The Winter of Our Discontent

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Laurence Olivier in Richard III, 1956

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…

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