worthwhile in a great range of books of varying style and qualities. But Tyrant is a must read. Must. Read.

Greenblatt examines the characters of Shakespeare’s tyrants, developing a sort of evolution of tyranny—one that speaks to current-day America. Tyrant is less a book for literary types and more a guidebook for the resistance. In the acknowledgements, Greenblatt explains this book’s origins: “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 going to do about it. ‘What can I do?’ I asked. ‘You can write something,’ he said. And so I did.” Indeed.

Greenblatt opens by observing, “Shakespeare grapples again and again with a deeply unsettling question: how is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?” Tyrant‘s chapter titles give us a sense of the answers Greenblatt finds as he pursues this question alongside Shakespeare: These include “Party Politics,” “Fraudulent Populism,” “A Matter of Character,” “Enablers,” “Madness in Great Ones,” and “Resistable Rise.”

Though Greenblatt is writing about 16th and 17th Century fictions, I felt as if I was reading a history of my own times. Shakespeare, he tells us, recognized the reality of class warfare: “Shakespeare carefully  noted the strong current of contempt among the landed classes of his time for the the masses and for democracy as a viable political possibility. Populism looked like an embrace of the have-nots, but it was in reality a form of cynical exploitation.” Sound familiar?

John Cade, a populist rabble-rouser, not just in the plays, but also in real life during the 15th Century. And the distance between the 15th and the 21st (2016 in particular) Centuries seems like the blink of an eye. Cade’s promises to his followers are clearly absurd, but “The absurdity of these campaign promises is not an impediment to their effectiveness. On the contrary, Cade keeps producing demonstrable falsehoods about his origins and making wild claims about the great things he will do, and the crowds eagerly swallow them”—much as a swathe of the U.S. electorate cheered and embraced the idea of a cost-free wall separating two nations.

Greenblatt observes that under Cade’s regime the fact that “the common people would lose even the very limited power they possess—the power expressed when they voted…—does not matter. For Cade’s ardent supporters, the time-honored institutional system of representation is worthless. It has, they feel, never represented them. Their inchoate wish is to tear up all the agreements, cancel all the debts, and wreck all the existing institutions.”

I could write about and quote from this title endlessly, but you’ll be best served if you pick it up and read it for yourself. Don’t let the “Shakespeare bit” intimidate you. While Greenblatt is perfectly capable of writing dense, theoretical prose, in Tyrant his voice is straightforward and lucid. This book will give you a framework for understanding the times we live in and will help you think of ways to resist these times.