‘Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics’ Review: The Burden of History

‘Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics’ Review: The Burden of History

First the good news. “Tyrant” documents the centrality of politics in Shakespeare’s works, revealing how well he understood and portrayed such basic political concepts as sovereignty, legitimacy, leadership and tyranny. Mr. Greenblatt breaks with the traditional assumption that Shakespeare must have been an uncritical admirer of monarchy. The Shakespeare that this book reveals is not only able to tell a bad king from a good but willing to raise serious doubts about monarchy as a regime.

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

By Stephen Greenblatt
Norton, 212 pages, $21.95

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The strongest part of “Tyrant” is Mr. Greenblatt’s opening analysis of the three “Henry VI” plays and “Richard III.” These are among the earliest scripts Shakespeare wrote. He did not yet have the command of poetry that he was soon to develop, and he lacked the power of dramatic construction that he came to master. What is remarkable, then, is that in his first set of history plays Shakespeare already displays the interest in and understanding of politics that distinguish his later works. In particular, Mr. Greenblatt shows the ways in which Shakespeare portrays the interplay between a king and the common people of his realm.

Mr. Greenblatt also handles his central subject well, convincingly establishing that a critique of tyranny is basic to Shakespeare’s presentation of political life. Particularly in the cases of Richard III and Macbeth, Shakespeare makes the tyrant dominate the stage but shows how ultimately empty the tyrant’s triumph is. In his single-minded pursuit of power, the tyrant destroys everything that makes life worthwhile and ends up unhappy and alone. Moreover, as politically savvy as the tyrant may seem, he doesn’t know how to rule effectively; accordingly, his regime doesn’t last very long.

Now the bad news—or, if you prefer, the “fake news.” Mr. Greenblatt strains, in sometimes embarrassing ways, to create parallels between situations in Shakespeare’s plays and contemporary politics. He tells us that Jack Cade, a populist leader of a rebellion against Henry VI, “promises to make England great again.” Further discussing Cade, he speaks of “the swamp that he has pledged to drain.” In perhaps the oddest of the parallels that Mr. Greenblatt tries to create, he includes, among Macbeth’s misdeeds, “sending irrational messages in the middle of the night,” as if the Scottish king could count Twitter among the supernatural forces at his disposal.

Some readers may find these touches amusing, but the humor generally falls flat. And the author’s agenda leads him into some basic errors of history. Mr. Greenblatt writes of Jack Cade’s eagerness to burn Parliament’s records: “In this destruction the common people would lose even the very limited power they possess—the power expressed when they voted in parliamentary elections.” He seems to have momentarily forgotten that in both Cade’s day and Shakespeare’s, there…

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