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Is there a tyrant among us? What would Shakespeare say?

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor
Richard III, Donald Trump. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images, Kelli Grant, Paul Sancya/AP)

A cynical demagogue achieves the height of power through deceit and treachery, and proceeds to rule ruthlessly. Brooding, suspicious, and captive of his own angry whims, he dismisses or alienates the very allies who helped his rise, until he must face, virtually alone, the righteous retribution of those he has exploited and wronged.

Sound familiar? It should: It is the plot of one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, Richard III, which also forms the heart of a new book by the scholar and Pulitzer-prize-winning author Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. Any resemblance to current events or personalities is strictly intentional.

But why consult Shakespeare?  What can he tell us about our own situation that we haven’t heard from, say, Rachel Maddow? Nothing explicit, certainly, given the vast difference between the leader of a 21st century republic and the rulers that Shakespeare, and Greenblatt, examine: 15th century English monarchs, Julius Caesar, and the quasi-legendary kings Macbeth and Lear. As Greenblatt stipulates in an interview: “Shakespeare is not great because he’s relevant; he’s relevant because he’s great. The immediate occasion [for writing the book] has to do with our current political climate. But not in a direct way. It’s absurd to think that someone writing 400 years ago is addressing contemporary American politics.”

Even so, contemporary American politics is the subtext of almost every chapter. If anything, the comparison between Richard and a certain American political figure — whose name does not appear in the book — is overdetermined. Here is how Greenblatt introduces Richard (the character, not the historical king): “He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. . . . He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.”

Richard, Duke of Gloucester and younger brother of King Edward IV, ascends to the throne by eliminating his rivals and winning the support of the citizens of London in “a political campaign, complete with a fraudulent display of religious piety, the slandering of opponents, and a grossly exaggerated threat to national security.” He cheats the Duke of Buckingham, who was instrumental in his rise, turning a friend and ally into an enemy. Anyone he suspects of disloyalty, or of posing a threat to his reign, gets thrown in prison, if not beheaded on the spot. As Richard says to the young Prince Edward, who is the heir apparent and therefore stands in the way of Richard’s ascension:

If I may counsel you, some day or two
Your Highness shall repose you at the Tower;
Then where you please and shall be thought most fit
For your best health and recreation.

That is how Shakespeare expresses “lock him up!” And once in power, Richard finds himself still dissatisfied: “The prospect of endless winning proves to be a grotesque delusion,” Greenblatt writes. Who was it again who warned that we might get tired of winning?

But Richard, unlike a certain other ruler with authoritarian impulses, isn’t a blowhard or a braggart. He boasts about his schemes to his henchmen, or in soliloquies to the audience, but when offered the crown, he makes a show of needing to be talked into accepting: “… So much is my poverty of spirit, / So mighty and so many my defects, /That I would rather hide me from my greatness,” he declares, in words that have never passed the lips of anyone currently occupying the White House. And he is devoid of personal vanity. He is ugly — a hunchback with a withered arm — and he knows it and makes no effort to hide it. If anything, his ugliness makes his triumph more satisfying when, through eloquence and sheer force of will, he wins the hand of the widowed princess whose husband (and father-in-law, King Henry VI) were killed by Richard and his brothers. When you’re a duke, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Richard’s ugliness is both the manifestation of his wickedness and an explanation for it: He lusts for power to compensate for the fact that he was unloved, even by his mother. “Why, Love forswore me in my mother’s womb,” Richard muses bitterly (in an earlier play by Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 3). “… She did corrupt frail Nature with some bribe, / To shrink mine arm up like a withered shrub / To make an envious mountain on my back, / Where sits deformity to mock my body.”

But you hardly need Shakespeare for that bit of psychological insight; George Lucas on his worst day is every bit as acute. As an observation about tyranny, the correspondence between inner depravity and physiognomy is a dead end, both in our era and historically. Dictators come in all shapes, and not all of them ugly. Greenblatt’s larger point is that, for all his evil genius, Richard didn’t get to be king on his own: He was abetted by a host of those he calls “enablers,” who either actively work toward his rise or passively fail to resist him, in what he describes as “a whole country’s collective failure.”

“Shakespeare wrote about how societies that seem stable go under, in the hands of people who shouldn’t be in power,” Greenblatt says in an interview. How does this happen? In Tyrant, he gives several explanations. Some are taken in by Richard: People who “find it almost impossible to resist the big, bold lie, shamelessly reiterated.” Others do see through him, but fail to apprehend the danger he poses to the kingdom: “They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal … They persuade themselves that there will always be enough adults in the room, as it were, to ensure that promises will be kept, alliances honored, and core institutions respected.” Some, of course, are just cowed by his bullying and frightened of his power. Finally, some collaborate out of cynical ambition or enjoy the spectacle of his cruelty. “The aspiring tyrant never lacks for such people, in Shakespeare and, from what I can tell, in life,” Greenblatt writes.

Greenblatt reminds us that there is another element in this dynamic: the spectators who witness the whole unfolding catastrophe, safe on their side of the theater’s fourth wall. Not even they can escape the taint of Richard’s evil. “It is we, the audience, watching it all happening, who are lured into a peculiar form of collaboration,” Greenblatt writes. “Looking out at us from the stage, Richard invites us not only to share his gleeful contempt but also to experience for ourselves what it is to succumb to what we know to be loathsome.”

This is not a retrospective insight, the result of hearing angry chants of “lock her up!” rise from a sea of red hats. Twenty years ago, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, the great critic Harold Bloom wrote that “Shakespeare’s greatest originality in Richard III … is not so much Richard himself as it is the hero-villain’s startlingly intimate relationship with the audience. … Richard co-opts us as fellow torturers, sharing guilty pleasures with the added frisson that we may join the victims, if the dominant hunchback detects any failure in our complicity.”

Of course, it all happened more than 500 years ago — and, in fact, a lot of it never happened. History, and history plays, are written by the victors, which in this case means the Tudor dynasty that overthrew Richard. Modern scholars generally agree that Shakespeare gives the historical Richard III a raw deal, presumably because his own sovereign, Elizabeth I, was descended from the first Tudor king, Henry VII. So should we all just sit back and enjoy the spectacle? What will historians say about us, five centuries into the future?

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