The name “Donald Trump” does not appear in Tyrant: Shakespeare in Politics.
But it’s impossible to read this examination of tyranny in Shakespeare’s plays without considering our own times and our own tyrant.
As author Stephen Greenblatt observes, Shakespeare, “deftly sketched the kind of person who surges up in troubled times to appeal to the basest of instincts and draw upon the deepest anxieties of his contemporaries.”
Richard III is perhaps the greatest villain in history. Shakespeare makes him a warped, pitiable creature that enacts horrors yet somehow gains our sympathy. Rudely stamped, Richard III rises to power through allies who think they can control him and followers who seek advantage in his power.
Yet, when obtaining the crown, he finds it an empty experience, the source of more troubles rather than less as his enemies gather to overthrow him. He dies, alone on a battlefield, abandoned by all.
Macbeth is a reluctant tyrant, goaded into murder by his wife, and then haunted by memories of the bloody deed. “Oh, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” he says of his anguish. Macbeth recognizes his sin and is driven mad by it, to the detriment of his country.
King Lear is another self-destructive monarch, divvying up his kingdom among ungrateful daughters while spurning those who speak truth to power. The consequence is internal exile and madness, the narcissism of the old king laid bare.
In Coriolanus, ancient Rome is beset with turmoil. The patricians have taken too much, leaving the plebeians to starve. In a speech reminiscent of Howard Schultz, an aristocrat claims that the patricians are the source of every good thing in the lives of the people:
you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds of comes from them to you
And now way from yourselves.
This goes over as well as Schultz at SXSW. After a series of conflicts, the war hero Coriolanus is on the verge of becoming dictator of Rome. All he needs to do is humble himself before the plebeians. Yet, he can’t even do this minor thing, unable to hide his hatred of commoners. His candidacy fails and he is banished.
Shakespeare was an optimist, believing that tyrants ultimately fall, undone by their character.
We have our own mad king now, a little bit of Lear and a lot of Richard III, a villain, a usurper, that has troubled domestic tranquility as he gnaws away at American democracy.
Yet, like the tyrants depicted in Tyrant: Shakespeare in Politics, he too will meet his end, undone by the flaws in his character.