Digital

Exclusive online content

Shakespeare's Tyrants

By: Michael M. Rosen
January 8, 2019

“Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?”

If you think this question sounds like it’s straight out of a #Resistance playbook, you could be forgiven. Instead, it arises at the outset of Tyrant, a pithy but powerful interrogation of Shakespeare’s views on tyranny written by Stephen Greenblatt, a preeminent scholar of the Bard. Yet the book transcends its not-so-thinly-veiled criticisms of the current White House occupant and his supporters to encompass important general insights about the unique problem of demagogues.

As Greenblatt notes, “Shakespeare repeatedly depicted the tragic cost of this submission—the moral corruption, the massive waste of treasure, the loss of life—and the desperate, painful, heroic measures required to return a damaged nation to some modicum of health.”

Of course, while the Bard was influenced in his thinking by the cascading political tumult of Elizabethan England, replete as it was with attempted coups and socio-religious strife, Shakespeare wrote little to nothing that expressly confronted these challenges. Instead, “he could best acknowledge truth—to possess it fully and not perish of it—through the artifice of fiction or through historical distance.”

Exhibit A is King Henry VI, whose titular character—young, innocent, and untested—presides over a kingdom riven by the 15th century aristocratic equivalent of partisan politics. The Dukes of York and Somerset find themselves enmeshed in a legal squabble that deteriorates into a heated, violent schism, replete with white and red team colors. “[T]his pale and angry rose,” York sputters, “As cognizance of my blood-drinking hate,/Will I forever, and my faction, wear.”

An opportunistic murder paves the way for a York-sponsored demagogue, John Cade, to ascend the stage, agitate various English institutions, and whip the crowd into a frenzy. “The masses are perfectly aware that he is a liar,” Greenblatt notes, “but—venal, cruel, and self-serving though he is—he succeeds in articulating their dream: ‘Henceforward all things shall be in common.’” Out of the chaos sowed by Cade flowers a full-scale civil war launched by York—the War of the Roses, which unseats Henry and eventually installs Richard III.

And it is in Richard III that the tyrant in full emerges, “pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant,” a ruler with “limitless self-regard” who “expects absolute loyalty” and “is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it…What he likes to talk about is winning.” While not especially subtle, this depiction suits Richard to a T. An odious, murderous grifter, Richard first ascends to the throne through an election—albeit one rigged by his yes-man, the Duke of Buckingham—that consisted of little more than a single, loud “Amen” from the gathered crowd.

Once enthroned, Richard sets out to brutally wipe out any remaining opposition, woo and abuse various royal women, slay rivals, and betray his once-trusted and trusting advisors. His famous soliloquy (“I love myself…I rather hate myself”) reflects the deeply-conflicted and self-loathing inner spirit that sparks his undoing at the Battle of Bosworth Field at the hand of the Earl of Richmond, who then becomes King Henry VII.

Macbeth and Lear, characters written later in Shakespeare’s career, mirror these same tendencies in yet more extreme form. The former murders his way to the crown, only to fall victim to night terrors, extraordinary insecurity, and ultimately beheading by Macduff, after which he’s “[p]ainted upon a pole and underwrit,/‘Here may you see the tyrant.’”

Macbeth represents those “who begin as legitimate rulers and are then drawn by their mental and emotional instability toward tyrannical behavior.” Lear, by contrast, demands loyalty, exiles his favorite daughter Cordelia, and heads to his ignoble death railing against traitors.

Interestingly, Shakespeare, Greenblatt reckons, “did not believe that the common people could be counted upon as a bulwark against tyranny” because they were “too easily manipulated by slogans, cowed by threats, or bribed by trivial gifts to serve as reliable defenders of freedom.” Instead, tyrants could be uprooted only by elitist, not populist, insurgencies. Not from among the commoners did Brutus, Cassius, Richmond, and the others arise. At the same time, tyranny can only be extirpated “by a popular spirit of humanity that could be suppressed but never completely extinguished.”

At times, Greenblatt strives too hard to liken Shakespeare’s villains to a certain American president, as when he tries, despite troubling differences, to compare the Roman-style fake news, righteous civil servants, craven aristocrats, and exploited war heroes depicted in Coriolanus to the dispiriting political trends of modern-day America.

But in training the Bard’s lens on the blurry challenges of tyranny currently impacting people the world over, Greenblatt focuses upon these issues and magnifies them for a contemporary audience. Shakespeare’s timeless wisdom lives on.