Power and politics of today seen through Shakespeare’s lens

Sitting at home, a Professor of the Humanities was considering the forthcoming elections in The United States and possibly, Europe and wondering about what might happen, as one does. Then it did happen – Brexit, Populism and Trump. In conversation with others, he was persuaded to put pen to paper.

This all sounds ridiculous, but it is not far short of how Tyrant, Shakespeare on Power came to be written. In the Coda to this extraordinary study of Shakespeare’s plays and his times, Stephen Greenblatt admits that this was his very purpose: to see the situation in today’s political sphere through an different, but very accurate lens. By doing this he has shown the cunning way in which Shakespeare draws parallels from distant history from such an Oblique Angle that he avoids the penalties suffered by other contemporaries: Thomas Kydd, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and many other less well known writers and pamphleteers.

Greenblatt on WSIn this extremely readable study of tyranny, Greenblatt selectively studies the careers of Richard III (Shakespeare’s version), Julius Caesar, Macbeth, King Lear and Coriolanus, extrapolating from these plays the many ways in which tyranny can arise, thrive and fall. In the chapters on Richard III, the author goes right back to the Henry VI plays, threading through the gradual decline of that monarch to the rise and rise and fall of Richard, Duke of York (the father) to Richard of Gloucester (the son) who through treachery and deceit becomes King Richard III.

Ricardians (like myself) rise up in horror at this portrayal of Richard III, but nevertheless seen as through a glass darkly, as an explanation for examples of modern tyranny that has an uncanny resemblance to Stalin and Hitler, it is a masterpiece of exposition.

In one chapter, Enablers, Greenblatt looks at some of the fairly minor characters around Richard who have given him help to the top job, but whose assistance far from being rewarded becomes, in time, a growing paranoiac threat.  In Shakespeare’s play this is the case for the Duke of Buckingham, for example, failing to grasp the nettle of the two Princes in the Tower, he earns for himself, his own demise – if you are not for me then you are against me. How many of Stalin’s one time supporters ended up dead, and the same with Hitler? This chapter also shows the subtle use Shakespeare makes of the crowd.  The crowd becomes a tool for the playwright in many of these plays, in Julius Caesar, Richard III and especially in Coriolanus, and as his writing and skill developed so did the “crowd scenes” – and you have to remember that in his own times, there were crowds milling about the stage, in the Pit, you only have to be a groundling once at today’s Globe Theatre or the recent production of Julius Caesar at the new Bridge Theatre in London, to know how intimately involved you become in these scenes.

The chapter on Coriolanus reads a bit like a Guardian article after the election of Donald Trump.

In civilised states, we expect leaders to have achieved at least a minimal level of adult self-control, and we hope as well for thoughtfulness, decency, respect for others, regard for institutions. Not so Coriolanus: here we are dealing instead with an overgrown child’s narcissism, insecurity, cruelty, and folly, all unchecked by any adult’s supervision and restraint.

Sound like anyone on the world stage today?

Quite apart from its contemporary overtones, this is a wonderful study of the latter stages of Elizabeth I’s reign: ageing Virgin Queen, full of suspicion – with good reason – she had manoeuvred and managed her life, treading always upon a narrow causeway between the old Catholic and the new Protestant religion, unable to fully eradicate one or fully endorse the other and surrounded by plotters and supporters alike, who were looking on to the next event – her succession. Compared to her predecessors, Elizabeth’s reign had been remarkable. But blood was shed, sometimes unfairly; heretics – of both persuasion – were burnt; writers and demagogues punished. Greenblatt shows how Shakespeare managed his own journey, on an equally narrow causeway, with studied brilliance.

This book is not just for scholars and schoolchildren, but for everyone. A piece of work!

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