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Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant

June 6,  2024  |  1,091 words  |  Politics, Philosophy

Since no amount of scandal seems able to deter Donald Trump from recapturing the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in the upcoming Fall election, now might be a good time to look back and review one of the more unique analyses of his improbable first win in 2016.

World-renowned Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt was moved to publish Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics in 2018, as his way of processing a most unsettling election result.

By exploring the famous playwright’s portrayals of bad (and often mad) rulers, Mr. Greenblatt shows us just how contemporary the Bard’s insights can be.

I happened across this little book a few weeks ago and am only halfway through the slim volume.  So far, every page is a highlight, there is no filler.  Two of the plays Mr. Greenblatt uses in this first part of his book to draw inferences to our present-day political machinations are the not-often produced Henry VI, and the much better-known and frequently revived Richard III.

You need not be a Shakespeare aficionado, or even particularly familiar with either of these two plays, to find this book utterly fascinating.  All you need is an interest in learning a slightly different perspective on how we got to where we are, politically speaking.  And a wry sense of how there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to human nature.

As a side note, while I have always been fond of Shakespeare’s sonnets, I have also always found the plays, especially the historical dramas, a bit dense and hard to follow.  

If you are in that camp with me, there is no need to worry.  Stephen Greenblatt unpacks things nicely for the novice.  The short excerpts he quotes from each play help the general reader in two ways.  First, they highlight the inherent poetry in the writing, and make that poetry easier to discern in bite-size chunks.  And second, these excerpts drive home the comparisons being made between Shakespeare’s take on the royal court of 15th century England and our own time.

And of course, Mr. Greenblatt’s extensive commentary does a fine job of underscoring those comparisons as well.  As I say, every page is a highlight reel, but allow me to quote from the opening of his Chapter 5, entitled “Enablers”…

“Richard III’s villainy is readily apparent to almost everyone.  There is no deep secret about his cynicism, cruelty,  and treacherousness, no glimpse of anything redeemable in him, and no reason to believe that he could ever govern the country effectively.  The question the play explores, then, is how such a person actually attained the English throne.  The achievement, Shakespeare suggests, depended on a fatal conjunction of diverse but equally self-destructive responses from those around him.  Together these responses amount to a whole country’s collective failure…

“There are those who cannot keep in focus that Richard is as bad as he seems to be.  They know that he is a pathological liar and they see perfectly well that he has done this or that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is.  They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal…

“Another group is composed of those 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 institution respected.  Richard is so obviously and grotesquely unqualified for the supreme position of power that they dismiss him from their minds.

“Their focus is always on someone else, until it is too late.  They fail to realize quickly enough that what seemed impossible is actually happening.  They have relied on a structure that proves unexpectedly fragile.”


As the book’s jacket cover notes, Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant displays Shakespeare’s “uncanny relevance to the political world in which we now find ourselves.”  There are eerie temperamental and stylistic similarities between Richard III and Donald Trump, even though author Greenblatt never comes right out and mentions the latter by name.

That said, there are some important differences between these two big-time connivers we should also keep in mind.  

Richard was an ambitious young man who left a trail of dead bodies in the wake of his callous maneuvering, reigned over England only two years, and suffered an inglorious death on the battlefield at the tender age of 32.  Mr. Trump, of course, is a much older man who did not formally enter the political arena until his late sixties, is now going for a second four-year term in the White House, and as far as we know has not yet been responsible for any of his political adversaries meeting an untimely end.   

Though there are those who will tell you the form of free-market capitalism Donald Trump has practiced all his life is a lethal form of violence.


We the American electorate have certainly been given unappealing choices in previous presidential elections, but this year’s Biden-Trump rematch feels like one of the least appealing in recent memory.  At one point I was hopeful the upstart group ‘No Labels’ would assemble a viable ticket and gain enough ballot access across the country to make voting ‘third party’ a realistic option this time around.  Since that promise fizzled, we are left with the standard crop of marginal third party longshots who have zero chance of being elected.

In the opinion of many, including me, Mr. Biden should not be seeking re-election and should have instead focused his energy on identifying a worthy successor who would have allowed him to bow out graciously after a largely successful first term.

Then again, that a consummate political animal like Biden would not walk away from the world’s most prestigious job, the one he has spent his entire career in public life chasing, is maybe something we should have expected.  

Given the alternative, this voter will have no choice in November but to punch Joe’s ticket for a second term.  Even if at this stage of the game he obviously needs help getting up and down stairs, and is prone to slurring his words.

In the meantime, as we slog our way through the next five months of desultory campaign coverage, I will cheer myself by reading on.  I am looking forward to more of Stephen Greenblatt’s entertaining and enlightening insights into Shakespeare’s many other tyrants.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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