Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt

Having completed the Bard’s history plays as the first leg of my No-Fear Shakespeare project, I’ve since stumbled across this book by author Stephen Greenblatt.  Greenblatt is a name I’ve run across a number of times, but whom I’ve not read until now.  Given that this book seemed to play on the intersection of my own humble approach to novice-level Shakespearean appreciation and the heightened fear-based politics of the modern world (as these things seem to go in cycles), it seemed as though Tyrant was placed directly and most deliberately in my path.

As with my own examination of the Bard’s plays thus far, Greenblatt takes the stance that England in Shakespeare’s time was a dangerous time, rife with censorship that comes from such autocratic and paranoid rule where partisan politics reign supreme.  To this end, Shakespeare’s plays were not “city plays,” meaning they were not of the here-and-now to his contemporaries.  Even if they did take place in London, there’s usually a century or more between the Bard’s set pieces and his audience.  This allows the first line of defense against censors.  The second line involves being able to site historical source material where applicable to cover one’s butt.  As Greenblatt explains, to absolutely no one’s surprise after 400 years of hindsight, Shakespeare was the absolute master of subversion.  What more proof does one need?  The Bard kept his head intact and never faced the heretic’s pyre; many around him weren’t quite so lucky.

After the setup that explains the ins and outs of Elizabethan politics and what the citizens feared was coming next since Her Royal Queenliness couldn’t be bothered to name a successor, Greenblatt launches into an examination of some of the great history and tragedy plays to ever feature a tyrant, examining the symptoms and characteristics of tyranny itself.  The patterns found within were patterns that Shakespeare found in the histories that he read, and they are all too real in the halls of power today.  When Ben Jonson wrote that “Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time,” this is precisely the sort of analysis that bears this out.

On a personal note, it’s a little weird to see this book out there, given how close it is to my own approach.  It was bound to happen, let’s be honest, but still… it’s both exciting and a teeny bit disheartening to see a professional run this down.  Mostly it was insightful on a number of levels.  And it reinvigorated for me this idea of literature (or any of the arts, really) as a mirror of history.  This was the first Greenblatt book I’ve read; it will not be the last.

For those who are looking for a means to better understand politics, this book is for you.  For those looking for some seriously thought-provoking commentary on Shakespeare’s plays, even ones that maybe you’ve not read before, this book is for you.  And for those of you who want more of what I’m offering on my own Bardic project… these things take me some time, so you’ll be waiting a little longer.  Even so, it’s coming.  In the meantime, read this book.  It’s for you.

7 thoughts on “Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt

  1. What is Greenblatt’s writing like? Is he logical and ordered or is there a lot of thumb sucking? I was looking at his book Swerve, but several reviews put me off… for the time being at least.

    Liked by 1 person

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