The Strange Case of William Shakespeare and Donald Trump

Stephen Greenblatt’s new book is broad-ranging, accessibly written, and nominally dedicated to an interesting topic: tyranny in the work of William Shakespeare. Unfortunately, too much of the author’s energy is dedicated to expressing disdain for a particular contemporary politician in a way that detracts from his declared purpose.

What causes tyranny? What drives a tyrant? What kind of associates enable him to achieve power? Or, more precisely, what answers would William Shakespeare give to each of these queries? These are the questions that Stephen Greenblatt supposedly sets out to answer in his new book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.

In reality, however, the book is as much a commentary on current events as it is an attempt to wrestle with Shakespeare’s actual beliefs. The subtext of Greenblatt’s work is a running critique of President Donald Trump. The result is a book that tries to be about Shakespeare’s politics and about Stephen Greenblatt’s politics, and succeeds in addressing neither topic as satisfactorily as a treatise honestly dedicated to the merits of either might have done. Because it is primarily implicit, the book’s political commentary is offered without justification, contextualization, or nuance. At the same time, the analysis of Shakespeare’s thought about tyranny frequently sounds more like a series of complaints about the 2016 election than an attempt to understand what the Bard actually believed.

Shakespeare on Tyranny…

A natural opening question in a work about tyrants is how they achieve power in the first place. Greenblatt begins his analysis by arguing that, for Shakespeare, it is intensely partisan politics that opens that door. The quarrel in 1 Henry VI that leads to the adoption of the white rose for York and the red rose for Lancaster “invites us, in effect, to watch the invention of political parties and the transformation of aristocratic rivals into political enemies.” Parties replace rational argument with blind group loyalty and encourage hostility toward one another. “This loathing is an important part of what leads to a social breakdown and, eventually, to tyranny.”

The argument is interesting, but simplistic. Certainly Shakespeare portrays England’s internecine struggles as wreaking havoc on the country, but he was also well aware of the complexity of human nature and consequently of political affairs. Richard II is born to his throne. Richard III achieves his usurpation almost out of boredom during the “glorious summer” of national contentment under Edward IV. Greenblatt himself notes Shakespeare’s awareness that even good kings can fall into evil rule—and recover from it: He refers to Lear’s eventual recognition that his counselors’ deference to his every whim was “no good divinity,” and to Leontes’s descent into tyranny and eventual recovery in The Winter’s Tale. Further, even the existence of bitter parties in a state need not lead to tyranny, as Romeo and Juliet bears witness.

Raising a hue and cry against embittered partisan politics may seem a useful tonic for the times, but it has little to do with Shakespeare’s more nuanced insight that the cause (and prevention) of tyranny rests within the heart of every person and manifests itself in kaleidoscopically different ways.

What means might a rising tyrant employ? Greenblatt suggests a demagogic and fraudulent populism. The revolt instigated by York and John Cade in 2 Henry VI illustrates “the use [a tyrant] can make of the resentment that seethes among the poorest of the poor.” Cynical leaders make fraudulent promises based on voodoo economics to rouse an impoverished and illiterate mob and draw on resentment against the educated elite. The result is chaos.

Despite the heavy-handed coloring of his prose to channel criticisms of American “deplorables,” some of Greenblatt’s analysis strikes home. Shakespeare does indeed highlight the mob’s disdain for the educated elite class, for example. But a more impartial account might have laid more emphasis on precisely this point. Though he was sympathetic, on the whole, to the British common man, Shakespeare was a monarchist. His satire on the Cade revolt says more about his belief that tyranny can result from an excess of participation by an uneducated populace lacking respect for social order and mores than it does about contemporary populist leaders.

In terms of character, Greenblatt suggests that a tyrant, for Shakespeare, is largely an overgrown, malevolent child. The tyrant despises law for hindering his pursuit of his own self-interest, enjoys dominating others, and possesses a short temper and a penchant for bullying. He may attempt to maintain the appearance of normality, so that “bystanders, who crave psychological security and a sense of well-being, can persuade themselves that the rule of law is being upheld.” Yet, like Macbeth, he will sacrifice men, women, children, the planet itself, and future generations, if necessary, to his own private good.

This last point may constitute the most fully Shakespearean analysis of the entire book. A tyrant, for Shakespeare, may well be best defined simply as a ruler who abandons rational governance to violate the common good of his nation and the life, property, and other rights of his subjects.

Despite this vicious pursuit of his own benefit, says Greenblatt, Shakespeare’s tyrant experiences the world as a tale told by an idiot, full of faux honor but ultimately meaningless. This also rings true. The heavens, for Shakespeare, might not prevent a tyrant from doing evil, but they could be counted on to punish him. The severe psychological tortures experienced by Macbeth and Richard III are classic examples of how that punishment begins.

Greenblatt at times shifts his focus from the tyrant himself to those who enable him to achieve power. Through the lens of Richard III, he accurately notes that some are simply duped by a prospective tyrant’s virtuous façade, some actively seek to benefit from his rise, and some obey his orders with genuine reluctance but out of a desire to avoid drawing down trouble upon themselves. Shifting plays, the most culpable group surrounding a tyrant consists of instigators like Lady Macbeth, who not only seek to benefit from a tyrant’s rise, but actively egg him on (“when you durst do it, then you were a man”).

How should those around a tyrant respond to his rule? Greenblatt offers three responses. The first is simple patience. The characteristics that bring a man like Richard III to power include “neither administrative ability nor diplomatic skill.” The public can rest secure in the knowledge that a tyrant’s own deficiencies will rapidly bring him down. Second is principled resistance by civil servants. In the resistance offered to Leontes by his court when he begins to act in a tyrannical manner, “we glimpse the bureaucratic structure that characterizes all regimes and that becomes particularly important when the leader is behaving in alarming ways.” If a regime is not tyrannical in its origins, the civil servants who perform most of the actual work of government may well be decent people willing to resist a ruler’s turn toward tyranny.

In his final chapter, dedicated to Coriolanus, Greenblatt offers one further means of resistance: dirty politics. Coriolanus is a cruel and violent monster, he says, unhesitatingly willing to sacrifice the common people for his good. It is the deceptive and manipulative people’s tribunes who are the real heroes of the story. “Tyranny cannot be stopped, Shakespeare must have thought, if the democratic opposition is so high-minded that it is powerless to counter the political conniving that leads up to a seizure of power.” It is by the tribunes’ agency that Rome is freed from the threat of Coriolanus’s impending antidemocratic tyranny.

By contrast, Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare rejected tyrannicide as a method of resistance. The republican plot to kill the titular protagonist of Julius Caesar spectacularly backfires. “The very act that was meant to save the republic turns out to destroy it.” Idealistic coups are liable to produce developments far different from what they intend.

The conclusion is a convenient one for a peace-loving American who wishes to compare the current president to a tyrant while avoiding awkward conversations with the Secret Service. It does little justice to Shakespeare’s own views, however. Shakespeare knew a world where tyranny was not a mere cheap and politicized insult. It was a deadly serious threat to the life, property, and well-being of an entire country. As such, it was a threat that merited as deadly a response. “If you do sweat to put a tyrant down,” says the noble Henry VII at the end of Richard III, “You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain.” Similarly, the tyrannized nobles in Richard II find the solution to their bondage in revolt, as does Scotland under Macbeth. Like much of the western tradition going before him, Shakespeare had great reverence for legitimate monarchs but also seems to have had no doubt that under sufficiently aggravated tyranny, violence was a fully legitimate means of response.

. . . Or Greenblatt on Trump?

Tyrant is a mixed bag. There are elements of Greenblatt’s work that are praiseworthy. He contributes an interesting reading of many of Shakespeare’s most political plays in an accessible format. His analysis addresses under-represented texts like the Henry VI plays, and he provides some valuable tidbits of historical contextualization. On the other hand, the book offers significant material for criticism. Tyrant frequently makes general statements about tyrants where the text can probably justify no more than a statement about one particular character or circumstance. And some of Greenblatt’s readings are implausible. His demonization of Shakespeare’s (flawed) hero Coriolanus is only the most significant instance.

The book’s great flaw, however, is an obsession with contemporary politics that seriously compromises its capacity to speak to the subject to which it is nominally addressed. As noted above, Greenblatt allegedly sets out to answer a series of questions about Shakespeare’s political thought. In practice, however, the book is often too busy less-than-subtly proselytizing for its author’s political predilections to offer a dispassionate analysis of its subject matter. Greenblatt never mentions Trump by name, but he makes no secret of his political intent. Worrying about “an upcoming election” at a time “[n]ot so very long ago,” he acknowledges, he asked a friend what he could do in response. “‘You can write something,’ he said. And so I did.”

The result of this overt politicization is that even more reasonable interpretations are cast so as to indicate Greenblatt’s views about current events. Speaking of Jack Cade, Greenblatt says, “He promises to make England great again.” Not a page later he speaks of “the swamp that [Cade] has pledged to drain.” Loathing for the current administration is more or less explicit on almost every page.

But more than simply coloring his presentation, Greenblatt’s focus on contemporary politics occasionally appears to lead him to abandon his texts altogether in order to disguise criticisms of Trump as readings of Shakespeare. For example, he writes that Richard III is enabled by some

who do not quite forget that Richard is a miserable piece of work but who nonetheless trust that everything will continue in a normal way. They persuade themselves that there will always be enough adults in the room, as it were, to ensure that promises will be kept, alliances honored, and core institutions respected.

It is not clear to what character or characters in Richard III this is intended to apply. Given that Greenblatt forgets to include a single example of such a character, it seems likely that what he is describing is not in fact Shakespeare’s text, but rather his own impression of reluctant Trump supporters who rely on the administrative state to temper the president’s agenda.

Similarly, Greenblatt writes the following of Richard himself:

He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt. He divides the world into winners and losers. . . What he likes to talk about is winning.

Once again, this surprising interpretation is largely unsupported by reference to the play’s text. One suspects that Greenblatt is again expressing his opinion of the current president rather than focusing on accurate derivation of Shakespeare’s own beliefs.

All in all, Tyrant is a book that might have been. It is broad-ranging, accessibly written, and nominally dedicated to an interesting topic. Unfortunately, too much of its energy is dedicated to expressing disdain for a particular contemporary politician in a way that detracts from its declared purpose. A more dispassionate and systematic perspective on Shakespeare’s thought about tyranny would eschew the quest for cutting-edge prophetic relevance and settle for a more accurate analysis of such timeless principles as the mixture of good and evil within human nature, the primacy of rational rule for the public good, and the justice of the heavenly powers. It would also display less reticence about coming to grips with some of Shakespeare’s less comfortable principles, such as his skepticism of the people’s capacity to rule. Those interested in reading such an account, however, will have to look elsewhere to find it.

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