Greenblatt on Politics in Shakespeare

Context stimulates creative endeavour.  When Shakespeare was writing, Queen Elizabeth was aging, frail and without a successor;  Spain continued to threaten in spite of the wreckage of the Armada; and the “Christian” church remained in turmoil.  His concerns and analysis of the contemporary challenges had to be disguised in plots of long ago and far away. Rot in the body politic, tyranny and madness were the subjects of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies.


Disgust at the current political context demanded that Stephen Greenblatt, an eminent Shakespearean scholar at Harvard University, revisit the plays and write Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics to examine how his tyrants came to power, the lies, the enablers, the subversion of upright citizens and the perversions of laws.  Never mentioning current populists by name, Greenblatt’s apprehensions are clear:


“Once the state is in the hands of an unstable, impulsive, and vindictive tyrant, there is almost nothing that the ordinary mechanisms of moderation can accomplish. Sensible advice falls on deaf ears; dignified demurrals are brushed aside; outspoken protests only seem to make matters worse.”


“In civilized 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.”


The manipulation of popular support was often instrumental in the ascension of the tyrant:


“Shakespeare did not believe that the common people could be counted upon as a bulwark against tyranny. They were, he thought, too easily manipulated by slogans, cowed by threats, or bribed by trivial gifts to serve as reliable defenders of freedom.”


“Shakespeare reflected throughout his life on the ways communities disintegrate. Endowed with an uncannily acute perception of human character and with rhetorical skills that would be the envy of any demagogue, he deftly sketched the kind of person who surges up in troubled times to appeal to the basest instincts and to draw upon the deepest anxiety of his contemporaries”


Greenblatt and Shakespeare were both fascinated by mental instability:

“RICHARD III AND MACBETH are criminals who come to power by killing the legitimate rulers who stand in their way. But Shakespeare was also interested in a more insidious problem, that posed by those who begin as legitimate rulers and are then drawn by their mental and emotional instability toward tyrannical behavior. The horrors they inflict on their subjects and, ultimately, on themselves are the consequences of psychological degeneration.”


As plays, the tragedies end.    Although the tyrants are ultimately dispatched, leaving behind many compromised citizens and fractured, unstable societies, better times await.


“Shakespeare did not think that tyrants ever lasted for very long. However cunning they were in their rise, once in power they were surprisingly incompetent. Possessing no vision for the country they ruled, they were incapable of fashioning enduring support, and though they were cruel and violent, they could never crush all of the opposition. Their isolation, suspicion, and anger, often conjoined to an arrogant overconfidence, hastened their downfall. The plays that depict tyranny inevitably end at least with gestures toward the renewal of community and the restoration of legitimate order.”


“Shakespeare believed that the tyrants and their minions would ultimately fail, brought down by their own viciousness and by a popular spirit of humanity that could be suppressed but never completely extinguished. The best chance for the recovery of collective decency lay, he thought, in the political action of ordinary citizens.”


This is an enlightening read – especially as a distraction from the daily circus.  Fair warning: you may even be enticed to read a little Shakespeare.