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In 'Tyrant,' Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt turns to Shakespeare for answers to Trump

In 'Tyrant,' Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt turns to Shakespeare for answers to Trump
The Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" starring Tom Hiddleston. (Johan Persson)

Donald Trump may go unmentioned in Stephen Greenblatt’s “Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics,” but our divisive, norm-trampling president haunts nearly every page of this slim and stirring, if understandably hurried, book.

The work, the fruit of a discipline that might be described as applied Shakespeare, joins a growing body of intellectual journalism that has sought guidance in literature after one of the more baffling turns in American political history.

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What can Shakespeare or Plato or Machiavelli or Herman Melville teach us about Trump? This genre, which I have contributed to myself in an essay in these pages that turned to “Julius Caesar” and “Coriolanus” during the incendiary 2016 Republican primary, will continue to swell as long as Trump remains, incongruously, in the White House.

Greenblatt, an eminent Harvard Shakespeare scholar, was a university rock star in the ’80s and ’90s when New Historicism was catching fire in the groves of academe. He helped pioneer an approach to Shakespeare that creatively engages the historical contexts of the plays, examining the sociopolitical forces at work on the characters and the author through an unapologetically modern prism.

Once faddish, New Historicism has faded, as all trends of literary criticism do, a victim of its own interpretive distortions and linguistic opacity. But Greenblatt has continued to explore the dynamic interplay between culture and history in a series of accessible books on literary matters (“Will in the World,” “The Swerve”) targeted beyond the pool of graduate students greedily accumulating footnotes.

Written in lucid prose, “Tyrant” is New Historicism pitched to the college-educated, politically engaged non-specialist, the kind of reader who has an eye on Twitter and an ear cocked to MSNBC (and perhaps for those in Los Angeles, tickets to see Tom Hanks in “Henry IV”). The book is valuable less for what it has to say about Shakespeare’s plays than for how it applies the wisdom it has acquired through careful study of these works to the crisis roiling American democracy.

Taking his cues from Shakespeare, Greenblatt deploys a strategy of “addressing at one or more removes” the burning political questions of the day. Shakespeare, he observes, “seems to have grasped that he thought more clearly about the issues that preoccupied his world when he confronted them not directly but from an oblique angle.”

Greenblatt acknowledges that the damage inflicted by a “sufficiently ruthless and unscrupulous” ruler cannot be underestimated.


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Bringing a long view to present dangers, “Tyrant” is at its most incisive in helping us understand the Trump phenomenon through the lessons of the early history plays, “Henry VI,” parts I, II and III, and “Richard III.” The titles of these chapters could serve as cable news chyrons: “Party Politics,” “Fraudulent Populism,” “A Matter of Character,” “Enablers,” “Tyranny Triumphant.”

For Greenblatt, the power struggles in “Henry VI” and “Richard III,” though far bloodier than anything in Washington at the moment, reveal how partisan feuding paralyzes government, betrays the common good and hardens factions into “mortal enemies.” The Wars of the Roses brims with object lessons, one of the more pointed being the way a chaotic regime leaves everyone flying blind when it comes to the political future.

It’s strange reading about the dynastic ambitions of York (father of homicidal hunchbackRichard III) and thinking about Jared Kushner and the Trump scions. Jack Cade, the colorful rebel who enlivens “Henry VI, Part II” with his shameless demagoguery, provides Greenblatt with an opportunity to elucidate the way “populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation.”

In describing the personality of Richard III — “the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate” — Greenblatt doesn’t need to call attention to the tweeting elephant in the room. But the language he uses to characterize this “pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant” “bully,” who “expects absolute loyalty” but is “incapable of gratitude” and “knows that those he grabs hate him,” drives the analogy home.

Some of the discussion of “Richard III” may read like an op-ed. (“The steady barrage of falsehoods plays its part, working to marginalize skeptics, to sow confusion, to quiet protests that might otherwise have erupted.”) But the correspondences between the play and our politics prove to be, sadly, mutually illuminating.

Michael Fassbender as Macbeth in the 2015 film adaptation.
Michael Fassbender as Macbeth in the 2015 film adaptation. (Jonathan Olley / The Weinstein Co.)

The book falters somewhat when it moves to the masterpieces. “Macbeth” provides us with a tyrant every bit as bloody as “Richard III,” but the psychology of the later play is infinitely richer, requiring a reading less distracted by contemporary parallels.

Greenblatt’s contention that “the real instigator of the murder plot is not Macbeth, but rather, his wife,” is true on the surface. But this reading gives short shrift to an important insight that A.C. Bradley (among other discerning Shakespeare critics) pointed out long ago, that “the words of the Witches are fatal to the hero only because there is in him something which leaps into light at the sound of them.”

When considering how a tyrant “is driven by a range of sexual anxieties,” Greenblatt, I feared, was about to make some crack about the size of Macbeth’s hands. But he more profitably reminds us that Macbeth and Richard III, both killers of children, are “enemies of the future.” Their willful myopia (leading to policies that threaten extinction) is a symptom of their murderous narcissism.

The characteristics of the tyrant are comprehensively cataloged in “Tyrant,” but the word isn’t formally defined by Greenblatt, who focuses at first on violent usurpers but later encompasses other characters who exercise authority in an oppressive manner. Distinctions and degrees are blurred in a book that might have benefited from some etymological reflection on its title.

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For the ancient Greeks, the term “tyrannos” isn’t strictly pejorative. The title of Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus Tyrannos” refers to how the protagonist, an outsider in Thebes, obtained the throne through personal achievement. Other characters, such as Creon, seem to play on the word’s associations of cruelty and coercion, but the origins of power are key.

Flipping between noun (“tyrant”) and adjective (“tyrannical”) allows Greenblatt to move freely about in the Shakespeare canon, but some cogency is lost as plays as diverse as “King Lear,” “Coriolanus” and “The Winter’s Tale” are discussed in ways that sacrifice dramatic complexity for relatively narrow insights into the despotic temperament and the conditions allowing it to flourish.

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The politics of “Coriolanus” ranges beyond Greenblatt’s circumscribed study. “King Lear” is too metaphysically sprawling to be reduced to a cramped, moralizing analysis of mentally unstable leadership. And the eruption of Leontes’ mad jealousy in “The Winter’s Tale” is too much a genre conceit of this late romance to serve as a paradigm of the unhinged tyrant.

Yet the elegant erudition behind “Tyrant” is offered as emergency aid to a nation in peril. So what advice does the book have for those Americans horrified by the daily assault on our democratic norms?

Greenblatt acknowledges that the damage inflicted by a “sufficiently ruthless and unscrupulous” ruler cannot be underestimated. But he is bolstered by Shakespeare’s belief that “tyrants and their minions would ultimately fail, brought down by their own viciousness and by a popular spirit of humanity that could be suppressed but never completely extinguished.”

The greatest weapon against tyranny may be “the sheer unpredictability of collective life, its refusal to march in lockstep to any one person’s orders.” But it’s the “action of ordinary citizens,” like the servant in “King Lear” who dies defending Gloucester as he’s being tortured by the Duke of Cornwall, that gives Greenblatt hope that, however delayed, justice in the end will not be denied.

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“Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics”

Stephen Greenblatt

W.W. Norton & Co.: 212 pp., $21.95

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