A leading scholar invokes the Bard of Avon to investigate why anyone would “be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to the truth.”
In this study of the power-hungry monarchs in the plays of Shakespeare, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Greenblatt (Humanities/Harvard Univ.; The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, 2017, etc.) frequently points out why the great English playwright set his work in the vanished past: It was the only way to write a political play. No one could say a word against Queen Elizabeth and expect to live, but you could do it covertly by wrestling with modern issues from a distant perspective. Though under no such restrictions himself, Greenblatt, who has previously assessed Shakespeare as an editor and a biographer, takes this model to heart, using the plays to deliver his own barbed critique of the current occupant of the White House, who makes the job easy; the author doesn’t even have to say his name. We glimpse him in the demagogue John Cade in 2 Henry VI, eager “to make England great again” by attacking the “educated elite.” In Richard III, we see the swaggerer with a deep inferiority complex, compensating for his defects by “bullying those who possess the natural endowments he lacks.” King Lear’s “boundless desire to hear his praises sung” easily brings to mind a president surrounded by a Cabinet of flatterers. In The Winter Tale’s King Leontes, we see the ruler destroyed by his own suspicions, constantly responding to the fake news in his head. “A tyrant does not need to traffic in facts or apply evidence,” writes the author. “He expects his accusation to be enough.” Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus come in for similar timely reappraisals.
An incisive and instructive study of personality politics and the abuse of power—topical literary criticism with classical virtues.