Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (subtitled Shakespeare on Power in the UK; an interesting shift in focus) is not an academic book; it is an extended version of an editorial he wrote for the New York Times one month before the 2016 election. Tyrant does just what its title implies: it examines Shakespeare’s treatment of tyrants and tyranny across a range of plays. And, like most of Greenblatt’s popular books, it is elegantly written, wry, perceptive, and sometimes just a bit self-involved.
Shakespeare has always been political, and the people who try to argue otherwise are a) wrong; and b) the same people who claim that all classic literature is somehow apolitical and not of its time. Greenblatt’s capsule studies of 2 and 3 Henry VI, Richard III, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and Coriolanus offer a rogues’ gallery of tyrants to choose from, but the true strength of this book lies not in the exploration of the tyrants themselves, but of their enablers, their followers, and their opponents. Greenblatt clearly takes pleasure in using Shakespeare as a commentary on the turbulent presidency of Donald Trump without once mentioning his name, and his references range from the ham-handed (Jack Cade intending to “make England great again”) to the amusingly subtle (the blink-and-you-miss-it use of the word “grab” in relation to Richard III’s treatment of women).
I took issue with several elements of Greenblatt’s original 2016 editorial, and he does address some of those in the book. First, he offers an extended discussion of Jack Cade, a character I thought was missing from the original editorial, and he does not lose sight of the fact that Cade has been suborned from on high by the duke of York to sow chaos amongst the common people so that York can step in to seize power. And I am forced to admit to my own bias as a fan of the first tetralogy; the very thought of comparing “the erudite, dangerously charismatic Richard and the inarticulate buffoon who won the 2016 election” was one that “may have sent the playwright spinning in his grave,” according to my original analysis. Unlike the president, I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong.
As Constance Grady remarks in her review for Vox, one of the strongest threads in Greenblatt’s book is “how forcefully it troubles the pleasure of the tyrant, and with what moral clarity it examines its mechanisms.” Because there is pleasure in watching Richard of Gloucester rise to power through Henry VI Part III and Richard III. He implicates the audience in his schemes, winking at them, drawing them in, even seducing them to a degree. As Greenblatt aptly observes, “the play does not encourage a rational identification with Richard’s political goal, but it does awaken a certain complicity in the audience, the complicity of those who take vicarious pleasure in the release of pent-up aggression, in the black humour of it all, in the open speaking of the unspeakable” (81). And because it is a play—a work of fiction—the audience can do so without consequence.
In the theater, it is we, the audience, watching it all happening, who are lured into a peculiar form of collaboration. We are charmed again and again by the villain’s outrageousness, by his indifference to the ordinary norms of human decency, by lies that seem to be effective even though no one believes them. Looking out at us from the stage, Richard invites us to not only share his gleeful contempt but also to experience for ourselves what it is to succumb to what we know to be loathsome. (81-82)
Ouch. There are plenty of us—myself included—who look at supporters of Donald Trump in utter bafflement, wondering what they see in him that they find so appealing, but don’t think twice about finding Richard III to be a compelling character. Part of the brilliance of Shakespeare is that when he holds up the mirror to his audience, we see things we would rather not see.
I still don’t think Trump and Richard III are the same, just for the record, even if an audience’s reaction to both is, on some level, unsettlingly similar. Richard is nothing if not clever, and, as Professor Eliot Cohen argues in his review of Tyrant for the Washington Post, his soliloquies offer a glimpse of “a complex if terrifying trajectory of a kind that would elude Trump, a considerably more static figure.” Donald Trump completely lacks Richard’s rhetorical capability and charisma–of course, Richard has the benefit of being a fictional character written by a magnificently talented playwright, based on an admittedly unfinished treatise by an equally talented philosopher. Trump, on the other hand, is the mediocre son of a rich man who has coasted to power on nothing but crude bravado, other people’s money, and a complex system of inequalities that privilege him most when he deserves it least. Thus, while there are some superficial similarities between the two, Greenblatt’s reliance on this particular comparison seems a bit overstretched at times.
Greenblatt’s analysis of those around Richard is far more effective. Of the chapters on Richard, Chapter 5 (titled “Enablers”) is the strongest, implicating not just the characters in the play but those of us in the audience who go along with his schemes in spite of their appalling consequences. “There are almost no morally uncompromised lives,” Greenblatt argues; “virtually everyone grapples with painful memories of lies and broken vows, memories that make it all the more difficult for them to grasp where the deepest danger lies” (71). In this, he focuses primarily on George of Clarence, whose affection for his brother and his own suppressed guilt about his prior actions blind him to Richard’s treachery.
What Greenblatt leaves out is another character who, at least early on, falls into the category of those who respond to Richard’s rise with fear: “those who feel frightened or impotent in the face of bullying and the menace of violence,” but who ultimately forms the heart of the resistance against him (66-67). This is Elizabeth, the widow of Richard’s elder brother King Edward IV. Her initial reaction is to go along with Richard, not because she supports him or believes that he is out for anything other than blood, but because she has no other option. All the men surrounding her are following his lead, and to resist would put her in greater danger than staying silent.
Shakespeare’s source for Richard III, Sir Thomas More’s unfinished History of King Richard III, fleshes out Elizabeth earlier in the narrative than Shakespeare does. More’s Elizabeth makes it abundantly clear from the start to the reader, and to other characters, that she does not trust Richard one inch. “Troweth the protector,” she demands, “that I perceive not whereunto his painted process draweth?” When she does capitulate—handing over her son to the Archbishop of York, acting on Richard’s orders—she does so knowing that she is signing her child’s death warrant, and only surrendering because she has no other choice. Her arguments are completely sound, but they cannot stand against armed men.
Shakespeare excises this sequence, but devotes the majority of Act 4, Scene 4 of Richard III to Elizabeth. She enters in grief, mourning the murder of her sons in the Tower of London, and, after encountering the otherworldly Queen Margaret (who was historically dead but dramatically resurrected by Shakespeare to comment on the action), she manages to defeat Richard in an extended argument of 230 lines in the Folio text. Greenblatt briefly discusses this scene, primarily as an illustration of Richard overreaching and misusing tactics that have worked for him in the past, and in that, it serves his larger discussion of tyranny well enough.
I see something quite different, and I’ve written about it at length elsewhere. Yes, Elizabeth is clearly nauseated by Richard’s proposal to marry her daughter after having murdered her sons. But that does not stop her. She fights through her disgust and rebuts him, line by line, and in doing so, makes him look ridiculous to the audience that, for the first half of the play, gloried in his rhetorical prowess. Greenblatt allows that Elizabeth has already allied with the forces waiting to bring Richard down from abroad, but he doesn’t acknowledge her theatrical victory, fragile as it seems.
Rereading that scene in the light of recent events brought to mind two courageous, articulate women: Professor Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Both of these women faced down an overwhelmingly hostile interrogation by unsympathetic, sexist old (white) men with intelligence and grace. Where they differ from Shakespeare’s Elizabeth is that Elizabeth wins the argument and the war. Richard may dismiss her as a “relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman,” but the audience knows better.
When I read Greenblatt’s 2016 editorial, I responded with the following on Twitter:
Even though we lost (and, make no mistake, we lost), and in spite of all the setbacks we’ve had since then, all the abuse and gaslighting and horror, we are fighting back. We remember our history. We don’t buy the lies. And we are done with tyrants.
ETA: I forgot to mention one other odd omission in Greenblatt’s analysis that has come up in other reviews of the book, namely Angelo from Measure for Measure. However, there is an excellent essay by Peter Herman on just this topic, related to the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, that appeared in the Times of San Diego on 24 September 2018.
 Sir Thomas More, The History of King Richard III, ed. Richard S. Sylvester (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 38. Spelling modernized.
 William Shakespeare, Richard III, 4.4.431.