Book Review | Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt

by Dan Burton

Rarely have I enjoyed a piece of political commentary as much as I did Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.

In William Shakespeare’s day, it wasn’t safe to disagree with power. Unlike today’s America, with the protections of the First Amendment, his world was governed by the near-absolute power of the monarch, the aging Queen Elizabeth. And speaking ill of the queen led to swift and often deadly punishment. Instead, the Bard through his plays would examine the ways and means of tyranny, delving into the past and into foreign lands to create his voices that could say what could not be said frankly (“Greenblatt is the Harvard Shakespeare expert who co-founded new historicism, the lit-crit practice that seeks to place works in their historical context.”)

In the vein of speaking obliquely, this is Greenblatt’s commentary on Donald Trump, though the president is not named in its pages. Instead, the Tyrant focuses on several of the same that appear in Shakespeare’s plays, examining them in their foibles for the causes and results of their tyranny.  The book is rooted in an article that Greenblatt wrote for the New York Times in 2016. At a friend’s encouragement, he expanded it to a full book. He focuses his examination on Macbeth, Richard III, Lear, Coriolanus and Leontes from A Winter’s Tale (notably leaving out Claudius, perhaps because he is more well-known than most).

While it is ostensibly a commentary on politics, it does not read like just another piece of political punditry or tribal drivel. On the contrary, Greenblatt makes Shakespeare accessible and, well, interesting, as well as providing principles that can be read and interpreted to apply to almost any power selfish politicians or businessman. Reading it is as enjoyable as watching Shakespeare performed well. As Constance Grady puts it in her review of the book, “There is a certain pleasure to watching Shakespeare’s tyrants work, to watching Richard III brazenly woo Lady Anne over the body of a man he killed or listening to Macbeth’s mournful, poetic speeches.”

Perhaps the biggest observation for me, and where the book most departs from other books that more directly take on Trump, is that Tyrant leaves the reader to make his own observations and conclusions. Here is what a tyrant does; is this what we are living through?

Originally posted on Attack of the Books.

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