‘What country, friends, is this?’ asks Viola at the start of Twelfth Night. She is shipwrecked and heartbroken; she does not know where she is, nor does she really care. Shakespeare is fascinated by strange places, and by how familiar places may become strange; how the world looks different if we look at it from an unexpected angle. But he also often returns to the opposite idea: that geographical and historical distance is ultimately trivial, and all places are the same. He sets a play in ancient Rome, but mentions a chiming clock. He sets a play in Venice, but none of the characters is aware of the canals. He is uninterested in difference. For Shakespeare, everything is here and now.
Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant plays a very Shakespearean game of seeing the present world from the perspective of the foreign. Greenblatt does not once in these pages name the current US president. He notes, in passing, a recent election; twice he includes the Trumpian keyword ‘grab’. But this book is directly about Donald Trump. When the tyrannical Richard III of Shakespeare’s history plays is described as ‘pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant’, and has ‘always had wealth; he was born into it.… He is a bully’, then Greenblatt is not only doing literary criticism of a 400-year-old play.
For him, Shakespeare in his plays attempts to answer a major political question: why do democracies permit bad leaders to emerge? Or, as he puts it, ‘why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers?’ The plays, for Greenblatt, present the conditions which permit the rise of a tyrant. In a time of political polarisation and widespread fear of faceless foreign enemies, certain figures take advantage. They mobilise the language of populism while intending to deny the crowds their basic rights.
There are common characteristics to tyrannies across time. ‘The dream of absolute rule is not the goal of a single person alone,’ writes Greenblatt; ‘it is a dynastic ambition, a family affair.’ He is here, of course, describing the plot of Macbeth, in which a tyrannical king murders his rivals and also their children, while obsessing over his own lack of heirs. But each of Green-blatt’s insights into Shakespeare’s characters and plays doubles as a political commentary on our present. ‘There is a touch of comedy in the tyrant’s rise to power, catastrophe though it is,’ he writes; and this is perhaps in miniature what literary criticism is, or should be, for.
Here is one example of Greenblatt’s method. Macbeth has murdered King Duncan and taken the throne of Scotland. He is seized with paranoia, sending spies out, and in a monologue considers whether he should continue with his bloody, murderous campaign to secure his own illegitimate rule. ‘Returning were as tedious as go o’er,’ he says; he has gone too far to go back now. As Green-blatt notes of this phrase:
‘Tedious’ is a telling word to use for the nightmare in which Macbeth finds himself. Considerations of morality, political tactics or basic intelligence have all disappeared, and in their place is a mere calculation of the effort involved.
It is not made explicit the echo here, but surely we are being invited to recall Trump’s famously short attention span. This is an example of Greenblatt’s brilliant noticing. But it is also, of course, an example of Shakespeare’s eerie genius.
This is by now the common cry of American liberals, and it could be the headline of every Op-Ed in the New York Times: ‘What country, friends, is this?’ Greenblatt is a Harvard professor and a celebrated biographer of Shakespeare. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and is a deeply cultured, liberal man — and he, of course, in Shakespeare finds a mirror. That is: Greenblatt’s Shakespeare is very like Greenblatt. This sounds catty, but is not meant to be. It is a common habit among Shakespeareans to glimpse in their hero better version of themselves, and a surprising number of Shakespearean scholars have quasi-Elizabethan beards.
Does this mean that Shakespeare was a liberal? It would be possible to make the opposite argument, for an absolutist Shakespeare: a playwright who entertained the monarch, who thrilled at the excesses of power, and whose plays routinely undermine or mock the working classes and anything like democracy. But to do so would be to miss the point — of these dazzling, puzzling plays which have gone on speaking profoundly to our world in every changing political weather, and of this spikily insightful book.