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'Tyrant' examines the evidence of popular attraction to demagogues as seen in Shakepeare's plays

The Bard was no distant or indifferent observer of politics or power.

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Tyrant
By Stephen Greenblatt
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
224 pp.

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The dust jacket of Pulitzer Prize-winning Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt's new book Tyrant pulses vivid red, and the book asks sharp questions about the ways William Shakespeare interrogates the idea of political authority in his plays. 

It was a vividly relevant subject for Shakespeare. By the time he began his theatrical career in London, Queen Elizabeth I had been on the throne of England for over 30 years. She was obviously never going to have a heir of her own body, and she had already exiled or executed most of her likely cousins. The disastrous Wars of the Roses had ended only a century earlier when Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry Tudor, took the crown from King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and in that time, the everyday civilian population of England had grown prosperous and comfortable in days of relative peace and plenty.

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Nobody wanted a return to dynastic war, and yet during the same years that Shakespeare was at the height of his fame as a London actor, playwright, and producer, Queen Elizabeth died childless and passed her kingdom on to her distant cousin, James Stuart of Scotland, who was an unknown quantity to most of his future subjects. 

Greenblatt very effectively conveys the deep, wrenching anxiety this kind of shift produced and the fundamental questions it could raise, in Shakespeare's day and in all other eras. “Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers?” he asks. “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?”

As "Tyrant" makes clear in example after example, this willing submission of “otherwise proud and self-respecting people” is crucial to the power-grabbing demagogues in Shakespeare's plays. Readers will recall the opening of "Julius Caesar" (which Greenblatt calls the one play in Shakespeare's whole career “that features a systematic, principled attempt to stop tyranny before it starts”) reserves his coldest contempt for “the rabblement” who “hooted, and clapped their chapped hands, and / threw up their sweaty nightcaps.” Caesar's hypocrisy infuriates him, but so does the eager willingness of the Roman mob to accept that hypocrisy and cheer it on. 

Greenblatt hits this note throughout the book, pointing out that even the worst of Shakespeare's tyrants often value popular support and try to curry it with sham-everyman gestures. “Populism looked like an embrace of the have-nots, but it was in reality a form of cynical exploitation,” he writes. “The unscrupulous leader had no interest in bettering the lot of the poor.”

The book's inquiry takes it from lesser-known Shakespeare plays like the King Henry VI trilogy that first cemented the playwright's fame or "The Winter's Tale" that likely brought his career to a close. In the latter play, Greenblatt writes of the world created by the tyrannical Leontes: “There is no legal process; no respect for civilized norms; no decency. In a society where suspicion and certainty are indistinguishable, loyalty is proved by carrying out the tyrant's murderous campaigns.”

But the book's most extensive and compelling emphasis falls on Shakespeare's most famous tyrant, Richard III, who, Greenblatt reminds his readers, came to power not through a direct act of violence but as the result of an election. “To solicit a popular mandate,” Greenblatt writes, “Richard conducts a political campaign, complete with a fraudulent display of religious piety, the slandering of opponents, and a grossly exaggerated threat to national security.” Our author is equally clear on the subject of Richard's character: “He has always had wealth; he was born into it and makes ample use of it. But though he enjoys having what money can get him, it is not what most excites him. What excites him is the joy of domination. He is a bully.”

At the peak of his career, Shakespeare's plays were performed many times for royalty, first Queen Elizabeth and then King James; the Bard was no distant or indifferent observer of politics or power. He was not some North country parson slipping a risky innuendo into an unrecorded Sunday sermon. Instead, he was the country's most famous playwright, having the tribunes of the people admonish Coriolanus: “You have contrived to take/ From Rome all seasoned office and to wind/ Yourself into a power tyrannical.”  

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Both the risk and the thrill of this rhetorical daring electrifies "Tyrant." Shakespeare lived five centuries ago, yet Greenblatt's book has the feel of a series of urgent and very contemporary dispatches.