A Sea of Blistered Tongues

Richard III, Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt made an absorbing presentation last week, here in Princeton, based on his new book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. What Shakespeare has to say about pretty much any domain of human behavior is worth thinking about, and Greenblatt’s current preoccupation was clearly shared by his receptive audience.

He edged into the topic by describing how Shakespeare has been used in many countries and settings as a screen on which people may project their views about their own leaders—views that very often would cost them their freedom or more, if stated directly. Shakespeare’s notable tyrants—Macbeth, Coriolanus, Lear, and, especially, Richard III—become stand-ins for narcissistic demagogues across time and geography.

He highlighted the would-be king (and real-life character) Jack Cade, who appears in 2 Henry VI, as a populist leader deploying eerily familiar tactics. In Shakespeare’s dialog, Cade makes blatantly absurd promises to the rabble he incites, to wit:

“There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny;

The three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops;

And I will make it a felony to drink small [weak] beer. . . .

There shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score;

And I will apparel them all in one livery,

That they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.”

This peroration is followed by what Greenblatt supposed (correctly in my case) was the only line most people can quote from that particular play, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Greenblatt says that, while the cheering rabble could not have truly believed these extravagant promises, their support for Cade was unwavering. Not until scheming Macbeth is exposed as a regicide and murderer, does Malcolm regret his former loyalty, saying, “This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues, was once thought honest.”

Shakespeare’s tyrants arise in eras when, as the book blurb summarizes, “Cherished institutions seem fragile, political classes are in disarray, economic misery fuels populist anger, people knowingly accept being lied to, partisan rancor dominates, spectacular indecency rules.” Such fraught times inspired Shakespeare, as did the tyrants’ narcissistic personalities and the “cynicism and opportunism of the various enablers and hangers-on” surrounding them. These same forces, personalities, and motives give his work continued relevance.

Greenblatt sounded a discouraging note in saying that, while Shakespeare was brilliant at portraying causes and effects in his history plays, he does not point a way to solutions. “There aren’t any good ones,” he said. Yet, remarkably, civilization survived these conflicts and setbacks. On a more positive note, he concluded that what Shakespeare also teaches us is, “We are not alone.”

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