Book Review: Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt

“Why would anyone, he asked himself, be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to the truth? Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage, but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?”

It is easy to sit here on a comfortable couch in our modern world and assume that the days of tyrants are behind us. To feel so far removed from the tumultuous political times that Shakespeare lived in and wrote about. Stephen Greenblatt takes that world and pulls it into ours with beautiful subtlety in his most recent book, Tyrant. Much like Shakespeare, Greenblatt never outright says that he is comparing Shakespeare’s tyrants to any political leaders of today, but through the clever use of words and sayings – such as “fake news” and “adults in the room” – he makes us, the reader, think about today. He takes his Shakespeare expertise and masterfully molds it into a lesson for audiences today.

One of the most compelling discussions was about Jack Cade, the often ignored mini-tyrant of Henry VI. He was really serving Richard of York, but in the process tried to pass himself off as the true ruler. Despite the fact that Cade is telling outright lies, he gains a strong following, a following that doesn’t care if he lies. Greenblatt throws this often forgotten character into the spotlight as a prime example of how the tyrant gains his following. This cleverly written example starts the reader on their journey through Shakespeare’s tyrants and establishes from the start a tone of thoughtful discussion

Greenblatt leads the reader through Shakespeare’s most famous tyrants: Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus. He takes us on a journey to explain how such a person comes to power, what they do once they have power, what ultimately leads to their downfall, and what happens to the nation afterwards. In addition – and at times more importantly – he discusses the ancillary characters that either go along with or defy the tyrant. By highlighting these crucial characters, Greenblatt makes clear how Shakespeare saw tyranny and why it can still resonate with us today.

This little book is a must-read for any modern Shakespeare scholar and should probably also be read by pretty much everyone involved in government. As I read through the journey of the tyrant according to Shakespeare, I found myself feeling a range of emotions from concern to despair to hope. Greenblatt provides us with another reason why Shakespeare is still relevant to our lives today, and presents the point in such a compelling way that I would recommend this book to almost anyone.

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