STARRED REVIEW
May 2018

Everybody wants to rule the world

By Stephen Greenblatt

Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt (The Swerve) makes no secret of the fact that this compact study of the portrayal of tyrants in the work of William Shakespeare was inspired by his dismay over the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. But even those who don’t share Greenblatt’s political perspective should find his well- informed survey of the making and unmaking of autocratic rulers to be instructive and entertaining.

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Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt (The Swerve) makes no secret of the fact that this compact study of the portrayal of tyrants in the work of William Shakespeare was inspired by his dismay over the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. But even those who don’t share Greenblatt’s political perspective should find his well- informed survey of the making and unmaking of autocratic rulers to be instructive and entertaining.

Tyrant ranges across an ample array of Shakespeare’s dramatic works as Greenblatt explores Shakespeare’s fascination with the “deeply unsettling question: how is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?” Describing Shakespeare as a “supreme master of displacement and strategic indirection,” he explains how, by never placing his politically charged stories in a contemporary setting, the playwright was able to deftly illuminate the political struggles of the Elizabethan Age without risking his safety.

Whether Shakespeare was using his plays to expose how a budding tyrant could capitalize on the infighting of political factions to ascend to power, or how another might promote a populism that “look[s] like an embrace of the have-nots” but is “in reality a form of cynical exploitation,” Greenblatt credits the Bard as both an astute observer of the political world and an acute judge of human character. And for all the havoc wreaked by monstrous characters like Macbeth and Richard III, Greenblatt argues, Shakespeare believed in their ultimate doom. Concluding this lively book on an optimistic note, he points to the “political action of ordinary citizens” as the antidote for a threat that will persist as long as there are leaders and people demanding to be led.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Tyrant

Tyrant

By Stephen Greenblatt
Norton
ISBN 9780393635751

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