Fashion It Thus: Stephen Greenblatt’s “Tyrant”

By Rhodri LewisJune 24, 2018

Fashion It Thus: Stephen Greenblatt’s “Tyrant”

Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt

REPEATED FREQUENTLY ENOUGH, what begins as art becomes second nature. Stephen Greenblatt’s fondness for starting his books with a personal anecdote is well known; whether writing about the contingent nature of personal identity or the myth of human origins preserved in the book of Genesis, his opening move is to place his subject abut some feature or other of his autobiography. While these anecdotes — sometimes homely, sometimes quirky, sometimes quasi-allegorical — can on occasion feel contrived, the advantages they confer are real. They ease the reader into a topic that might otherwise prove forbidding. They reassure the reader that the author is going to be a genial companion, an open-minded explorer rooting his thoughts in everyday experience — anything but a disciplinarian of narrowly academic virtuosity. In sum, the anecdote allows Greenblatt a measure of control over what Aristotle calls ethos: the display of good character and goodwill that enables a speaker or writer to win the trust and sympathetic attention of his or her audience.

In the early 2000s, Greenblatt made the decision to switch from scholarly to more popular modes of writing, and in the time since, he has been installed as a sort of national treasure. It can thus be tempting to conclude that his relationship to his ethos is measured less by control than by mastery. His authorial self-fashioning, aided by his lucidly conversational prose, has been a great success.

Greenblatt’s latest book is Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. Although it is not exactly a popular work, it shows him moving further than ever before toward the role of the self-consciously public intellectual — in this case occupying a space somewhere between James Comey and the Timothy Snyder of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017). Greenblatt adjusts his language accordingly. The acknowledgments (printed after the main body of the text) transport us to a moment of political resolution experienced “in a verdant garden in Sardinia” and to dinner table talk of Shakespeare’s “uncanny relevance to the political world in which we now find ourselves.” But there is no opening anecdote. Instead, we are offered the ex cathedra assertion that Shakespeare, from the beginning to the end of his career, “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?”

Greenblatt deploys George Buchanan’s distinction between monarchs (who rule over willing populaces) and tyrants (who rule over unwilling ones) to suggest that this question can only be answered through an awareness of mass “complicity”: Shakespeare’s plays “probe the psychological mechanisms that lead a nation to abandon its ideals and even its self-interest.” I struggle with the notion that mechanisms can have agency enough to lead anything, but Greenblatt’s drift is easy enough to catch.

The rest of the first chapter is an exercise in scene-setting. It sketches Shakespeare’s place within the currents of British political life in the 1580s and ’90s. In this England, the threat of Roman Catholic invasion or insurrection meant that free speech was impossible. Like many in “modern totalitarian regimes,” Shakespeare therefore only considered his political circumstances indirectly. What makes Shakespeare different, Greenblatt urges, is that he so radically transcends prudence and necessity:

[H]is plays suggest that he could best acknowledge truth — to possess it fully and not perish of it — through the artifice of fiction or through historical distance. […] Liberated from the surrounding circumstances and liberated, too, from the endlessly repeated clichés about patriotism and obedience, his writing could be ruthlessly honest.

Granted that clichés only become clichés by virtue of constant (though not “endless”) repetition, this judgment is surely correct. We care about Shakespeare not because he gives voice to the late Elizabethan age but because he examines the deep causes of the crises with which the late Elizabethans were faced. As these deep causes also animate many of the crises that beleaguer our own age, we are able to say that he provides us with a medium through which to reexamine our assumptions about ourselves and the conduct of our lives. The further implication is that just as Shakespeare delved into the historical and fictional past in order to critique the politics of his period, so Greenblatt — albeit unthreatened with torture or imprisonment for lèse-majesté — delves into Shakespeare to critique the political situation of the mid-to-late 2010s.

Uncharacteristically, though by no means for the only time in this short book, Greenblatt labors the point. He offers 10 pages detailing two well-known occasions on which Shakespeare broke his rule of historical or fictional distance: once with an allusion to the Earl of Essex at the end of Henry V, once with a performance of Richard II undertaken at the behest of those involved in the Earl of Essex’s failed 1601 coup d’état against Elizabeth’s regime. The payoff? In the case of Richard II, confirmation that “Shakespeare’s theater” offers “the key to understanding the crisis of the present.” (We are left to decide for ourselves whether this “present” is late Elizabethan or the 21st century.) In the case of Henry V, the claim that Shakespeare’s allusion to Essex draws “attention to searching political reflections throughout his plays that were safer left in the shadows.” The structure of the argument feels as baggy as the prose.

The remaining nine chapters take us on a tour of tyranny and complicity in Shakespeare’s plays. (Curiously, there is nothing on Shakespeare’s non-dramatic writing. At the very least, The Rape of Lucrece would have been pertinent: the overlaps between sexual compulsion, networks of family and friendship, and the abuse of power have seldom been more starkly exposed.) The three parts of Henry VI, often overlooked, are treated in two chapters. The first proposes that Shakespeare’s depiction of the Houses of York and Lancaster “invites us, in effect, to watch the invention of political parties,” with the attendant apparatus of party political distortion, deception, demonization of opposition, and willingness to manipulate the populace at large. The second proposes that the Duke of York (a would-be tyrant) is an exemplary “populist”: one who, by encouraging the rabble-rousing fantasies of Jack Cade, weaponizes the grievances of the have-nots in order to cause disorder that he can then exploit to advance the interests of himself and his party. York fails, but his son ascends the throne as Edward IV. On any reckoning, it is hard to portray Edward as a tyrant.

We are quickly ushered along to the next chapter, the subject of which is that byword for megalomaniacal villainy: Edward IV’s younger brother, the artist eventually known as Richard III. It is in discussing Richard that Tyrant finds its voice. This voice is angry:

He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.

He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt. He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning.

He has always had wealth; he was born into it and makes ample use of it. But though he enjoys having what money gets him, it is not what most excites him. What excites him is the joy of domination. He is a bully. Easily enraged, he strikes out at anyone who stands in his way. He enjoys seeing others cringe, tremble, or wince with pain. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult. The skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delight, even if they cannot have it to his unmatched degree. Though they know that he is dangerous, the followers help him advance to his goal, which is the possession of supreme power.

His possession of power includes the domination of women, but he despises them far more than desires them. Sexual conquest excites him, but only for the endlessly reiterated proof that he can have anything he likes. He knows that those he grabs hate him.

Much might be said about these paragraphs. For now, all I want to stress is that in them Greenblatt offers us a distorted — in fact, an egregiously distorted — picture of Richard as Shakespeare imagines him. Nothing of Richard’s insights into the appetites, ambitions, delusions, and venality of those around him; nothing of his abundant and unsparing self-knowledge (which he only begins to lose after the monstrous decision to have his nephews killed); nothing of his intellect or clear-sighted appreciation of the way politics works; nothing of his courage, resourcefulness, and skill on the field of battle; nothing of the fact that he has, since childhood, been slighted by friends, family, and enemies alike for the physical deformity with which he was born; nothing of his imperviousness to the moral and physical vanity with which so many of those around him are beset; nothing of his charm and frequently audacious wit; nothing of his sheer style.

The point is that Richard, both despite and on account of his faults, is supposed to be alluring. We are in turn prompted to think more closely about that allure, and about why we find it so easy to identify with Richard’s malevolence. Like the Milton of Paradise Lost, Shakespeare understood well that without making evil attractive — without investing it with sympathetic and even admirable attributes — it is impossible fully to suggest how and why it so forcefully makes its way in the world. Of course, Greenblatt is far too intelligent and accomplished a critic to be unaware of such considerations. The problem, versions of which manifest themselves on all but a few pages of this book, is that he has allowed himself to become the prisoner of his argument, of his rage, or perhaps even of his publisher: Richard III is a proxy for the moron elected to serve as the 45th president of the United States of America, and that is that.

There are two more chapters on Richard. First, one on his “enablers” — on those whose self-deceit, ambition, complacency, and moral-political blindness enable Richard to rise. Most of this elaborates an op-ed piece that Greenblatt published in The New York Times in October 2016. Second, one titled “Tyranny Triumphant,” taking Richard’s story forward to the point at which he achieves his goal and seizes, with feigned reluctance, the throne that eluded his father. It turns out that Richard’s scheming ruthlessness transforms into incompetence when faced with the task of good and efficient government; unloved and eventually overthrown, his adventure comes to an end.

Chapter seven (“The Instigator”) reminds us that Lady Macbeth is the gin in her husband’s tonic; chapter eight (“Madness in Great Ones”) juxtaposes Lear and Leontes as rulers beset with mental incapacity; chapter nine (“Downfall and Resurgence”) contrasts attempts to resist tyranny in King Lear and Julius Caesar; chapter 10 (“Resistible Rise”) sees in Coriolanus a parable of how a would-be tyrant can be stopped by the masses. In his discussion of Macbeth, Greenblatt proposes that Lady Macbeth’s role in her husband’s bloody ascent is illustrative of a larger truth: “The tyrant […] 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.” Furthermore, the play instructs us that tyrants can have no friends, that they often feign political respectability, that they are preoccupied with a “sense of personal defilement,” that they are pathologically narcissistic, that they are “enemies of the future,” that they lack the “internal and external censors that keep most ordinary mortals, let alone rulers of nations, from sending irrational messages in the middle of the night or acting on every crazed impulse.”

And so on. Most of these claims are transparently over-determined, but in the course of making them Greenblatt offers up some deft and occasionally provocative readings of the text. Unfortunately, these readings too often work against his chosen line. For instance, Greenblatt dwells on Macbeth’s fantasies about himself and his wife standing fearlessly together against the world their actions have created. But Greenblatt wants to contend that Macbeth and/or all tyrants are pathologically narcissistic (and thereby committed to the view that the “lives of others do not matter”), and Macbeth’s insistence that two lives matter to him is therefore shoved aside. The reason for the disconnection between text and interpretation is not far to seek: in circumstances and character, Macbeth is even less suitable than Richard III as a proxy for Trump.

Lear and Leontes are both kings of long standing. For Greenblatt, both throw their realms into chaos through high-handed misjudgments; both explore what happens when the head of the “executive” branch is “not mentally fit to hold office.” Two problems: Lear’s act of folly is to give power away to his daughters, not to abuse it; Leontes’s act of folly — which he soon repents — is caused not by nascent tyranny but by the jealous conviction that his wife has betrayed him with his dearest friend. Greenblatt shrugs off the first of these without much ado. He is good on Lear as an egoist, but the jump from there to grandstanding is short: Lear has a “personality disorder. […] He is a father who wrecks his children; he is a leader who cannot distinguish between honest, truthful servants [is this really the word Greenblatt wants?] and corrupt scoundrels; he is a ruler who is unable to perceive, let alone address, the needs of his people.” Maybe so. The rub is that he is not, on even the most elastic definition, a tyrant; his tragedy is that, having become habituated to power, he must live with the consequences of his abdication.

Turning to The Winter’s Tale, even Greenblatt acknowledges that Leontes only behaves “like a tyrant” (emphasis mine). No matter. He can be put to work exemplifying the tyrant’s refusal to “traffic in facts or supply evidence.” Instead, the tyrant demands personal loyalty to his own whims and misapprehensions. So it is that when “an autocratic, paranoid, narcissistic, ruler sits down with a civil servant and asks for his loyalty, the state is in danger.” Perhaps the civil servant in question, Camillo, should have written a memo.

Looking at Lear and Leontes, an argument might be made that because monarchy (whether elective or based on primogeniture) accords such importance to the moods and character of a single human being, Shakespeare believes it to be a dangerously imperfect form of government. With the proviso that Shakespeare elsewhere shows himself just as skeptical about the merits of democracy, aristocracy, theocracy, and republicanism, such an argument would, it seems to me, have more than plausibility to recommend it. But as all considerations of this sort would dilute the polemical currency with which Greenblatt has invested his book, we hear nothing of them.

Greenblatt’s discussion of King Lear alongside Julius Caesar aims to elucidate Shakespeare’s ideas on how we might overcome the threat of tyranny. In Lear, tyranny is now identified with Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund. These tyrannizers are resisted by Cordelia, France, Edgar, Kent, the nameless servant who stabs Cornwall as he gouges out Gloucester’s eyes, and — eventually — Albany. At great cost, the resistance prevails. Pass over in silence the continued unsuitability of tyranny as a category through which to interpret the play (it may be that all tyrants abuse their power cruelly; it does not follow that all acts of cruelty or abuses of power are tyrannical). The real stumbling block is the suggestion that King Lear offers us more than a simulacrum of moral or political resolution. The future is in the hands of Edgar, whom Greenblatt describes as “the most plausible candidate to pick up the broken pieces.” This is the same character who has suggested that his father’s eye-gouging was a well-deserved comeuppance for his sexual dalliances, and whose preeningly sententious rectitude has just forestalled the possibility of Cordelia’s hanging being aborted in time to save her life. Shakespeare’s point is not that order tentatively reasserts itself in the aftermath of political catastrophe, but that no matter how bad things get, someone will appear to mouth the platitudes required to keep things moving forward without overmuch thought or analysis. This is not cheering stuff.

The eight pages devoted to Julius Caesar are overwhelmingly the best part of Tyrant. In them, Greenblatt dwells in compelling detail on the moral, personal, and political contortions into which Brutus and his fellow conspirators are driven by their decision to assassinate Caesar before he and the Roman mob could make him into a monarch. Ostensibly, their motives are to save the republic from what they think of as the tyranny of one-man rule. In reality, things are more complicated: “[B]ehind the screen of public rhetoric in Rome there were troubled, vulnerable, conflicted people uncertain of the right course to take and only half aware of what was driving them to act.”

Brutus is higher toned than most in rationalizing his desires and actions but cannot recognize in himself the urge to protect and perpetuate the status he enjoys as a prominent member of the ruling patrician class. Take his orchard scene soliloquy, in which he affects to deliberate on the justice of killing Caesar. He has already resolved that Caesar should die, but as 1) Caesar is innocent of any obviously tyrannical act, and 2) Brutus’s conscience will not allow him to contemplate Caesar’s execution without good cause, he falls back on sophistry:

                        And since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities.

Brutus insists that he will see Caesar die not for what he is, but for the tyrannical force he might become. We are supposed to notice that Brutus’s line of thought is tendentious and less than coherent. But of much greater importance for Julius Caesar as a whole is that this line is still enough to carry along with it someone as hardheaded and dispassionate as Brutus believes himself to be. Brutus’s obliviousness to his own motives and situation does not just map onto his personal destruction at the end of the play; it also undergirds his failure to understand the forces that Antony and Octavius will expertly manipulate to ensure the triumph of the Caesarian vision. As Greenblatt puts it, “the problem is not only that everyone’s motives are inevitably more mixed than shouted slogans suggest” but also that “real-world actions grounded on noble ideals may have unforeseen and ironic consequences.” This is careful and morally intelligent literary criticism.

In tackling Coriolanus, Greenblatt returns to his polemic. After being informed that tyrants are “sociopaths” and given a potted social history of the 1607 Midland Revolt, we are introduced to the play’s eponymous protagonist. He disdains the concerns of the populace. So do his fellow patricians, but unlike them Coriolanus sees no point in appeasing or treating with the masses in order to preserve the social and political hierarchy. He is only diverted from turning his arms on his social inferiors by the chance to use them against Rome’s external foes. His successes in the Volscian wars nevertheless elevate him to a new degree of popularity and prominence, and he expects to be elected consul in due course — thereafter to implement his hardline version of political reform. But he cannot bring himself to solicit the votes of those whose weakness and biddability he disdains. Undone by his arrogance and sense of his own superiority, he ends badly.

Splicing Freud with Marx, Greenblatt muses that Coriolanus’s ruthless defense of the status quo “seem[s] to derive from his mother.” When it comes to Coriolanus, Greenblatt continues, “we are dealing […] with an overgrown child’s narcissism, insecurity, cruelty, and folly.” But Coriolanus’s hubris and immaturity are not on their own enough to bring him down. That distinction belongs to the guile and politic deceptions of the Roman tribunes, who manipulate the plebs into acting, for once, not from false consciousness but in their own best economic and political interests: “Tyranny cannot be stopped, Shakespeare must have thought, if the democratic opposition is so high-minded that it is powerless to counter the political conniving that leads up to a seizure of power.” I struggled for a while to understand what Greenblatt comprehends under the heading of democracy in this sentence. I remain uncertain. My best guess: On “our” side rather than on “theirs.” In any case, this Shakespeare is clearly an enlightened pragmatist; the sort of author, presumably, who would not mind overmuch if his writings were to be traduced in a good cause. When the exiled Coriolanus turns against Rome, “it is as if the leader of a political party long identified with hatred of Russia […] should secretly make his way to Moscow and offer his services to the Kremlin.” The less said, the better.

In a coda to the 10 main chapters of the text, Greenblatt returns to scene-setting — to the dangers of speaking truth to power in Elizabethan England, and to the ways in which Shakespeare negotiated these and related challenges. Finally, we are assured of Shakespeare’s belief that “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.” It is of course heartening to have it confirmed that Greenblatt takes Shakespeare to be on the side of the angels. The cost? Making the author of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra sound like a pious dolt.


Although I expected to disagree with this and that in Tyrant, I also expected to admire it and to find myself in sympathy with its aims. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why this has not, in fact, proved to be the case.

One answer relates to the ill-defined and under-explored use of tyranny as an idea and a heuristic. As noted above, Greenblatt quotes Buchanan’s formulation that tyranny is monarchic rule without consent. But he never subjects Buchanan to any sort of critical scrutiny, and in general seems to work on the basis of accepting that if Trump is tyrannical and tyranny is Trumpian, then there is no need to think at all. What is tyranny and how does Shakespeare understand it? Is Shakespeare, in fact, preoccupied with the threat of tyrannical rule? How does tyranny relate to monarchy, aristocracy, and the institutions of indirect democracy — not least the office of the presidency? If a government imposes on me a law or leader with which/whom I disagree, have I been tyrannized? Is a tyrannically imposed peace better or worse than the death and destruction attendant on, say, civil war? What about Machiavelli’s view that tyranny, tactfully disguised, can be an effective and therefore virtuous form of government? Anyone interested in learning more about such questions will need to look elsewhere.

Then there is something like professional, or even disciplinary, amour-propre. To take humanistic study seriously is to realize that its vitality depends on nuance, patience, depth of engagement, a willingness to ask questions to which one does not already know the answer, and the wherewithal to push back against all forms of the “impact” agenda. Greenblatt has always been a political critic, exploring the ways in which texts can be placed in their historical contexts in order to illuminate the concerns of the present. At its best, this method has produced spectacular results. In Tyrant, it is simultaneously caricatured and tested to its breaking point: the conclusions are fixed in advance, and Shakespeare’s writings are strong-armed until, after a fashion, they are made to accede.

But the real reason that Tyrant is so frustrating is its failure of Aristotelian ethos, the very quality over which Greenblatt has exercised such mastery for the duration of his careers as an academic and a non-academic writer. At the outset, Greenblatt presents the book as an exercise in thinking-with-Shakespeare about an abstract question of political value (i.e., the nature of tyranny), and he never once wavers from this line. I was initially amused by his refusal to mention Trump by name. Before long, however, I found it hard to avoid the conclusion that the purpose of this archness is to serve as a beard for Tyrant’s cardinal shortcoming: Greenblatt’s disinclination to consider what he is trying to say and how he might most effectively say it. The simple fact that he, Stephen Greenblatt, is saying it is enough. Beyond this lies the complacent conviction that the reader will share Greenblatt’s opinions of the current political situation, and that she will be glad to have these opinions buttressed by his account of Shakespeare’s politics. No attempt to persuade. No attempt to establish common ground with readers who might take a different view. No attempt to preserve a veneer of critical disinterestedness. No attempt even to prosecute a fully articulated case — be it Shakespearean or contemporary. The conclusions are foregone and need not either be described or demonstrated.

How can such a gifted rhetorician have gone so far amiss? In discussing The Winter’s Tale, Greenblatt writes that “Camillo is a decent human being, not a time-serving villain.” Put to one side the likelihood that it would be hard to write a sentence less Shakespearean in its flight from psychological curiosity and moral imagination. It is the “decent human being” that, throughout Tyrant, is set against the other — be that other tyrannical, pathologically narcissistic, sociopathic, grotesque, sadistic, complicit, or just an easily manipulable member of the mob. The implication is simple. Those who differ from Greenblatt’s (and, on his account, Shakespeare’s) view of things can only do so because something is wrong with them. Because they have not fully realized their humanity. Because they are deficient. Or because, to borrow an ill-chosen adjective from the 2016 campaign, they are deplorable. All one has to do is to call the bad guys out and wait for the right-thinking majority to signal their agreement; if a reader feels that she cannot signal such agreement, then she should pause to consider the kind of company she keeps.

It did not have to be this way. In his discussion of Julius Caesar, Greenblatt shows us not only that Shakespeare’s writings can serve as a brilliant guide to the mess of our current politics but also that he — Greenblatt, that is — is perfectly well able to give us an account of them. Brutus and his patrician cohort convince themselves that they are acting from principle, and in a sense they are. And yet they are also fighting to preserve their privilege and status. Antony, Octavius, and the Caesarian faction convince themselves that they are acting to save a failing state, but also want to acquire for themselves the power, wealth, and prestige that have long belonged to the patrician senators. One elite fighting another. The Caesarian faction prevails not because it has the better arguments, or even the better military, but because it does not fall victim to the delusions of self-righteousness and moral vanity. It is better able to appreciate the aspirations and fears of the populace at large, and can thereby not only win their support but also build a successful coalition of previously competing interests. All Brutus can do in response is to repeat the same old saws, with increasingly less coherence. If a version of history ends up repeating itself in the 21st-century United States, the responsibility will lie at least as much with “us” as with “them.”


Rhodri Lewis teaches English and Comparative Literature at Princeton. His book Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness was published in 2017.

LARB Contributor

Rhodri Lewis teaches English and Comparative Literature at Princeton, and has interests in the literature and history of early modern England and Europe. His most recent book, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, was published in 2017.


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