Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.

Author:Dunbar, Mark
Position:Book review

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics


W. W. Norton & Company, 2018

224 pp.; $21.95

Stephen Greenblatt's latest, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, is about the tyrannical characters in William Shakespeare's plays. If you think it's a coincidence Greenblatt wrote the book now, you won't after you've read it. Allusions to contemporary figures are about as subtle as a brick through your window with a note attached that reads, "I'm really talking about Trump!"

Greenblatt covers a lot of plays in his short book. Probably too many plays, in fact. But of course tyrants are everywhere in the works of Shakespeare. He lived during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I --an imperially minded woman surrounded by courtiers and connivers, unmarried and childless, yet reluctant to name a successor even as she was dying. She was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, and years after the pope's secretary of state called for her assassination. (Not an empty threat back then--Holland's Prince of Orange had been killed by a Catholic fanatic.) One of her favorite generals led an insurrection against her councilors. She felt besieged so she made it treason to "imagine" the death of a ruler. Playwrights were imprisoned and even executed for treasonous subtexts. Therefore it's understandable why Shakespeare wrote so much about tyranny and disorder. Greenblatt doubts Shakespeare thought Queen Elizabeth I was a tyrant, but it's hard to doubt he at least thought she was a bit tyrannical.

But which of Shakespeare's tyrants should Greenblatt have left out? First, let's say who definitely belongs in: Henry VI's Duke of York and his surrogate to the mob, Jack Cade. The Henry VI plays are so generally disliked that scholars have tried to prove that Shakespeare couldn't have possibly written them, but York and Cade are most like modern authoritarians, so Greenblatt deserves praise for bringing them to our attention.

The Duke wants the throne and uses Cade to provoke disorder. Cade conflates the educated with the elite and tells his mob that anyone who can read is to blame for England's economic and imperial frailty. Cade goes around London asking passersby if they can read. If they say yes, he orders the mob to hang or behead them. He promises wealth and glory to the weak and the poor. It's all a fraud--a distraction so York can amass an army in Ireland and conquer England with little resistance.

Greenblatt's study of Cade's bogus populism is excellent, but it...

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