Was the Bard Writing about The Donald?

Political thinkers have long declared that a populace in a democratic republic must be leery of the nefarious designs of its most ambitious leaders, who would twist the political institutions of a free people and manipulate the citizens’ desires in an audacious attempt to attain sole rule—to turn a republic into a tyranny. Plato in his Republic has Socrates explain how the people, reveling in their protector’s redistribution of wealth, might accept complacently his call for armed guards against the “enemies” his solicitousness for the people has sown against him. In this way might the people unwittingly abet a tyrant’s rise to power.

The young Abraham Lincoln in his Lyceum Address of 1838 contemplates the difficulties the United States will face when the most ambitious of its citizens, those who also possess “the loftiest genius,” come to power. Such rare individuals, envious of the great glory of the Founders, and seeing no opportunity for themselves to be founders, will inevitably turn their attention to destruction.

“Towering genius,” says Lincoln, “disdains a beaten path” and cannot therefore be gratified in “maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others.” Such ambition “scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious.” To meet the existential danger posed by this superior individual, “the people” must “be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs,” he argues. Unlike Plato’s Socrates, Lincoln does think that democracy inevitably degenerates into tyranny; but in order to prevent that disease to which democracy is so susceptible, he warns that the populace must retain two things: its attachment to the rule of law, and the insights of its members that can only come from a clear-eyed education.

In Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, undertakes to use his deep knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare’s plays to further our understanding of tyranny. His apparent goals are to enlighten us as to our current situation—which he assesses as an age of a tyranny—and to fortify us to resist. Greenblatt speaks through the Bard’s histories and tragedies, among them the trilogy of Henry VI (whose authorship is contested), Richard III, King Lear, Macbeth, A Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus.

In the first chapter, entitled “Oblique Angles,” Greenblatt notes that the playwright throughout his career treated the “deeply unsettling question” of how it is “possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant.” Although William Shakespeare (1564-1616) lived in a tumultuous time in which treasonous plots flourished, justifying themselves by decrying the current regime as ungodly, unjust, and illegitimate, the plays maintained a studied distance from such contentious contemporary issues, Greenblatt observes. Nevertheless, he argues, Shakespeare’s audience members gleaned for themselves the plays’ meaning for their own personal and historical situations.

He refers, by way of example, to the fact that supporters of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, on the eve of his planned rebellion, commissioned the staging of Shakespeare’s Richard II, which depicts the overthrow of a negligent ruler. Queen Elizabeth I caught the reference when she reflected later: “I am Richard II; know ye not that?” Greenblatt concludes from this historical anecdote that “it is the theater—Shakespeare’s theater—that offered the key to understanding the crisis of the present.”

This is the very historical fact to which the author pointed much earlier in his scholarly career, in his introduction to The Power of Forms (1982), when offering an explication of his theoretical approach to literature. Before Greenblatt wrote for popular audiences with this present book, and with The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011), and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004); before he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; and before he became the general editor of The Norton Shakespeare, he was the leading light in the United States of the New Historicism. This movement brought a new historical approach to interpreting literature. Its theorists emphasize the degree to which the meaning of a literary work reflects cultural and historical forces. Greenblatt terms his particular approach “poetics of culture” and highlights the “collective social constructions” that texts inspire.

Just as Shakespeare’s contemporaries found significance in his plays for their time, so can we for ours, and that is precisely what Greenblatt intends to show us. Although the name Donald Trump appears nowhere in Tyrant, as far as this reader can ascertain, Greenblatt’s commentary, in fact, displays to its readers the many tragedies of Trump. Never before have the words narcissist and narcissism appeared so frequently in a book about Shakespeare.

A paragraph of commentary concerning the defects of the ruler of Sicilia, Leontes, in The Winter’s Tale reads, in its entirety:

A tyrant does not need to traffic in facts or supply evidence. He expects his accusation to be enough. If he says that someone has been betraying him, or laughing at him, or spying on him, it must be the case. Anyone who contradicts him is either a liar or an idiot. The last thing the tyrant wants, even when he appears to solicit it, is an independent opinion. What he actually wants is loyalty, and by loyalty he does not mean integrity, honor, or responsibility. He means an immediate, unreserved confirmation of his own views and a willingness to carry out his orders without hesitation. When an autocratic, paranoid, narcissistic ruler sits down with a civil servant and asks for loyalty, the state is in danger.

Of course, Greenblatt here speaks not of King Leontes but rather of President Trump and his now notorious meeting with James Comey, then the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (whose memoir about his travails with Trump was reviewed in these pages by Charlotte Allen).

Similarly, in addressing the character of Richard III—but in a paragraph in which, again, no proper noun appears—Greenblatt remarks that “his possession of power includes the domination of women” and that “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.” No reader can doubt that he speaks here not only of Richard. Perhaps he intends to enlighten us on the tyrant writ large, but more narrowly his phrasing calls to mind the Access Hollywood tape of Trump’s licentious musings that surfaced during the presidential campaign.

Greenblatt brings to a popular audience the enduring significance of Shakespeare and calls upon a free people to take their liberty seriously. These are praiseworthy intentions for an illustrious scholar. It is perhaps, then, when it comes to the book’s subtitle, “Shakespeare on Politics,” that a commentator can take issue with him. There are more things in Shakespeare’s politics—in the playwright’s heaven and earth—than Trump. By approaching Shakespeare in this reductionist way, one risks missing the greatest lessons of his multifaceted and penetrating depictions of politics.

Indeed, the author himself acknowledges that Macbeth’s soul-rending self-understanding and guilt are “difficult to picture” in “the tyrants of our own times.” Moreover, the spectacular martial greatness of Coriolanus and that warrior’s inchoate longing for a transcendent autonomy point more toward the towering and loftiest individuals of whom Lincoln warned than to the star of a reality television show, no matter how noxious his deeds may ultimately prove to our republican order.

Reader Discussion

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on June 03, 2019 at 10:26:34 am

James Comey is a greater liar and narcissist than Trump. The "now infamous meeting" is an instance of Comey incriminating himself, but being too self-important to see it.
Ah, the lovers of freedom defending the police state emerging within.

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on June 03, 2019 at 15:12:45 pm

This is a deeply dishonest piece. It's one thing for Law & Liberty to publish differing viewpoints on complex political issues, but this is disinformation in defense of the FBI/CIA/Democrat Party deep state conspiracy against President Trump. The real threat of tyranny comes from the deep state and the left, and Prof. Sullivan's piece is a piece in defense of tyranny.

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Charles N. Steele, Ph.D.
on June 03, 2019 at 20:09:01 pm

I read other comments that criticised the post, found them perhaps an interesting element of why our country is so divided. I found the post enough to cause me to get the book, and the quote to speak volumes of a tyrant, any tyrant, and especially aligned with what I feel is not our Deep State, but having a would-be tyrant as President. I would think any objective reader would want to examine whether these traits that of a tyrant or not, and forget whether you want one in charge. Seems many are looking for a leader who will just take control and trust it will work out. I am not one of them. I doubt Shakespeare was a fan of those who display those tyrant like traits, and the real danger is an electorate who is ignorant, or close minded, or who wants to follow a tyrant. If you do, you will feel her post to be an example of the Deep State.

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Glenn Carleton
on June 04, 2019 at 12:55:52 pm

There seems to be something too clever by far in trying to bring in the venerable gaze of Shakespeare to “offer” any commentary suitable for discerning the moment we are in. This moment — and indeed, whatever moment we happen to find ourselves in at all — will always have all that is necessary for our understanding, since we have travelled within a continuum that has even led us to such a moment. If one has been paying enough continual attention, and without a flinching escape, our pained attention alone will more than suffice.

Trump has been suggested by historian Victor Davis Hanson as the kind of character embodied in films like Shane and High Noon, and I think these characters (and many like them) are already a well-known part of our cultural memory trove, and it shouldn’t be a great stretch to make such a connection. While they themselves did not exactly possess the social graces and morality feigned by the society into which they entered, in order to “clean up the mess” and deal with the few criminals terrorizing and compromising everyone, they were allowed to do so because they possessed some “skills” which could be effective for the purposes at hand: eradicating the evil and restoring order. In the end, these “tragic heroes” (as Hanson calls them) were shown the exit door, since they could not really be integrated into society at large, having served their purpose for all those too ashamed to admit the easy scapegoating which such a society enacts… until it is shamed into confronting itself.

This is where we are now. Trump is such a hero, whether we like it or not, and I wish him the best success. Will turning towards Shakespeare merely allow a more convenient narrative to be spun?

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on June 04, 2019 at 15:48:12 pm

I'm not a Shakespeare expert. But I have read Greenblat (the Hamlet book) and can tell you with 100% certainty that he is very overrated.

And the Leontes-to-Trump comparison Sullivan highlights here does nothing to increase my respect for Greenblat's judgment. Both Leontes the character and the political situation he inhabits/shapes are simpler ones than Trump's character or situation. Or put it this way--whatever is elevated and interesting in Leontes is completely obscured--for most of the play--by his all-consuming jealousy. And that, and not the dynamics of tyranny more generally, is what Shakespeare draws our attention to.

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Carl Eric Scott
on June 05, 2019 at 08:28:27 am

I see that Vickie B. Sullivan agrees with the NYT.

MARCH 4 “How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” (There's no evidence of a wiretap.)


"The government snooping continued into early this year, including a period when Manafort was known to talk to President Donald Trump."

It turns out that President Trump was telling the truth and the New York Times was lying about it.
"A tyrant does not need to traffic in facts or supply evidence. He expects his accusation to be enough.." is more applicable to the Obama administration than it is to President Trump.

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Alan D. McIntire
on June 05, 2019 at 09:33:57 am

If a person can observe President Obama or the current crop of Democrat presidential hopefuls calling for confiscations of guns, higher taxes, restrictions on free speech and freedom of religion, outlawing of fossil fuels, abolition of private health insurance, and general socialism, and then conclude "President Trump is a would-be tyrant," her/his honesty and grasp of reality are both in question. Prof. Sullivan neglected to explain how Trump is a tyrant. But go ahead, Glenn, you have the chance. Explain.

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Charles N. Steele, Ph.D.
on June 06, 2019 at 00:37:43 am

Why should Shakespeare get all the fun?

[Byron’s Don Juan]
Is represented truly,
That soul without a moral tie,
All egotistical and dry
To dreaming given up unduly
And that embittered mind which boils
In empty deeds and futile toils.

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1825-32)

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on June 06, 2019 at 00:47:40 am

Again, why should Shakespeare get all the fun?

In 1830 Robert Southey, a popular poet, wrote a book imagining if the spirit of Sir Thomas More were to pop up in his kitchen and join him in bemoaning how society has eroded since More’s day. Thomas Babington Macaulay reviewed this book and concluded that Southey was an excellent poet – and an ignoramus regarding social change and public policy.

Southey’s book reflects one of the earliest protests against the industrial revolution and the resulting transformation of society away from tradition and toward wealth creation--anticipating the works of Carlyle, Dickens, Disraeli, and Ruskin. Still, the resulting book review reminds us that certain kinds of minds have always been with us, and we must simply endure them. Here’s an excerpt:

“We have, for some time past, observed with great regret the strange infatuation which leads [Southey] to abandon those departments … in which he might excel, and to lecture the public on sciences which he has still the very alphabet to learn. He has now, we think, done his worst. The subject which he has at last undertaken to treat is one which demands all the highest intellectual and moral qualities of a philosophical statesman, an understanding at once comprehensive and acute, a heart at once upright and charitable. Mr. Southey brings to the task two faculties which were never, we believe, vouchsafed in measure so copious to any human being – the faculty of believing without a reason, and the faculty of hating without a provocation.

* * *

Government is to Mr. Southey one of the fine arts. He judges of a theory, of a public measure, of a religious or a political party, of a peace or a war, as men judge of a picture or a statue, by the effect produced on his imagination. A chain of associations is to him what a chain of reasoning is to other men; and what he calls his opinions are in fact merely his tastes.

* * *

Now in the mind of Mr. Southey reason has no place at all, as either leader or follower, as either sovereign or slave. He does not seem to know what an argument is. He never uses arguments himself. He never troubles himself to answer the arguments of his opponents. It has never occurred to him, that a man ought to be able to give some better account of the way in which he has arrived at his opinions than merely that it is his will and pleasure to hold them. It has never occurred to him that there is a difference between assertion and demonstration, that a rumour does not always prove a fact, that a single fact, when proved, is hardly foundation enough for a theory, that two contradictory propositions cannot be undeniable truths, that to beg the question is not the way to settle it, or that when an objection is raised, it ought to be met with something more convincing than ‘scoundrel’ and ‘blockhead.’
It would be absurd to read the works of such a writer for political instruction.

* * *

What theologians call the spiritual sins are his cardinal virtues, hatred, pride, and the insatiable thirst of vengeance. These passions he disguises under the name of duties….

* * *

The only opponents to whom the Laureate gives quarter are those in whom he finds something of his own character reflected. He seems to have an instinctive antipathy for calm, moderate men, for men who shun extremes, and who render reasons. He has treated Mr. Owen of Lanark, for example, with infinitely more respect than he has shown to Mr. Hallam or to Dr. Lingard; and this for no reason that we can discover, except that Mr. Owen is more unreasonably and hopelessly in the wrong than any speculator of our time.

* * *

Exclusion, persecution, severe punishments for libellers and demagogues, proscriptions, massacres, civil war, if necessary rather than any concession to a discontented people; these are the measures which he seems inclined to recommend. A severe and gloomy tyranny, crushing opposition, silencing remonstrance, drilling the minds of the people into unreasoning obedience, has in it something of grandeur which delights his imagination. But there is nothing fine in the shabby tricks and jobs of office; and Mr. Southey, accordingly, has no toleration for them. When a Jacobin, he did not perceive that his system led logically, and would have led practically, to the removal of religious distinctions. He now commits a similar error. He renounces the abject and paltry part of the creed of his party, without perceiving that it is also an essential part of that creed. He would have tyranny and purity together; though the most superficial observation might have shown him that there can be no tyranny without corruption.

* * *

We do not, however, believe that Mr. Southey would recommend such a course, though his language would, according to all the rules of logic, justify us in supposing this to be his meaning. His opinions form no system at all. He never sees, at one glance, more of a question than will furnish matter for one flowing and well-turned sentence; so that it would be the height of unfairness to charge him personally with holding a doctrine, merely because that doctrine is deducible … from the premises which he has laid down. We are, therefore, left completely in the dark as to Mr. Southey’s opinions….”

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on June 06, 2019 at 20:45:53 pm

Let me try, not claiming to have any expertise on tyrants in politics: A tyrant is not defined by their policies, such as on guns, fossil fuels, health insurance, socialism, whatever. A tyrant often proposes good policies to win favor with the population (i.e., populism) to promote not a cause or agenda, but themselves. If one assumes Trump has outstanding policies, then the conclusion is, he has outstanding policies he proposes. A liberbaterian with bad policies if they are bad, are bad, and speaks nothing of their tyrant tendencies. I view a tyrant as one who promotes themselves, and does not care about the impact at any other level, save perhaps a few loyal family members if that. It is the tyrants motives, not policies, that make a tyrant a tyrant. And it seems obvious that there are those who want to be lead by a tyrant, happens all the time where change is seen as happening by a strong willed, if need be tyrant. In my view Trump has a deficit of character in many ways, one of which is, lack of empathy, lack of self-esteem and needing to have power to prove something to themselves (daily), and the many many examples in the subject book. Anyone who think the book is not about Trump, hard to not see the examples specific. So, if one assumes a tyrant has done a country well by supporting great policies, but had those characteristics in the book then they are a tyrant by definition. If one feels a tyrant is the best solution (efficient) then one should raise their hand and say "I did and will vote for a tyrant". That is your choice. It does not assume one must conclude a tyrant is bad, in situation of a crisis, perhaps a tyrant is needed, has happened many times in history. The good ones know when to stop being a tyrant.

Does this make sense that your focus on his policies does not have any bearing on my view Trump, while I agree is not one, wants to be? I believe it is his goal, and that he might be successful if the institutions that are supposed to prevent tyrants fail. Again, the policies you mention or those of past politicians has no bearing on the dictionary definition of a tyrant.

They did say Obama wanted and tried to be a tyrant/King. I just think the contrast between those assertions and those against Trump are enormous. But those who liked/loved Obama felt he was too much of a push over. Imagine anyone saying that of Trump.

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Glenn Carleton
on June 08, 2019 at 01:10:44 am

Your answer makes no sense whatsoever, Glenn. A tyrant promotes tyranny. Tyranny is oppression, and not good policies. And a tyrant rules dictatorially, circumventing the rule of law.

And it's bonkers to say Trump is self-serving and uninterested in the country.

I must ask, though -- you describe his psychology. So you've met him? How do you know him and how well? Or are you just repeating things the media has told you?

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Charles N Steele
on June 09, 2019 at 18:40:53 pm

I have not met many despicable people, but when most of those who have say the person has total character flaws, I tend to believe them, especially when it is against their interest to be candid. A tyrant does not have to promote tyranny, where is that required in history. A tyrant promotes themselves if evil, whereas some tyrants promote the country because their country (or company) is at threat and only a tyrant can act quickly. We are not at threat, we do not need a tyrant like Roman Empire did at times.

Basically sir it gets down to this. I have always thought Trump was a buffoon, and I believe the pinocchios he is awarded are real, otherwise he would dispute them. I listen to people who have known him for decades, the vast majority say he lacks character, disciplines, and empathy. Then, he admires other tyrants, none of our allies on top of what I believe he hates being President, it was not supposed to happen, and now he regrets it did.

But, those are my views and you obviously have yours. My guess is, angry at the way things were before he came along. Let's leave it this: If he does not get impeached, or put in jail, if he continues on as President another term and does not lose all of his staff five more times over, if he gets the Republicans to later acknowledge he is competent versus afraid of him, then I need to reconsider my position that Trump is a total character wreck who must be one of the most unhappy people in politics, perhaps much beyond that. For me, he is a total embarrassment, so I acknowledge I interpret him through that lens. Your lens are obviously different. The final question is: Who on either side ever changes their opinion? I see many Trump voters saying not again, but many stay to support him. I can honestly say, I have never heard a person say I felt he would be a bad president, worried, but in retrospect, he was the right choice. Instead, most non supporters seem to agree, right or wrong: He will go down in history as the worse we ever had, destroyed our institutions and our alliances, but he did get the judges his party wanted. I would give him credit on one thing: China might stop taking advantage of us, all through his bull-in-a-chinashop approach.

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Glenn Carleton
on June 13, 2019 at 18:59:07 pm

'-->"A tyrant does not need to traffic in facts or supply evidence. He expects his accusation to be enough. "

Psychology projection of behalf of author Greenblatt, or just a form of self-parody...

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on June 21, 2019 at 11:33:36 am

Paul, interesting parallel comparing Trump with Shane and Gary Cooper in High Noon. I would add one additional element: the outsider shows up from parts far away and “takes care of business”—fixing whatever problems those in the hinterlands have gotten themselves into. You are right: there is no permanent place for them in the society. (See also Coriolanus, in which the title character displays the martial virtues necessary to defeat the Volces, but when his mission is accomplished there is no place for him in the body politic.)

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Andrea Mays

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