Book Habit Blog - Tyrant - Shakespeare on Politics

by Stephen Greenblatt

Shakespeare understood the desire for absolute power, how it may come to invest itself in one person and how it destroys safeguards meant to protect liberty: “Under what circumstances, Shakespeare asked himself, do … cherished institutions, seemingly deep rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile? Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to? How does a … Richard III or Macbeth” acquire power? (1)”

In the 2nd Henry VI, Shakespeare brings us Jack Cade, a demagogue with dreams of glory and omnipotence. Funded by a wealthy nobleman, Cade stirs the mob to rebel with lies and absurd promises. Drawing on the mob’s “indifference to truth”, and on his own “shamelessness and hyperinflated self-confidence”, Cade wants every other center of authority swept away (38).  He declares that “my mouth shall be the Parliament of England” (4.7.11-13). Cade ends dead on a dung hill but the chaos he created leads to civil war and the eventual rise of Richard III.

The consequences of chaos are often more chaos, more violence and more monsters rising out of its murk.

Richard possesses cunning and “limitless self-regard” (53). He is excited by the “joy of domination” and “seeing others cringe … or wince with pain” (54). He deceives his way to the throne, helped by enablers and those who believe they can use him. When he is finally “brought down”, he “dies unloved and unlamented. He leaves behind only wreckage” (54).

The good news is this: “Shakespeare believed that tyrants and their minions would ultimately fail”, destroyed “by their own viciousness and by a popular spirit of humanity that could be suppressed but never … extinguished (189).”

Greenblatt’s analysis demonstrates that Shakespeare understood that tyrants do not change, that they can be seen clearly and they can be countered by concerted action taken by men and women of decency.

~Mike Wall