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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics’ has current implications

Stephen Greenblatt has asked himself a question many of us need to ask these days: “How is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?” An accomplished scholar, Greenblatt has enlisted one of humankind’s great minds to help solve this mystery: William Shakespeare.

Tyrant: Shakespeare On Politics
Stephen Greenblatt
2018, 212 pages
W. W. Norton & Company Inc., $21.95

At the recent Helsinki summit, President Trump chose to discount our intelligence community’s determination that the Russian army intelligence services are waging war on American democracy. Despite special counsel Mueller’s indictment of twelve GRU agents and a detailed analysis of their theft of passwords, computer hacks, and distribution of stolen emails and documents, President Trump chose to support Vladimir Putin’s denial that his GRU hadn’t waged this very sophisticated cyber war during the 2016 election.

This wasn’t the first warning sign that our president has an undemocratic streak — remember the kind words for Turkey’s Erdogan, the Philippines’ Duterte and lavish praise for the Saudis — but it was the most stark. Trump’s authoritarian instincts clearly threaten the Republic. And so, we need to appreciate the increasing dangers of tyranny and to muster a renewed commitment to combat it.

William Shakespeare

Stephen Greenblatt has asked himself a question many of us need to ask these days: “How is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?” An accomplished scholar, Greenblatt has enlisted one of humankind’s great minds to help solve this mystery: William Shakespeare. Why the Bard? Because “from the early 1590s, at the beginning of his career, all the way through its end,” the inestimable Shakespeare grappled with this very “deeply unsettling question.”

With Shakespeare as his muse and guide, Greenblatt tackles some incredibly important questions: “Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to? How does a figure like Richard III or Macbeth ascend to the throne? Such a disaster, Shakespeare suggested, could not happen without widespread complicity. His plays probe the psychological mechanisms that lead a nation to abandon its ideals and even its self-interest. Why would anyone, he asked himself, be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to the truth? Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?” (Emphasis added.)

Truth be told, I approached Greenblatt’s “Tyrant” with an Elizabethan bucketful of skepticism. It seemed to me that there were many reasons to be wary of any one-to-one correspondence between our own pressing Trumpian dilemma and the challenges of Shakespeare’s world. My first problem was with the notions of knowing acceptance, complicity and ardency. I was ready to argue some more when Greenblatt began by quoting the 16th-century Scottish scholar George Buchanan, who wrote, “A king rules over willing subjects, a tyrant over unwilling.”

The Darnley portrait of Elizabeth I. Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

The poorest of Queen Elizabeth’s subjects were given no choice in the matter. Shakespeare, of course, as a man of some means, was better positioned than most of the queen’s subjects, who, I’m not sure, even if given a safe space to speak or an offer of witness protection, would so cheerily agree that their willingness to subject themselves to the monarch was really given freely rather than from fear of significant retribution — maybe death.

Lacking fundamental choice, can we assume they knowingly accepted being lied to? My first thought was that the terms “drawn to a leader” and “attracting ardent followers” might more accurately describe the behavior of the nobles who served the monarch: the collection of dukes, earls, viscounts, and barons surrounding the queen. It perhaps extended to the gentlemen — the gaggle of baronets, knights, esquires, doctors, lawyers and small farmers — but I suspect failed to adequately express the complicated feelings of those common laborers who only earned enough to barely survive and who, by the slightest manifestation of misbehaving, could endanger everything. So it’s important to remember that, in Shakespeare’s day, only those of wealth — and certainly not women or the poor — had any but the most minimal choice in the matter of who would govern them.

A little bit of perspective: In 1600, only 4 percent of all the land in England was open for all to use, or available to the landless. The crown and the church owned 35 percent of the land, the nobility owned 15 percent of the land, and the gentry, who made up only 2 percent of the population, owned 50 percent of the land. So, allow me to suggest that monarchy is but a variety of tyranny burnished with the slightest veneer of sophistication.

Even many of the privileged had only the most limited of opportunities to oppose “the sheer effrontery of the tyrant.” Because, for the monarch, the tyrant, there was an army and an almost unlimited supply of supplicants prepared to serve and to exact the most severe punishments to real or imagined opponents. This was a universe marked by the lethal combination of an absolutely powerful monarchy coupled with the arrogance, intemperance and mental instability that often infected the royal families and their allies.

Was it difficult in any way for Shakespeare’s audience to imagine themselves trapped in a universe that was almost always absurd, cruel, mean-spirited and arbitrary? No wonder “proud and self-respecting people” submitted and tried their best to find ways to survive. Everyone knew and suffered the fact that the monarch, the tyrant, could time and again “get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency.”

Thankfully, today we have the advantages of some enlightened history, notably the successful struggle against Shakespeare’s own British monarchy. Propelled by a desire for relief and greater choice, some were empowered to sail across the seas, steal a nation from the natives, and then, aided by some seriously smart men, create an impressive if flawed Constitution for the propertied and male — and including, for present and future bards, the all-important First Amendment.

Then, as we grew, there was our overly delayed victory against slavery and the movements for women’s suffrage that sometimes mitigated the need for women to pretend to be men to achieve success or honor their talents, an issue at the very heart of the Shakespearian experience since, because of male privilege and pervasive discrimination against women, Shakespeare was forced to rely on all-male casts, adding layers of ironic complexity to many of the comedies which feature men pretending to be women then pretending to be men. We have, as well, the recent victories against the combined tyrannies of Nazi Germany, the fascism of Spain and Italy and the Japanese Empire.

Nevertheless, it’s worth deciding if Greenblatt’s formulation holds true for us: “Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?” Sadly, once we move past our resistance and the accumulated weariness of the continuous Trumpian assault on our sensibilities, our sense of the appropriate, these questions now seem appropriate to ask — specially relevant in our America where there are elections and, even with Citizens United, a decent degree of choice.

My skepticism evaporated as I accompanied Greenblatt through his examination of some of the histories and tragedies written by the very greatest writer we’ve known. And I discovered once again how Shakespeare is able to transcend any limitations of time and place and politics. He used their past to illuminate, and managed to survive, his Elizabethan present and simultaneously informed the future. With Greenblatt as a guide, I re-experienced the Bard’s ability to bring life to the profound calamities of the human condition, illuminating both the pathetic foolishness and lethal pretensions of those trying to take and hold power, making real the many costs they bear as they surrender their souls to greed, and their desire to control, the jealousies and paranoias that grow larger day by day and the costs the larger community suffers by the inability to stop them. Shakespeare’s uncanny, incomparable ability to capture the deepest truths of the human condition have made his insights even more critical four centuries later.

Greenblatt reminds us that Shakespeare had to be aware of the dangers he faced when portraying tyranny, always making sure he “was not accusing England’s current ruler, Elizabeth I, of being a tyrant. Quite apart from whatever Shakespeare privately thought, it would have been suicidal to float such a suggestion onstage. Dating back to 1534, during the reign of the queen’s father, Henry VIII, legal statutes made it treason to refer to the ruler as a tyrant. The penalty for such a crime was death.”

Greenblatt elaborates: “None of England’s national security concerns, major or minor, could be depicted directly on the stage. The theater companies that thrived in London were feverishly in search of exciting stories, and they would have loved to draw audiences with the equivalent of television’s Homeland. But the Elizabethan theater was censored, and though on occasion the censor could be lax, he would never have permitted the staging of plots that depicted threats to the queen’s regime, let alone allowed the public impersonation of figures like Mary, Queen of Scots, Anthony Babington, or Elizabeth herself.”

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

Greenblatt reminds us how Shakespeare found himself entangled in the midst of great intrigue. The Earl of Essex, who lost skirmishes in Ireland, returned home despite orders from Elizabeth to stay, giving Cecil and Raleigh, his enemies at court, their chance to oust him. “Court culture inevitably generates fiercely competing factions, and Elizabeth had for years brilliantly played one off against another. But, with her increasing debility, the old enmities sharpened and became murderous. When the Privy Council summoned Essex for a meeting on state business, he refused to go, declaring that he would be assassinated on Raleigh’s orders. His tangle of fear and loathing, coupled with a delusional confidence that the populace of London would rise up to support him, ultimately led Essex to stage an armed rising against the queen’s counselors and perhaps against the queen herself. The rising failed miserably. Essex and his principal allies, including the Earl of Southampton, were arrested.”

The Globe Theatre stage, from a model by J.G. Adams

Essex’s allies had prevailed upon the Globe Theatre’s resident acting company to stage Shakespeare’s “Richard II” for a small bonus above their usual wages because the play “depicted the downfall of a ruler and his cronies. ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me’ (5.5.49), the doomed king laments, after his rapacious counselors (‘the caterpillars of the commonwealth,’ as the usurper calls them) have met the fate that Essex hoped to visit upon Cecil and Raleigh.”

Greenblatt provides some particularly interesting perspective: “In Richard II it is not only the king’s counselors who are killed by the usurper; it is the king himself. The usurper Bolingbroke never declares directly that he intends to topple the reigning monarch, let alone murder him. Like Essex, while he rails against the corruption of the ruler’s inner circle, he dwells principally upon the injustice done to him personally. But having contrived Richard’s abdication and imprisonment, and having had himself crowned as King Henry IV, he moves with cunning vagueness — the vagueness that confers what politicians call “deniability” — to take the essential last step. Fittingly, Shakespeare does not represent this move directly. Instead, he simply shows someone pondering what he has heard the king say:

EXTON: Didst thou not mark the King what words he spake?
“Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?”
Was it not so?
SERVANT: Those were his very words.
EXTON: “Have I no friend?” quoth he. He spake it twice,
And urged it twice together, did he not?
SERVANT: He did.
EXTON: And speaking it, he wistly looked on me,
As who should say, “I would thou wert the man
That would divorce this terror from my heart,”
Meaning the King at Pomfret. Come, let’s go.
I am the King’s friend and will rid his foe. (5.4.1–11)”

Richard II, from William Martyn’s ‘ The historie and lives of the kings of England …’ (1638)

Greenblatt’s analysis of Richard offers some insight into what is happening today in the Court of Trump: “That is the whole scene. It is over in a moment, but it is enough to conjure up an entire ethos of power in operation. No formal legal procedure is initiated against the deposed king. Instead, all that is needed is a pregnant hint, carefully repeated, conjoined with looks directed intently (“wistly”) toward someone likely to grasp the hint’s meaning.

There are always people in a new regime who will do anything to win the ruler’s favor. Exton, as Shakespeare depicts him, is a nobody; this is the first time we see or hear of him. He will undertake to become “the King’s friend.” “Let’s go” (5.4.10), he says to his henchmen, and Richard is promptly murdered. Predictably enough, when Exton eagerly comes for his reward — “Great King, within this coffin I present/Thy buried fear” (5.6.30–31) — the ruler repudiates him: “Though I did wish him dead,/I hate the murderer, love him murdered” (5.6.39–40). “Love him murdered”: with this deliciously bitter irony the play reaches its end.” (Emphasis added.)

Think “Lock Her Up!” or presidential tweets like these from Aug. 11, 2018: “The big story that the Fake News Media refuses to report is lowlife Christopher Steele’s many meetings with Deputy A.G. Bruce Ohr and his beautiful wife, Nelly. It was Fusion GPS that hired Steele to write the phony & discredited Dossier, paid for by Crooked Hillary & the DNC….
… Do you believe Nelly worked for Fusion and her husband STILL WORKS FOR THE DEPARTMENT OF “JUSTICE.” I have never seen anything so Rigged in my life. Our A.G. is scared stiff and Missing in Action. It is all starting to be revealed – not pretty. IG Report soon? Witch Hunt!” (Emphasis added.)

Henchmen like Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan, Dana Rorabacher, Mark Meadows, perhaps House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and bit players like Exton abound: Corey Lewandoski, Hope Hicks, Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, Rob Porter, Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, not to mention the inimitable Omarosa, all committed to winning the fickle king’s favor. Whether it is savaging the modest pre-existing condition protections of the Affordable Care Act, repealing one Earth-friendly regulation after another, violating the asylum provisions of our immigration law and ripping children from their immigrant parents seeking to make legitimate claims for asylum, there are legions willing to compromise morality for political favor — willing to lie at a moment’s notice.

As the Trump team scours the Washington Post and New York Times and the rebellious cable newscasters at CNN and MSNBC, Greenblatt highlights how seriously those in the queen’s court, who had no First Amendment to temper their excess, monitored what was said on stage with an eye to punish: “Six months after Essex’s execution, Queen Elizabeth gave a gracious audience to William Lambarde, whom she had recently appointed Keeper of the Rolls and Records in the Tower of London. The learned archivist began dutifully going through an inventory of the records, reign by reign, that he had prepared for the queen. When he reached the reign of Richard II, Elizabeth suddenly declared, “I am Richard II; know ye not that?”… reflecting on the dark parallels between the events in the fourteenth century and Essex’s attempted coup. Thinking on his feet, Lambarde quickly grasped that the key point lay in “imagining” the ruler’s death … ‘This tragedy,’ Elizabeth responded hyperbolically, ‘was played forty times in open streets and houses.” It is the theater — Shakespeare’s theater — that offered the key to understanding the crisis of the present …

“In the wake of the coup attempt, the special staging of Richard II became a focus of the government’s investigation. One of Shakespeare’s associates was compelled to testify before the Privy Council and explain what the Lord Chamberlain’s Servants thought they were doing. His answer — merely making a bit of extra money — was accepted. Sir Gelly Meyrick was not so fortunate. Convicted on charges of arranging the special performance, along with other actions in support of rebellion, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered.”

In so many ways one couldn’t find a more astute guide to the vagaries of human behavior than Shakespeare. And Shakespeare’s keen eye, penetrating wit and Geiger counter-like ability to measure pomposity, hypocrisy and deceit provide extraordinary guidance when it comes to recognizing the tyrannical impulse.

Greenblatt does a great job of showing how Shakespeare grappled with the questions that so sadly haunt us today, for how much less mad is our king than his kings Richard, Lear and Macbeth, and Macbeth’s Lady? How much less craven are Trump’s sycophants than theirs? And when Greenblatt speaks of those “drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern,” he’s speaking about a syndrome that seems particularly appropriate to contemporary politics.

Greenblatt continues: “Like the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the beheading of Mary on February 8, 1587, did not end the threat of terrorism in England; nor did it end with the defeat of the Spanish Armada the following year. If anything, the country’s mood darkened. Another foreign invasion seemed imminent. The government’s spies continued their work; Catholic priests continued to venture into England and minister to their increasingly desperate and beleaguered flock; wild rumors continued to circulate. A day laborer was forced to stand in the pillory in 1591 for having said, ‘We shall never have a merry world while the Queen liveth’; another received a similar punishment for declaring that ‘this is no good government which we now live under . . . and if the Queen die there will be a change and all those that be of this religion now used will be pulled out.’ At Sir John Perrot’s treason trial in 1592, it was reported as a serious charge that he had described the queen as ‘a base bastard piss-kitchen woman.’ In the Star Chamber, the Lord Keeper complained of all the ‘railing open speeches [and] false, lying, traitorous libels’ circulating in London.” The fake news of Shakespeare’s time.

The likelihood of war percolated throughout society. Greenblatt notes: “Shakespeare repeatedly depicts minor characters — the gardeners in Richard II, nameless Londoners in Richard III, soldiers on the eve of battle in Henry V, starving plebeians in Coriolanus, cynical subalterns in Antony and Cleopatra, and the like — sharing rumors and debating matters of state. Such reflections by the lowly upon their betters tended to enrage the elite: ‘Go, get you home, you fragments’ (Coriolanus 1.1.214), an aristocrat snarls at a group of protesters. But the fragments could not be silenced.

Mueller’s indictment of the Russians working for the Internet Research Agency and their masked use of social media exposed the most recent digital use of rumor and lies, but Shakespeare was acutely aware of the more primitive, verbal version. Greenblatt writes: “At the beginning of one of his history plays, Shakespeare introduces the figure of Rumor, in a costume ‘painted full of tongues,’ whose task is ceaselessly to circulate stories ‘blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures’ (2 Henry IV Induction 16). Its effects are painfully apparent in disastrously misinterpreted signals, fraudulent comforts, false alarms, sudden lurches from wild hope to suicidal despair. And the figures most deceived are not the gross multitude but, rather, the privileged and powerful.”

Greenblatt turns to the Henry VI plays and we’re able to gain some insight into the age-old appeal to a faux populism: “Up to this point, midway through the Henry VI trilogy, there have been very few glimpses of those at the bottom. Politics has been almost entirely the affair of the elites, who maneuver against one another, while the anonymous masses of messengers, servants, soldiers, guards, artisans, and peasants remain in the shadows. Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, the cast of characters changes: York sees an opportunity to forge an alliance with the miserable, overlooked, and ignorant lower classes, and he seizes upon it. And we learn that the hitherto invisible and silent poor are seething with anger. Party warfare cynically makes use of class warfare. The goal is to create chaos, which will set the stage for the tyrant’s seizure of power.”

Greenblatt explains: “It is York’s genius, if that is the right word for something so base, to grasp the use he can make of the resentment that seethes among the poorest of the poor. ‘I will stir up in England some black storm,’ he broods to himself, a storm that will not cease to rage until the crown he plans to seize — ‘the golden circuit on my head’ — shines like the sun and calms the fury. And he has, he reveals, found the perfect person to be his agent: ‘I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman,/John Cade’ (2 Henry VI 3.1.349–57).

“The uprising turns out to be an even greater storm than York could have wished. The mob, gathering just outside London in Blackheath, is rallied by Cade, who proves himself to be an effective demagogue, the master of voodoo economics:

‘There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny, the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer. All the realm shall be in common . . . [T]here shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score.’ (4.2.61–68)

“When the crowd roars its approval, Cade sounds exactly like a modern stump speaker: “I thank you, good people” (4.2.167).

“The absurdity of these campaign promises is not an impediment to their effectiveness. On the contrary: Cade keeps producing demonstrable falsehoods about his origins and making wild claims about the great things he will do, and the crowds eagerly swallow them. To be sure, his neighbors know that Cade is a congenital liar:

CADE: My mother a Plantagenet—
BUTCHER: [Aside] I knew her well; she was a midwife.
CADE: My wife descended of the Lacys—
BUTCHER: [Aside] She was indeed a peddler’s daughter and sold laces. (4.2.39–43)

‘Lord Saye and Sele brought before Jack Cade 4th July 1450’ by Charles Lucy

“Cade’s absurd assertions of aristocratic lineage should make him seem merely a buffoon. Far from a wealthy, high-born magnate, he is little more than a vagabond: ‘I have seen him whipped three market days together’ (4.2.53–54), whispers one of his supporters. But, strangely enough, this knowledge does not diminish the mob’s faith.

“Cade himself, for all we know, may think that what he is so obviously making up as he goes along will actually come to pass. Drawing on an indifference to the truth, shamelessness, and hyperinflated self-confidence, the loudmouthed demagogue is entering a fantasyland — “When I am king, as king I will be” — and he invites his listeners to enter the same magical space with him. In that space, two and two do not have to equal four, and the most recent assertion need not remember the contradictory assertion that was made a few seconds earlier.

“In ordinary times, when a public figure is caught in a lie or simply reveals blatant ignorance of the truth, his standing is diminished. But these are not ordinary times. If a dispassionate bystander were to point out all of Cade’s grotesque distortions, mistakes, and downright lies, the crowd’s anger would light on the skeptic and not on Cade. Famously, it is at the end of one of Cade’s speeches that someone in the crowd shouts, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” (4.2.71).” (Emphasis added.)

How hard is it to imagine the call and response of Trump’s rallies, the alternating chants of “Lock Her Up” and “Build The Wall” and “Fake News” or this recent rant, just one of the never-ending tweetstorm: “This is an illegally brought Rigged Witch Hunt run by people who are totally corrupt and/or conflicted. It was started and paid for by Crooked Hillary and the Democrats. Phony Dossier, FISA disgrace and so many lying and dishonest people already fired. 17 Angry Dems. Stay tuned.”

Greenblatt continues: “Cade begins by talking vaguely about “reformation,” but his actual appeal is wholesale destruction. He urges the mob to pull down London’s law schools, the Inns of Court, but that is only the beginning. “I have a suit unto your lordship,” entreats one of his chief followers, “that the laws of England may come out of your mouth” (4.7.3–7). “I have thought upon it,” Cade replies, “it shall be so. Away! Burn all the records of the realm; my mouth shall be the Parliament of England” (4.7.11–13).” (Emphasis added.) 

Greenblatt concludes: “That in this destruction the common people would lose even the very limited power they possess — the power expressed when they voted in parliamentary elections — does not matter. For Cade’s ardent supporters, the time-honored institutional system of representation is worthless. It has, they feel, never represented them. Their inchoate wish is to tear up all the agreements, cancel all the debts, and wreck all the existing institutions. Better to have the law come from the mouth of the dictator, who may claim to be a Plantagenet but whom they recognize as one of their own. The masses are perfectly aware that he is a liar, but — venal, cruel, and self-serving though he is — he succeeds in articulating their dream: ‘Henceforward all things shall be in common’ (4.7.16).”

Imagine a tax cut that overwhelmingly rewards the very richest but is sold as a benefit to all. Imagine a king who surrounds himself with men who ruthlessly steal from the public coffers. Imagine a monarch who continually exaggerates about matters important and trivial, from consorting with foreigners who plot against the republic to inflating the size of the crowds that greet him, and, all the while, he succeeds in articulating a dream fueled by anger and grievance: Make America Great Again.

Does this description resonate? The refusal to truly separate himself and his family from their holdings. One emoluments clause violation after another. The Access Hollywood tape. The constant incendiary rhetoric about black football players, and the critical press who cover his rallies? “Cade aspires to being a tyrant, and a rich one at that: ‘The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders unless he pay me tribute’ (4.7.109–10). He imagines for himself, as well, the right to sleep with all the women he can put his hands on. For a time, he manages to whip his followers into a frenzy of destructiveness: “Up Fish Street! Down Saint Magnus’ Corner! Kill and knock down! Throw them into Thames!” (4.8.1–2).” (Emphasis added.)

So allow me to remind you once again about the oh-so-many Russians popping up here and there along the way of the Trumpian coronation, and Putin’s triumph in Helsinki. Well, here’s Greenblatt and Shakespeare: “The political party determined to seize power at any cost makes secret contact with the country’s traditional enemy. England’s enmity with the nation across the Channel — constantly fanned by all the overheated patriotic talk of recovering its territories there, and fueled by all the treasure and blood spilled in the attempt to do so — suddenly vanishes. The Yorkists — who, in the person of Cade, had pretended to consider it an act of treason even to speak French — enter into a set of secret negotiations with France.”

As we await judgments in several courts on the matters of the president and his minions to silence Stormy Daniels and Playmate Karen McDougal and cases involving women he’s harassed, here’s excerpts from Shakespeare’s powerful drama “Macbeth.” Greenblatt writes: “As the fatal hour approaches, he attempts to call off the plot — “We will proceed no further in this business” (1.7.31) — and it is only his wife’s mocking insistence that persuades him to continue. “Was the hope drunk/Wherein you dressed yourself?” she asks him. “Art thou afeard/To be the same in thine own act and valor/As thou art in desire?” (1.7.35–36, 39–41). Macbeth tries to counter the imputation of weakness: “I dare do all that may become a man” (1.7.46). But his wife drives home the sexual point: “When you durst do it, then you were a man,” she informs him. “And to be more than what you were, you would/Be so much more the man” (1.7.49–51). So provoked, he rises to the murderous occasion.

“Lady Macbeth’s gibes about her husband’s manhood — his ability to be the same in act as he is in desire — bring up to the surface a recurrent implication in Shakespearean tyranny.

The tyrant, Macbeth and other plays suggest, is driven by a range of sexual anxieties: a compulsive need to prove his manhood, dread of impotence, a nagging apprehension that he will not be found sufficiently attractive or powerful, a fear of failure. Hence the penchant for bullying, the vicious misogyny, and the explosive violence. Hence, too, the vulnerability to taunts, especially those bearing a latent or explicit sexual charge.” (Emphasis added.)

And while it seems our president has hallucinated a witch hunt without real witches, Macbeth managed the real witch deal and their witchy proclamation: — “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Macbeth 1.3.51)

Greenblatt offers us so much more to consider. If you love the very best theater, if you care about how the past illuminates the present but, most of all, if you want to preserve American democracy, you’ll read Greenblatt’s “Tyrant.”


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