“Black is the badge of hell / the hue of dungeons and the school of night,” laments Ferdinand, King of Navarre in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost. Some versions of the text offer scowl, style or suit instead of school, and one is tempted to think that Stephen Greenblatt would have boldly and keenly pressed for a reading of ‘tyrants’ instead of ‘dungeons’, and ‘lies’ in lieu of ‘night’.

Greenblatt is an audacious old master on Shakespeare. Like the painters of the Dutch school, he knows how to wield both radical brushstrokes and traditional compositions; how to shock with both darkness and light, and how to illuminate with dazzling brilliance. He is unafraid to clash and will not flinch at the risk of unveiling discomforting truths or unruffling the feathers of mere nonconformists. In his long years as a teacher and as a writer, he has inspired and infuriated in almost equal measure, and he remains one of the most formidable readers and writers we have today in the academic world.

His latest book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power is both a new, poignant step along the path he has been tracing throughout his career and a remarkable new beginning. Here Greenblatt takes his readings out of the lecture hall and places them centre stage in what could be called the pit of a new Globe of readers from every walk of life. The intellectual drama he urges us to witness and consider will send tingles down the spines of those who wish to understand critically the forces of history or individuals and events around them, rather than react viscerally – and often indistinguishably from what they object to. It is to these Globalists among us that Greenblatt speaks, with trenchant wisdom, a brisk pace of dire urgency and a chilling sense of tragic déjà vu.

Tyrant is unquestionably a dark and dangerous book. So dark and dangerous, in fact, that not so long ago in the history of Europe it would have most certainly been banned or burnt in an inglorious pyre that would haunt the nights and the days of many people and perhaps not enough generations. For in this book, Greenblatt engages in a bitter struggle of ethics and conscience with tyrants of all hues and shades of black, all leaping at him from Shakespeare’s pages to seek reincarnation or almost otherworldly Vico-like recurrence in vocally unnamed contemporary figures and events. And not only does he take on tyrants and their ilk, but he also exposes, with one grand, terrifying gesture, the massive weakness that allows, or rather enables a tyrant’s power to become macabrely great, as Greenblatt argues, with a distinct tinge of “j’accuse”.

Greenblatt’s response to historical confusion and incomprehensibility is sharp intelligence, and a strong faith in common sense, literature and history.”

Tyrant might be called a literary essay-à-clef, with unsettling, unmistakeable applicability to sociohistorical phenomena across the world today. It has thundering, daring contemporary undertones, an acknowledged 1960s emphasis of intellectual responsibility to the past, present and future. The book, Greenblatt tells us, came about precisely as a response to the clichéd question of what a single voice can do in the face of an overwhelming, uncontrollably developing historical drama: “not so long ago… I sat in a verdant garden in Sardinia and expressed my growing apprehensions about the outcome of an upcoming election.” A historian friend asked him what he meant to do about it. This book is exactly what he did.

Greenblatt’s response to historical confusion and incomprehensibility is sharp intelligence, and a strong faith in common sense, literature and history. He sets himself the task of articulating a literary and philosophical analysis of Shakespeare’s political ethics and social ethos, giving us at the same time a riveting historical whodunit, a spy thriller exposing realities and falsehoods, monsters and dubiously neutral bystanders. Tyrant is especially a sharp, eloquent, masterly apology as to the critical value of literature, its power as a lens of both clarity and vision, in order to create a perspective of detachment that allows us to get closer to unmediated truth. Literature for Greenblatt has the potential to contain and to convey infinite layers of humanity, the experience of innumerable lives, a quotient of raw social substance that is unsurpassable, as are the filters and veils it can explore and make available. From figment, fiction becomes factum, an action that would be otherwise both impossible and inconceivable, what Greenblatt calls “the oblique [vital] angle” to reality. The term comes, eerily enough, from Swedenborg, courtesy of Emily Dickinson, although Greenblatt does not tell us so. Swedenborg apparently references Dickinson’s portrayal of war as “an oblique place” in his own symbolisation of evil as an “oblique angle”. It is a mark of Greenblatt’s talent as a critic to bring all tributary rivers back to their source and to lead them far beyond it.

Greenblatt gives us not only a thrilling mirror to our contemporary state of tragedy and crisis, but also a suspense narrative of what it meant to live and write in Elizabeth I’s time, to think and write like Shakespeare. We see Shakespeare maturing, gaining both clarity and a shrewd understanding of how, when and why to speak. We see him moving away from spectacle-driven drama and towards a very unique form of action, the actions of words that spoke of a distant or imaginary past and Shakespeare’s often brutally real present, as well as chillingly so of his future and our own time. “Shakespeare is very unlikely to have regarded [Elizabeth I], even in his most private thoughts, as a tyrant” yet he was far too astute not to see what surrounded her, preceded her or lay ahead after the end of her reign. Greenblatt shows us how discerning a social reader Shakespeare actually was, from identifying causalities and reasons to tracing the forces producing both subtle and monumental change. His analysis of the transition from feudality to parliamentary party representation, from populus to a highly convenient, easily manipulated and entitled popular base is staggering, and Greenblatt’s genealogy of the pathology of both subjects and rulers, of populism and authority, is formidably authoritative, irresistibly poignant.

In his reading of Henry VI, Greenblatt shows how subtle the exploitation of the popular base by populist power-seekers really is: “populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation… It is York’s genius, if that is the right word for something so base, to grasp the use he can make of the resentment that seethes among the poorest of the poor.” And Shakespeare understood that such people “will not slink away because the traditional elite and the entirety of the educated populace regard him as a jackass.” On the contrary, it only fuels their determination, ruthlessness, and quite devastatingly, their effectiveness.

A would-be tyrant, as Shakespeare shows, is someone with “limitless self-regard, [a taste for] law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant.” Yet the only reason such a person is allowed to claim the social centre stage is even more disturbing to behold: quite simply put, it is, ultimately, each and all of us. ‘Enablers’ is the term Greenblatt applies to those who allow tyrants access to the role and power tyranny can bestow. There are seven types of enablers (just as there used to be seven types of literary ambiguity), namely the “few… who are genuinely fooled”, those who allow themselves to be bullied to a position of inaction, as well as those who see the evil but fail to assess and acknowledge its very real menace, and end up feeling incredulous that “what seemed impossible is actually happening. They have relied on a structure that proves unexpectedly fragile”; then there is a “more sinister group”, those who think they can be the profiting puppeteers behind the apparently buffoonish tyrant-figure. They are in fact the ones most effectively exploited and expendable… The two final categories are as unsettling: one is “a motley crowd of those who carry out [the tyrant’s] orders”, and who would exist even in the most idealistic of ideal worlds conceived by Étienne de la Boétie, and finally there are those who think that tyrants are a necessary, salutatory evil in times of dire crisis, providing by way of total power a semblance of vital order and security.

Shakespeare’s brilliance, Greenblatt shows, is to possess the intellectual acumen to see all these categories and to then give them dramatic, hauntingly lifelike reality on stage. To use ambiguity, the suspension of disbelief, fiction and the imagination to make the audience aware of how we “are lured into a peculiar form of collaboration. [How] we are charmed again and again by the villain’s outrageousness, by his indifference to the ordinary norms of human decency, by lies that seem effective even though no one believes them.” No one and nothing is spared in Shakespeare’s plays, or in Greenblatt’s lucid reading of them, and this is precisely the brilliance and the magnitude of both.

Tyrant offers close readings of Henry VI, Richard III and Macbeth (evil), of King Lear and A Winter’s Tale (madness) and of Julius Caesar (overweening ambition that stains even those who claim the purity of opposing it). The arguments and the revelations are often astonishing, invariably and astoundingly stimulating, unwavering in their exploration of the violence and insidiousness of the subject. Tyranny, in Shakespeare’s universe of both philosophy and drama, is no less than a satanic order imposed on catastrophic chaos.

Tyrant is a deeply human interrogation into what urges us to fail so fiendishly our true nature and potential as individuals, as a society and as a species.”

Greenblatt offers us an intellectual journey into ethics, into an ontological understanding of historical responsibility and our more everyday duty to our humanity. Tyrant is not simply a genealogy of political aberration, or a staggering theoretical analysis of tyranny, its preparatory ground and devastating effects. It is more crucially a deeply human interrogation into what urges us to fail so fiendishly our true nature and potential as individuals, as a society and as a species endowed with the most extraordinary spiritual and ethical power which makes us all that we are, or could hope to be, in Shakespeare’s view. He wrote his ‘tyrant plays’, if one could call them so, in order to shock us out of our compliance and complacency, in order to awaken in us an urgent thirst for resolution, restitution, the revelation of goodness, such as the one that Lear experiences, even if it comes so fatally too late.

Tyrant is a thrillingly well-written book, in which Greenblatt offers highly engrossing readings that remain descriptive even in their authoritativeness, relying on the powerful, evocative elements of philosophical argument rather than presenting a prescriptive, dogmatic total exegesis. He vividly conjures up the other side of the Elizabethan Golden Age, and Shakespeare in his hands often emerges not quite as the maverick outsider, but rather as an enlightened member of the socio-political order he both judges and upholds, a burger with a strong sense of private and public conscience and the mind and heart of a genius. Tyrant is an unmissable book for anyone who relishes good thinking and good reading – it possesses a spectacular mastery of microscopic focus and panoramic views, a very heightened sensibility for the fibres that link and connect and the threads or strings of bondage.


Stephen Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. He is the author of twelve books, including The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, as well as the New York Times bestseller Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and the classic university text Renaissance Self-Fashioning. He is General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and of The Norton Shakespeare, and has edited seven collections of literary criticism. Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power is published in hardback and eBook by The Bodley Head/Vintage Digital and W.W. Norton.
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Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.