A month before Donald Trump was elected, Stephen Greenblatt, in an effort to explain how “a great country” could “wind up being governed by a sociopath,” published an Op-Ed in The New York Times in which he turned to Shakespeare for an answer.1 Without ever naming Trump, Greenblatt likened the Republican candidate’s “fathomless cynicism, cruelty and treacherousness” to that of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and anatomized the “nation of enablers” that made possible his rise to power.
Two years later, Greenblatt has published a book that builds on this argument. Trump is not named here either, though echoes of his tweets that now litter our political landscape—“make England great again,” “drain” the “swamp,” the “prospect of endless winning”—never let us forget the book’s target.
It’s hard enough sustaining this sort of argument in a thousand-word Op-Ed; the degree of difficulty in doing so in a two-hundred-page book is extraordinary and one of the most impressive things about Tyrant. While Richard III remains central, Greenblatt casts a wider net, conflating actual tyrants with those who share their tyrannical traits, including the rabble-rousing Jack Cade of Henry VI, Part 2, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Lear, Coriolanus, and Leontes, the ruler in The Winter’s Tale deranged by jealousy. Greenblatt is especially strong on Shakespeare’s insights into the pathology of tyrants, the self-interest and self-delusion of their supporters, and the courage of those brave enough to oppose them. Translations of Tyrant ought to circulate in Russia, Turkey, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and other countries ruled by autocrats so admired by Trump.
For those who believe that literary studies ought to be an agent of social change, the election of Trump has been both a rebuke and a wake-up call. Tyrant, in responding to this challenge, marks a sharp departure from Greenblatt’s previous writing. Those hoping for a return to his New Historicist approach of the 1980s will be as disappointed as those expecting something along the lines of his popular and less politically engaged Will in the World (2004) and The Swerve (2011). What he offers instead is a powerful counter-punch, much like Oskar Eustis’s timely production of Julius Caesar in Central Park in the summer of 2017, which similarly wrestled with how to respond to the threat of a tyrannical Trump.
But the visceral pleasures of so polemical a book come at a price. Some of the connections between Trump and Shakespeare’s tyrants feel forced. And historical setting and linguistic precision are on occasion sacrificed to square what takes place in Shakespeare’s plays with what is happening today. This is especially so in the five chapters (out of ten) that focus on Shakespeare’s retelling of the War of the Roses. In these plays, Greenblatt writes, Shakespeare “invites us, in effect, to watch the invention of political parties and the transformation of political rivals into political enemies.” This is an original and provocative insight—and the book is filled with others like it—but much hangs on that “in effect,” a qualifier that allows him the freedom to speak anachronistically of “elites,” of “party rage,” and of how “party warfare cynically makes use of class warfare.”
The strain to make the world of these plays resemble our own feels most pronounced in Greenblatt’s account of what he calls an “election scene” at the center of Richard III. I can understand its importance to his argument, and I’m aware that one of Shakespeare’s main sources, Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III, speaks of Richard III’s “mockish election.” But the scene in question—in which a group of commoners is assembled to bless Richard’s power grab with an “Amen”—falls well short of one in which “voters” choose their new leader. When Shakespeare stages an election, as he does elsewhere, he calls it one. Greenblatt should have conceded that at times he plays a bit fast and loose with Shakespearean examples, while making clearer that his method recalls Shakespeare’s, whose history plays look at England’s feudal past though a contemporary political lens.
Greenblatt prefers to describe rather than define who is a tyrant, a strategy that, while effective, would not have satisfied early modern political theorists, for whom such a definition was both contested and consequential. Complicating matters, accusations of tyranny lodged against even the worst offenders could be challenged. Richard III was defended by Shakespeare’s contemporary George Buc. Buc insisted that Richard III couldn’t have been a tyrant since he cut taxes, supported religious leaders, and did many things for the public good. It was wrong, Buc added, to blame Richard for crimes that his associates committed or that took place before he came to power; and what bad things he did after that, given his absolute authority, couldn’t “properly” be called “tyranny.”
Buc didn’t dare publish his views during Queen Elizabeth’s lifetime, because the man who overthrew Richard III and then wore his crown was the queen’s grandfather. Buc’s defense invites the uncomfortable question of whether Shakespeare, in depicting Richard III as a tyrant who was justifiably deposed, dutifully promoted the official version of the past, which has come to be called the “Tudor myth.” Greenblatt knows all this, but chooses not to engage counternarratives like Buc’s or the troubling possibility that Shakespeare might be seen as an enabler. I raise this to underscore how vexed the issue of tyranny was for Elizabethans.
Some years ago, Robert Miola published a landmark essay showing how Shakespeare drew on a long tradition that identified tyrants by how they acquired power as well as by how they abused it once in office.2 Using these criteria, Miola argued, Shakespeare set Julius Caesar on a razor’s edge, allowing a case to be made both for and against the view that Caesar was justifiably assassinated. These criteria came to mind when I read Greenblatt’s chapter on Coriolanus. For Greenblatt, Coriolanus is a tyrant who shares with other brutes in Shakespeare’s plays “a proneness to rage, a merciless penchant for bullying,…a compulsive desire to wield power over others.” He despises the welfare state and doesn’t care if poor people starve.
But he never desires or attains absolute political power. Because of that, Greenblatt must redirect our attention to Coriolanus’s profoundly antidemocratic convictions. When he stands for the office of consul at the urging of Rome’s patricians and appeals to the commoners for their votes, the tribunes of the people campaign against his election, prepping Rome’s citizens to accuse him of affecting “tyrannical power,” then publicly provoking him. An enraged Coriolanus lets the people and their tribunes know how deeply he despises them. Here’s Greenblatt’s take on his outburst:
It is not enough to restrict popular representation—in effect, to practice the Roman equivalent of voter suppression, intimidation, redistricting, and the like. Coriolanus proposes something far more radical. “Pluck out/The multitudinous tongue,” he urges, “let them not lick/The sweet which is their poison.”… Essentially, he wants to tear up the Roman constitution.
Not exactly. Coriolanus’s Rome is a fledgling republic, not a democracy, one much closer to the oligarchic republic in Renaissance Venice that Shakespeare portrays in Othello than to our modern American republic. At the outset of the play, the Romans had only recently banished the Tarquins, the last of the Roman kings (against whom the young Coriolanus had fought). Coriolanus wants to restore the unequal balance of power that had been in place at the outset of the play, before grain riots forced the patricians to offer the commoners greater political representation in the form of five new consuls (the “multitudinous tongue” that Coriolanus believes is developing an insatiable taste for power). Far from wishing to tear up Rome’s constitution, Coriolanus believes that he is restoring it and preventing factionalism. Reactionary, authoritarian, and antidemocratic? Yes. A tyrant? No.
It’s not easy deciding who is a tyrant. Viewed in a harsh light, even Prospero fits the description. We learn in The Tempest that after his exile from Milan, Prospero arrives on an unnamed island and wrests control of it from Caliban, who helplessly insists, “This island’s mine.” From Caliban’s perspective, Prospero’s tyranny is not in doubt: “I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer, that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island.” Prospero enslaves Caliban and treats Ariel like an indentured servant. When Ariel dares to protest, Prospero warns him he will “rend an oak/And peg thee in his knotty entrails till/Thou hast howled away twelve winters.” One of Prospero’s attack dogs—a disguised spirit that he sics on Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, to “grind their joints/With dry convulsions” after their failed coup—is even named “Tyrant.” Prospero may get a free pass in Tyrant—it’s unclear why—but Macbeth, Lear, and other cruel rulers assuredly do not, and Greenblatt’s trenchant account of their often twisted psychology is consistently on target, illuminating both the plays and their modern-day relevance.
The explosion of interest in tyrannicide in late-sixteenth-century Europe was a byproduct of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, which had left both Catholics and Protestants looking to justify the overthrow of rulers they considered intolerant and oppressive. Greenblatt begins his book with an informative sketch of the consequences of this for Shakespeare and his audiences. Pope Pius V had excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570, and in 1588 Pope Sixtus V condemned her for “exercysinge an absolute Tyrannie.” She was now fair game for assassins.
The Elizabethan authorities, nervous about civic unrest and plots against the monarch, required that homilies attacking papal “tyranny” and Rome’s “continual stirring of subjects unto rebellions against their sovereign lords” be read in all English churches. One homily, “Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion,” concludes that if subjects suffered under an evil ruler, it was because God was punishing them for being an evil people, and their desire to remove an evil monarch only confirmed their wickedness. The result of all this was a culture of self-censorship, caution, and evasion. In such fraught times, Greenblatt writes, “wariness and circumspection” were called for, and Shakespeare, unlike many leading playwrights who fell afoul of the authorities—including Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and George Chapman—proved to be “a master of displacement and strategic indirection.”
Greenblatt finds only one significant instance when Shakespeare got careless. In 1599, in the Chorus to Act 5 of Henry V, he alluded to the Earl of Essex—“the General of our gracious Empress”—who was then leading an English army to suppress an Irish uprising. The Chorus hopes for Essex’s victorious return, “with rebellion broachèd on his sword.” Essex’s military campaign was unsuccessful, and not long after, having lost the queen’s favor, he would attempt an intervention at court, a botched rising that was seen by the queen and his enemies as a failed coup, on the eve of which his supporters paid Shakespeare’s company to stage Richard II, a play about the successful deposing of a childless English monarch by a more charismatic leader. All this, Greenblatt writes, could “easily have led to disaster” for Shakespeare, though fortunately didn’t.
In Shakespeare and the Resistance, Clare Asquith is also concerned with tyranny and political resistance, and the Earl of Essex is central to her story. But resemblances between the two books end there. In her previous book, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (2005), Asquith argued that Shakespeare was a Catholic writer who embedded secret messages to the faithful in his plays, missives that she painstakingly decodes. The past decade has been an unhappy one for those who still maintain that Shakespeare was Catholic, as the flimsy foundations on which this theory stood have largely collapsed. In her new book, even Asquith makes a tactical retreat, soft-pedaling Shakespeare’s Catholic training (so we no longer hear speculation that he spent his “Lost Years” at a dissident Oxford college or in a Catholic seminary on the Continent), though her Shakespeare remains as committed as ever to the Catholic cause.
Shakespeare and the Resistance focuses on Shakespeare’s remarkable narrative poems, Venus and Adonis, published in 1593, and The Rape of Lucrece, which appeared the following year. Though undervalued today, they were reprinted far more often than any of Shakespeare’s plays during his lifetime. The former is a reworking of an erotic Ovidian seduction story; the latter, a retelling of Lucrece’s violent rape by Tarquin, son of Rome’s king. Both are complex and digressive works whose ethical and political implications are open to debate. So as not to misrepresent her argument, I’ll quote Asquith’s own summary of it:
Venus and Adonis explored the immediate impact of the enforcement of conscience on Elizabeth’s subjects towards the end of her reign: an enforcement which, as it turned out, was to be reimposed even more rigorously under James I. The Rape of Lucrece broadened the focus, tracing the religious policy of her regime back to its origin in the events of 1534, analysing the country’s response, and urging action to remove an increasingly corrupt regime.
In arguing for a politically engaged Shakespeare who was a defender of Catholicism and a foe of tyrannical Protestant monarchs, Asquith wavers between presenting him as a kind of disengaged soothsayer, one who foresees “the English malaise that would lead the country into civil war,” and as a radical strategist who condones violence and treason (“invasions in Shakespeare’s plays are positive events”) and dispenses “political advice” that urges “the adoption of unhesitating, full-blooded, and determined methods of resistance.”
Her larger mission in Shakespeare and the Resistance is to revise our understanding of Elizabethan history. There is a growing acknowledgment on the part of historians that Elizabeth’s regime was no Golden Age for many of its subjects, that English ties to the Catholic faith remained surprisingly strong during her reign, and that the Earl of Essex has been maligned by scholars who were too quick to accept the judgment of his enemies. But Asquith blithely ignores every fact that might qualify or undermine her claims. And because she prosecutes her case so skillfully, there’s no way for general readers to distinguish solid arguments from fantastic ones. The result is a skewed us-versus-them version of history, a story of victimhood and oppression, a Lost Cause narrative.
One of Asquith’s favorite rhetorical tricks is to invent a problem where there isn’t one, then provide the solution. So, for example, she writes that “Lucrece’s first appearance is puzzling if we expect her to be a personality,” by which she means a person rather than an abstraction; Asquith explains that Lucrece only “becomes a convincing reality if we try reading the poem as though she were another Shakespearean evocation on the numinous spirit of England,” a personification of “the soul of the country.” Put more bluntly, Asquith is saying that generations of readers have naively assumed that Shakespeare was writing about a brutal sexual assault and failed to read the poem correctly, as a political allegory of “a national rape.” She doesn’t even concede the possibility that it could be both.
At this point Asquith slips on her decoder ring and asks, “If Lucrece represents Elizabeth’s England, then who is Tarquin?” The answer is Henry VIII, whose ransacking of England’s monasteries sixty years earlier constitutes the poem’s real “tragic scenario.” Other details neatly fall into place. The red and white of Lucrece’s face? Color-coded symbols of the old faith and the whitewashing reformed one. The tug-of-war over Lucrece’s dead body between her father and husband? Placeholders for competing Catholic and Protestant claims “to England’s dying spirituality.”
The day after her rape, when the shattered Lucrece summons the courage to identify her rapist in public before stabbing herself to death, she has difficulty uttering his name: “‘He, he,’ she says/But more than ‘he’ her poor tongue could not speak.” Lucrece is clearly traumatized, and naming her rapist, who is also her kinsman, isn’t easy for her to do. But Asquith chooses to interpret the lines differently: for her, Lucrece’s inability to name Tarquin is confirmation that “Shakespeare encourages us to substitute something or someone else for the perpetrator of the rape.” And when at the end of the poem there is a call to retaliate for this “foul Act,” Asquith no less tendentiously maintains that the act in question is not the sexual assault that led Lucrece to kill herself but rather Henry VIII’s anti-Catholic “Act of Supremacy.” Everything means something else.
Asquith reads Venus and Adonis not as a soft-core Ovidian riff but rather as an allegory of “a young man pinioned by a dominant queen,” through which Shakespeare sent a coded warning to those opposing a tyrannical Elizabeth, including the Earl of Southampton and the Earl of Essex, that “death awaits those who allow themselves to be diverted, delayed, and finally overcome.” She takes seriously the possibility that aristocrats dropped by to tell Shakespeare what to write: “Did Essex himself, attracted by the suavely oppositional stance of Venus and Adonis, have a hand in suggesting or devising the ‘graver matter’ of The Rape of Lucrece?” When she adds that the “change in tone between the two poems…may reflect the character of his new commission,” it is no longer a question.
Asquith links the coded political messages that Shakespeare inserted into his narrative poems of 1593–1594 to Essex’s failed rising in 1601. For her (and for her Shakespeare), Essex was the last hope of England’s Catholics, someone who offered “a release from the religious intolerance that had for the past sixty years been the hallmark of Tudor England.” She must assume that readers won’t know much about Essex—a militant Protestant who spent much of his adult life fighting Catholics on land and at sea—so will take on faith her assurance that he was at heart an “ecumenist” and a promoter of “religious toleration.” The failure of Essex’s rising, she concludes, left Shakespeare disillusioned, and the plays that followed reflect his disappointment and sense of failure: “Hope of redress, of concerted resistance, of a national change of direction…died when Essex went to the block.”
Before taking her own life, Lucrece calls upon the men of Rome to avenge her rape. But that’s not what follows. Lucrece ends instead with Junius Brutus—who until this moment masked his fierce resistance to tyrannical rule—persuading his fellow Romans to take up Lucrece’s bloody corpse and bear it through the streets of the city. For him, Lucrece is less a person than a prop, a text that will “publish Tarquin’s foul offence.” He succeeds in his revolutionary aims, for we learn that upon seeing Lucrece’s body paraded in this way, the citizens of Rome “plausibly did give consent/To Tarquins everlasting banishment.” During a class discussion of this passage a few years ago, one of my undergraduates responded with outrage; she argued witheringly that what Junius Brutus does here—using the body of a woman for his own ends—is not all that different from what Tarquin had done to Lucrece. Reading Asquith’s book brought me back to that sobering classroom moment, a reminder of the challenges involved when appropriating somebody else’s story.
It is one thing to identify tyrants, another to end their tyrannical rule. Greenblatt’s account of how Paulina speaks truth to power in The Winter’s Tale, helping Leontes recognize and repent his criminal behavior, offers one way forward, but I don’t expect Ivanka to play that role anytime soon, and unlike Paulina, we can’t wait sixteen years for that remorse to sink in fully. As Shakespeare made clear in Julius Caesar, if you are going to remove a tyrant, you’d better have a good plan.