Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power by Stephen Greenblatt - review by John Stubbs

John Stubbs

Uneasy Lies the Head

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power


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Stephen Greenblatt’s ardent and involving new book is concerned with rulers and aspirants in Shakespeare who abuse their power. It draws attention to a very wide range of characters. There are the out-and-out villains, best typified by Richard III, the nonpareil power-grabber, King Lear’s sadistic and vindictive daughters Goneril and Regan and the rather more crudely drawn butchers of Titus Andronicus. But then there are more complex, puzzling figures. There is Lear himself, the king turned fool, unleashing chaos in his realm for the sake of an egoistic game of Who Loves Me Most? There is the curiously ineffectual Coriolanus, who marches back and forth between cities in a perpetual strop, pouring scorn on the hoi polloi and then on his fellow patricians, until his fearsome mother finally stops him in his tracks. There is Macbeth, efficient at killing but hopeless at solving riddles. There is Julius Caesar, if not ‘the noblest man/That ever lived in the tide of times’ then certainly a compelling and unopposable commander in his day – but, in Shakespeare’s tragedy, a failing figure, a legend very much past his prime. Behind him, as Greenblatt points out, tyranny lingers in the fresh and virile form of Mark Antony, ‘a brilliant demagogue’. The variety of Shakespearean tyrants causes one to keep rethinking the nature of evil and, indeed, the nature of tragedy.

Greenblatt casts a hard eye on them all. Present-day politics have spurred him to try to convince us that Shakespeare wrote the book on tyranny. If we are baffled, he suggests, by the malignant forces that have taken over government in Britain and the USA and the hateful extremism that is on the rise everywhere, we would do well to take the Collected Works down off the shelf. How exactly this will help us is another question, but all Greenblatt’s points are well made and the implicit parallels are easily drawn.

The idea in Shakespeare’s time, a risky one to say the least, was that literary texts portraying tyrants held up ‘mirrors’ that offered a cautionary example to those with power and a cathartic lesson to ordinary citizens. If the image in the mirror was too recognisable, the consequences for the writer could be harsh indeed. Despite the sentimental haze that surrounds the reign of ‘Gloriana’, Queen Elizabeth’s use of power could be arbitrary and temperamental. In the case of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, official policy extended – with some hand-wringing, admittedly – to judicial murder. Open comment on policy, or an insufficient cloak of allegory, tended to bring official or unofficial reprisals. One John Stubbs (no relation, so far as I know) famously had his right hand cut off for remarks he published about the queen possibly marrying a Frenchman. In his depictions of kings and oligarchs from England’s gore-bespattered past, Shakespeare risked injuring family honour, stirring long, sensitive memories or offending with parallels that cut too close. Greenblatt’s book leaves one wondering if certain present-day grandees would be capable of seeing their reflections in Shakespeare’s plays.

The psychology and spectacle of villainy and the intoxicating nature of power clearly preoccupied Shakespeare. The grandeur, amoral freedom of action and sheer theatrical potential of tyrants must have moved and excited him. The case of a confirmed murderous dictator, after all, especially one with the charisma, merciless intelligence and twisted charm Shakespeare bestows on Richard III, gave unequalled scope for dramatic treatment of what unbridled, morally indifferent power might lead to. Such figures fascinated his contemporaries too. Monarchs aside, nobody commanded public attention, provoked fear or attracted censure like a prominent royal councillor or favourite, and those distant early moderns still captivate us today. Think of how the career of Thomas Cromwell – a man who pursued a distinctly bloody agenda – has gripped so many in Hilary Mantel’s novels.

In political terms, Greenblatt urges the view that Shakespeare’s purpose in creating his great iniquitous characters was invariably critical. In effect, he dismisses the longstanding tradition of treating (or excusing?) Shakespearean tyrants as ‘flawed’. ‘Richard III and Macbeth,’ he tells us, ‘are criminals who come to power by killing the legitimate rulers who stand in their way.’ In the case of Richard in particular, ‘there is no deep secret about his cynicism, cruelty, and treacherousness, no glimpse of anything redeemable in him.’

Greenblatt’s analyses of the plays also encompass the elements that enable the rise of tyrants: the conspiring oligarchs and negligent protectors of established constitutions; stooges; the mob. In the course of his arguments he provides the reader with invigorating and provocative plot summaries, punchy and astute explanations of historical context and much critical insight into individual moments in the plays. He brings out, for instance, the narcissism of Macbeth’s response on hearing the news that Fleance, Banquo’s son and thus Macbeth’s rival for power, has escaped his assassins: ‘I had else been perfect’. This remark, for Greenblatt, voices a desire ‘to possess a form of completeness’. The longing is ‘almost pitiable’, says Greenblatt, but ultimately it displays a pathology shared by every Shakespearean tyrant. To Macbeth, ‘the lives of others do not matter; what matters is only that he should somehow feel “whole”.’

There are, almost needless to say, lines of argument here that many readers – certainly many early modernists – will want to question, and some plays and figures that are neglected. But Shakespeare’s fascination with the tyrannical impulse, in domestic as well as political settings, is undeniable and is acutely observed by Greenblatt. The overlap between the private and public spheres is always catastrophic, as is the tyrant’s blind, psychotic fury at resistance when pure obedience is expected, an emotion the plays release and explore compulsively. It explodes in the terrifying rants of Juliet’s father and in Hamlet’s tirades against his mother and Ophelia. The case of Prospero is a singular one that could be pursued further. In Milan, of which he was duke, Prospero was an abstracted and frankly negligent ruler, but he proves an unbending absolutist on his island. Greenblatt offers a thoughtful discussion of Leontes, the ruler crazed by jealousy in The Winter’s Tale, who serves as the principal example from Shakespeare’s late phase of a character overthrown by dominating urges.

Greenblatt’s book is an interesting publication because it is in itself a distinct manifestation of cultural power. For decades Greenblatt, the founder of New Historicism, has been one of the most influential figures in literary studies and in the humanities as a whole. Greenblatt and his followers set out to analyse literary texts by considering them alongside other sources as manifestations of ‘social energy’, shaped by and shaping the hierarchies of the time. Greenblatt’s work, in short, has given countless students and teachers of literature new frames for understanding the subject. He is well known, too, outside the academy, largely on account of The Swerve, a splendid book on Lucretius that won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Tyrant reflects a sense of responsibility to that influence and a deep-felt wish to intervene at a time, as Greenblatt evidently sees it, of public emergency. As for Shakespeare’s treatment of tyranny, there is naturally endless scope for debate among students, theatregoers and performers. That, Greenblatt would surely say, is the point.

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