Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics


Reading ShakespeareYou might think, while reading Henry VI Part 2, that Shakespeare was writing about recent events, the writer merely masking them in archaic historical dress. Okay, even if you have read some of the Bard’s plays, the three Henry VI plays probably aren’t among the ones you read in university or high school. They can be a slog to read in part because they were among his earliest, and the story meanders a lot. But bear with me. They were the lead into Richard III, a moving and powerful play about politics and personality, one of several in the canon. And as events around the world unfold, the characters and dialogue seem prescient.*

It’s easy to interpret the play’s characters as those in our modern frame; the controlling, puppet master York seen as Vladimir Putin; his puppet, the populist, lying, narcissistic blowhard Jack Cade, as Donald Trump or his skinny pupil Pierre Poilievre, and poor, inept, beleaguered Henry VI as a metaphor for Canada or the USA (or Biden, Trudeau, or even democracy) itself. You could stage it with actors dressed as today’s villains and it would seem as contemporary as a Taylor Swift concert.

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics is a recent book by Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2018; 212 pages)**. Tyrant is a trifle dated as to immediate news, notably written after 2016, but before Trump’s 2020 election loss and his attempted insurrection. It was also published before the CPC’s Poilievre cheating to become party leader with the helpful interference from India’s secret service, and before the Putin-loving convoy’s attempted insurrection in Ottawa, but it’s still relevant and worth reading. I read it back in 2019 but felt, given the accelerating rise of the neo-fascists and autocrats in today’s rightwing politics, that it deserved another read.

John Mullan, reviewing the book in The Guardian wrote,

As Greenblatt elegantly shows, Shakespeare dramatises the very exercise of power – the ways in which subjects and collaborators are seduced or numbed into complicity. Those few who resist intrigue him.

K.A. Doyle, writing in the LSE’s book review pages, said,

Tyrant is exceedingly relevant as a lens on US politics and social science research and makes a useful case, too, for incorporating interdisciplinary understanding of societies and governing systems. It is, finally, a multilayered testament to recognising the ‘political’ in our work and acting on it for the public interest, as Greenblatt and Shakespeare do by revealing, in their own ways, political forces and our agency within them.

Greenblatt doesn’t point any fingers at anyone in particular, only discusses politics, and tyranny in general terms. But in reading his descriptions and explanations of the Shakespearean texts, it’s not difficult to imagine he means Trump and his enablers. Although Greenblatt focuses on US politics, we can also see our own nefarious Pierre Poilievre as the main focus. By not naming names, Greenblatt allows us to elide the characters with others in their own political realms, including those in local politics (Collingwood readers might see our former, corrupt mayor, for example, among the petty tyrants and blowhards Greenblatt describes).

Greenblatt opens his first chapter with:

Shakespeare grappled again and again with a deeply unsettling question: how is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?

Looking at videos of Trump rallies today, with him channelling Hitler’s words to cheering crowds of cultists, that question should still worry us. The lessons and dangers of Hitler’s rise in 1933-34 have, it seems, been forgotten by the MAGA crowd. And forgotten, too, by the CPC members easily gulled by Poilievre’s lies and gaslighting. Greenblatt continues:

Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to?… Why would anyone… 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?

While Greenblatt doesn’t name names, it’s clear to readers he was reflecting on Donald Trump’s unexpected rise to power. The same questions arise today looking at Trump’s continued popularity among Repugnicans and the Talibangelists. Canadian readers should also consider Canada’s wannabe-Trump: Pierre Poilievre. Both use the same playbook: lie, attack, accuse, lie some more, insult, spread chaos and disinformation, express bigotry and hatred, and rage-farm their followers over lies and conspiracies. And, in doing so, they knowingly help further Putin’s agenda to destabilize Western democracies.

Shakespeare is not, of course, our contemporary, but he can be a mirror to ourselves and our times. It doesn’t take a particular stretch of imagination when reading York’s words from Act III Sc 1 to imagine a similar speech from Trump or Poilievre about their Proud Boy, neo-Nazi, or insurrectionist convoy followers:

I will stir up in England some black storm
Shall blow ten thousand souls to heaven or hell;
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun’s transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.
And, for a minister of my intent,
I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can…

But it’s not just the would-be tyrants on the national stage who can be read into the Bard’s words. Both premiers, Alberta’s Danielle Smith and Ontario’s Doug Ford can be found in Cade’s speech of empty promises in Act IV:

Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows
reformation. 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; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to
grass: and when I am king, as king I will be…
there shall be no money;
all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will
apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree
like brothers and worship me their lord.

Did you catch that line, “when I am king, as king I will be…”? Like wannabe-despots today, Cade not only wanted to overthrow the government but to become it. And look at the disastrous, corrupt governments we now have in Ontario and Alberta when those despots get into power despite their empty promises.

Like today’s book-banning and book-burning Repugnicans and Christo-fascists, Cade despised reading and writing and wanted to ban both:

Is not this a lamentable
thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should
be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled
o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings:
but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal
once to a thing, and I was never mine own man

Shortly after this speech, the clerk Emmanuel is dragged before Cade and, after the clerk confesses he can both read and write, he is hung, as Cade says, “with his pen and ink-horn about his neck.” Hard not to see that as a mirror of modern conservative views on education and learning.

A few lines later, Cade speaks to his followers in words that read eerily like the words spoken by Trump to the Jan. 6 insurrectionists before their attack on the US capital, or by the insurrectionist convoy leaders who incited their followers to attack Ottawa and hang the prime minister:

And you that love the commons, follow me.
Now show yourselves men; ’tis for liberty.
We will not leave one lord, one gentleman:
Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon;
For they are thrifty honest men, and such
As would, but that they dare not, take our parts.

Further on, Cade condemns another character because he created schools to educate youth and a printing press to spread literacy:

Thous hast most traitorously
corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a
grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers
had no other books but the score and the tally, thou
hast caused printing to be used…

You don’t need to be a Shakespearean scholar to see the parallels between Cade’s views and those of today’s Repugnicans and CONservatives: both parties (and their leaders) are deeply anti-literacy, and anti-education. They want an ignorant electorate because people are easier to control and con when they are not educated to be skeptical.

Greenblatt finds parallels with modern politics in several other of the Bard’s plays; Macbeth, King Lear,  Winter’s Tale, Richard II and Richard III among them. And it’s not merely the demagogue leaders he skewers: the enablers who help them rise and who implement their dictates come under his literary microscope.

Tyrant is a good reminder that, while the evils of Trump and Poilievre sometimes seem overwhelming, other generations have had and have dealt with their own dictators, overlords, despots, and insurrectionists. True, none of the Bard’s stories involved the rampant social media conspiracies, the abject and continual lying, the narcissistic sound-bytes and videos of today.

I’m sure Greenblatt would have a field day with an updated edition of his book today., especially if he looked at events and politicians outside the US borders.


* Thomas More, somewhat earlier than Shakespeare, wrote similarly in his 1516 masterpiece, Utopia, words that seem prescient in our age of billionaires who exploit their workers and pressure governments to change their laws for their own benefit (emphasis added):

Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please; and if they can but prevail to get these contrivances established by the show of public authority, which is considered as the representative of the whole people, then they are accounted laws. Thomas More, Ch. 9, Utopia

How can you read that and not see Donald Trump in those words? And Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos…
**  Greenblatt is also one of the editors of the Norton Shakespeare Complete Works, so he knows his Bard well (yes, I have the Norton edition, among others).

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