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A new book locates the seeds of Trumpism in Shakespeare’s tyrants

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt argues that reading Shakespeare can help us understand Trump.

David Garrick as Richard III by William Hogarth, 1745 Wikimedia Commons/Magnus Manske

Toward the end of the 2016 presidential campaign season, the New York Times published a book review that did what book reviews never do: It went viral. That’s because without ever mentioning Donald Trump by name, the review served as a lengthy subtweet of both Trump and his supporters.

Written by Michiko Kakutani about a new biography of Hitler, the review described Hitler as “a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization” with “a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology (radio, gramophone records, film) to spread his message.” It drew lengthy — if not explicit — parallels between the rhetorical styles of Hitler and Donald Trump, and the systems that enabled them both, before concluding darkly that while Hitler’s rise was preventable, once he seized power, there was no stopping him.

Tyrant, the new book by Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, is written in the same spirit as Kakutani’s famous review. An examination of Shakespeare’s tyrants from Richard III to Macbeth, it delves into the rhetoric of tyrants and the systems that enable them and does everything possible to point in Trump’s direction without ever quite mentioning his name.

Some of Greenblatt’s parallels can be so pointed as to be clumsy. Jack Cade — the populist mob leader of Henry VI, Part 2, whose speech prompts the famous line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” — is a man who “promises to make England great again,” Greenblatt writes. (Do you get it?)

Writing on Coriolanus, the Roman general who is the protagonist of one of Shakespeare’s last plays and who fatefully abandons Rome to fight with the Volscians, Greenblatt says, “It is as if the leader of a political party long identified with hatred of Russia — forever saber-rattling and accusing the rival politicians of treason — should secretly make his way to Moscow and offer his services to the Kremlin.” (No, seriously, do you get it?)

But when he turns his attention away from clever little granular comparisons and toward the broad sweep of how Shakespeare’s tyrants take their power, and what they do when they have it, Greenblatt reminds us why he’s one of the most celebrated Shakespeare scholars currently working.

Shakespeare’s tyrants are both gleefully likable and monstrous

There is a certain pleasure to watching Shakespeare’s tyrants work, to watching Richard III brazenly woo Lady Anne over the body of a man he killed or listening to Macbeth’s mournful, poetic speeches. It’s that thread of pleasure that Greenblatt claps onto, tracking the qualities that make Shakespeare’s tyrants so attractive to us — and, in turn, what makes real-life tyrants so attractive to their followers.

Richard III, Greenblatt writes, “enjoys seeing others cringe, tremble, or wince, with pain. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult. These skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delight, even if they cannot have it to his unmatched degree.” Macbeth, meanwhile, longs “to escape from the human condition, which he experiences as unendurably claustrophobic.” Audiences experience Macbeth’s longing as profound and spiritual — until, Greenblatt points out, we realize that Macbeth’s dream involves “the double murder of his friend and his friend’s son.”

It’s common for critics to write about how likable Shakespeare’s tyrants are, but perhaps what is most striking about Tyrant is how forcefully it troubles the pleasure of the tyrant, and with what moral clarity it examines its mechanisms. A few years ago, popular criticism focused trendily and myopically on the pleasure of watching tyrants at work; we could all take it as read, the thinking generally went, that tyrants are bad. What seemed more interesting was to talk about how witty and clever and existential they were. But in the era of Trump, such a reading becomes borderline impossible. It’s an impossibility I’ve experienced myself.

Shortly after Trump was elected in 2016, I went to a production of A Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s late romances. Although A Winter’s Tale is about a mad king who baselessly accuses his wife of adultery and, because of his unchecked power, goes on to wreak considerable damage, I’d never before thought of it before as a particularly political play. Before 2016, I thought it was about family structures and psychosexual power dynamics and pastoral lyricism.

But after the 2016 election, the play felt powerfully and bizarrely political. “Oh,” I thought, as King Leontes’s advisers tried and failed to keep him from blazing a trail of destruction across his country, “this is what it’s like to be governed by someone whose temperament and judgment you cannot trust.”

“A tyrant does not need to traffic in facts or supply evidence. He expects his accusation to be enough,” Greenblatt writes of Leontes. “If he says that someone has been betraying him, or laughing at him, or spying on him, it must be the case. Anyone who contradicts him is either a liar or an idiot.”

Of course, Trump’s election does not stop my previous reading of A Winter’s Tale from being legitimate. A Winter’s Tale really is about family structures and the pastoral — it’s just also about politics. And critics of previous years were right to see that audiences respond to the brutalities of Richard III with glee and to the treachery of Macbeth with empathy — but the brutality and treachery that Greenblatt highlights really are present in the play as well.

Different times pull different meanings out of the plays, so that whenever we read or write about or perform one of Shakespeare’s plays, we’re always on some level talking about our own time. And what Tyrant reminds us is that our current time is one of mounting terror at what’s happening in the highest seats of government.

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