In these times, it helps to know William Shakespeare’s works inside-out, for the bard had much to say on topics that persist today in causing us headache — and worse.
Among the big themes examined with precision by Shakespeare is the way in which autocrats seek power, and the way such power corrupts them and, by extension, the state.
Stephen Greenblatt, one of the world’s pre-eminent Shakespeare scholars, has been thinking a lot lately about the tyrannies recounted by the great playwright in works such as "Macbeth," "Richard III," "Julius Caesar," "King Lear" and "Coriolanus." The author of several important books, including “Will in the World” and “The Swerve,” Greenblatt recently has consolidated his concerns about despotism (especially as it is currently expressed in American politics) in his latest book, “Tyrant.”
The book is a sly exercise in cultural criticism that serves as a warning against Donald Trump without ever mentioning the president by name. Instead, Greenblatt offers an analysis of Richard III’s unlikely rise, of Macbeth’s demagoguery, of the “fraudulent populism” that opens the door to the tyrant and the many ways in which societies enable his rise.
Greenblatt will be in Charleston to discuss his book and the parallels between Shakespeare’s work and today’s politics at 4 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Charleston Library Society, 164 King. St. His appearance is part of the second Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival, an event co-organized by the Library Society and the Charleston Festival of Sussex, England.
The Shakespeare scholar is one of about 20 special literary guests participating in the local event, which is scheduled for Nov. 8-11.
Greenblatt said it’s easy to link Shakespeare’s work with current affairs. The elapsed time between the bard’s era and ours is not as much as you’d think.
“Shakespeare lived and wrote four centuries ago, and since we often can scarcely remember what we were up to four months ago, that seems like an immense distance,” Greenblatt wrote in an email. “But we easily deceive ourselves in exaggerating this distance. My father was born in 1897, and my youngest son was born in 2001: that makes just our little threesome touch three centuries. Besides ... there are certain recurrent personality types and political situations. That is why we can take pleasure in and learn from the past.”
Shakespeare deliberately wrote about historical episodes or fictional characters lest he upset the censors (and executioners) of his time. He was, in effect, drawing implicit comparisons between, say, classical Rome and the Elizabethan era.
“Shakespeare was careful precisely not to signal his political position on contemporary figures and issues,” Greenblatt noted. “But he hated cruelty, despised populist demagogues and feared both tyrants and the volatility of mobs.”
In his op-ed for The New York Times, published in October 2016, Greenblatt described the rise of Richard III, tormented by self-loathing, rage and physical deformity, who “found refuge in a feeling of entitlement, blustering overconfidence, misogyny and a merciless penchant for bullying.” In the piece, Greenblatt takes aim at the enablers without whom Richard never could have succeeded.
These include those who trusted that the established political system could withstand Richard’s assaults; those who deny or forget the danger Richard poses, who normalize creeping tyranny; those who are frighten by Richard’s bullying; those who strive to surf the wave of corruption and exploit the opportunities provided by Richard’s enthronement; and those who “take vicarious pleasure in the release of pent-up aggression, in the black humor of it all, in the open speaking of the unspeakable.”
In Shakespeare’s plays, the despots often are fickle, easily manipulated, easily enraged. Those who paved the path to the throne are complicit in the tyranny. Today, fascist politics once again are on the rise around the world.
“We obviously have very short memories,” Greenblatt wrote. “One would have thought that the catastrophes unleashed by Hitler and Mussolini would have laid that particular demon to rest for at least a century. But here we are, able to make a long and growing list of authoritarian, hyper-nationalist tyrants and their opportunist enablers. I fear that the sources of their rise lie deep in our nature as a species, as well as in the local circumstances of income inequality and the like.”
After a long career, Greenblatt, who turns 75 this week, continues to thrill at the surprises Shakespeare renders, especially when he goes to the theater.
“I have those (a-ha) moments especially when I see the plays performed, since every performance is different, and actors, even amateur actors, often pick up nuances that I have missed,” he wrote. “Shakespeare managed to please everyone, not just the sophisticated elite. He was far more like the creator of ‘Bringing Up Baby’ or ‘The Godfather’ than, say, Marcel Proust (whom I happen to love)."
Greenblatt’s “Tyrant” is widely available in hardcover, e-book and audio book formats from most online and traditional bookstores.