Stephen Greenblatt has written a book about Donald Trump’s presidency without ever mentioning him by name. He doesn’t have to: The connections between Shakespeare’s most villainous tyrants and demagogues and the current occupant of the White House are too obvious to miss.
Discussing, for instance, the “fraudulent populist” Jack Cade, a character in the second part of Henry VI, Greenblatt notes: “The absurdity of [his] campaign promises is not an impediment to their effectiveness. On the contrary: Cade keeps producing demonstrable falsehoods about his origins and making wild claims about the great things he will do, and the crowds eagerly swallow them.” Greenblatt also makes implicit comparisons between Trump and King Lear, Macbeth, Caesar, Leontes, and Coriolanus, who cannot disguise his contempt for the “rabble,” “curs,” “scabs,” and “slaves” that he would rule.
Based on the number of pages Greenblatt devotes to him, the tyrant most closely resembling Trump is Richard III. Richard, who brags in his opening monologue that he is “determined to prove a villain,” is, according to Greenblatt, “not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt.” Like Trump, Richard sees only winners and losers. He scorns the latter, while the “winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends.”
In the past, Richard’s propensity for bald-faced lying sometimes played as ridiculous on stage: Who in the world would be stupid enough to fall for such open hypocrisy? Contemporary Americans might have an answer to that question. As Greenblatt writes: “The steady barrage of falsehoods plays its part, working to marginalize skeptics, to sow confusion, to quiet protests that might otherwise have erupted. Whether from indifference or from fear or from the catastrophically mistaken belief that there is no real difference between Richard and the alternatives, the citizens fail to resist.” And there you have it: campaign 2016 and its aftermath.
Greenblatt provides plenty of quotations from the plays to justify the claim that Tyrant is a book about Shakespeare, but its real power and energy come when the author tacitly indicts the actions of the current President of the United States, who apparently believes that he — like his English precursors from centuries earlier — is essentially above the law.
By the end of the book, dispirited readers may be asking, if Shakespeare was able to anticipate our “general woe,” did he have any solutions for it? Yes, according to Greenblatt: The solution is to join forces in opposing the tyrant, however flawed members of the opposition may be. Ultimately, Shakespeare’s tyrants fail because while they may be experts at coming to power, they have no real plan or interest in actually governing. Instead, they are “brought down by their own viciousness and by a popular spirit of humanity that could be suppressed but never completely extinguished.”