Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare's Tyrants

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 100

“How is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant? That’s a deeply unsettling question that Shakespeare grappled with again and again.”
Stephen Greenblatt’s new book Tyrant explores tyranny in Shakespeare’s plays. In the 100th episode of Shakespeare Unlimited, we talk with the eminent Shakespeare scholar about characters like Richard III and Macbeth; how societies allow tyranny to pop up; and how and why Shakespeare used its depiction in his work to stir the audiences of his time.
Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Tyrant was published in 2018 by W. W. Norton & Company. Greenblatt is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published June 12, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “He Affects Tyrannical Power” was produced by Garland Scott. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Graham Ball at Harvard University’s office of Public Affairs & Communications.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: “How is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant? That’s a deeply unsettling question that Shakespeare grappled with again and again. And he’s not alone.”

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. What you just heard comes from a new book by the eminent Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt. Professor Greenblatt is the creator of a branch of literary criticism that has come to be called New Historicism. As he said during a recent talk here at the Folger, New Historicists use the passions of the present as a way to illuminate and encounter the past. And that’s exactly what he’s done with his newest book, which is called Tyrant.

The book looks at Shakespeare’s Richard III, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Jack Cade from Henry the VI, part 2, and a little bit of Lear and Leontes, to explore tyranny: How societies allow it to pop up, along with how and why Shakespeare might have been using its depiction in his work to stir the audiences of his time. But something else is clear. This New Historicist is also using the past to work out his own questions about our world today.

Stephen Greenblatt came in recently to talk about all of this with us. We call this podcast “He Affects Tyrannical Power.” Stephen Greenblatt is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Welcome back to the podcast, Stephen. It’s really great to have you on the show again.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: It’s great to be here, Barbara.

BOGAEV: I thought we’d start with a simple question that is deceptively complex. So, how does Shakespeare define the term tyrant?

GREENBLATT: There is a simple answer, which is that he doesn’t define it. Shakespeare, in general, is not much for definitions. Every once in a while for a very obscure word he tries to give one. But he uses the term as a signal, a signal of opprobrium, a signal that the ruler is not ruling, or at least is not viewed as ruling, in the interest of his people, but for his own irrational or evil motives. So, it’s a term that was dangerous to use in Shakespeare’s own time. It was illegal to call the ruler a tyrant, and it was illegal to call the ruler a tyrant for a very good reason, I mean, because it was a signal that everyone understood that in this one case it might be legitimate to attack the ruler, to kill him rather than to obey him.

BOGAEV: Right, and there was a line drawn between tyrannicide and regicide.

GREENBLATT: Exactly. Regicide was the absolute no-no, total violation of anything that a civilized society, civilized subject of any, even a miserable king or queen, could tolerate, but tyrannicide is a different matter. And this is an idea that, by the way, continues all the way, I mean, in very unhappy ways. I mean, it’s not an accident that when John Wilkes Booth, was an after all Shakespearean actor, killed Abraham Lincoln and leapt to the stage he said, “Sic semper tyrannis.” Thus ever for tyrants.

BOGAEV: Well this leads to me to my next question, which is: is every usurper to a throne a tyrant then, by definition? Because I looked up the definition of a tyrant, and in modern English usage of the word, it’s an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or person, or one who has usurped legitimate sovereignty. So it spans both definitions.

GREENBLATT: I mean, the ancient idea of the tyrant, in fact the ancient Greek idea from which we get the term itself, had nothing to do necessarily with what we think of as tyrannical rules, unacceptable rule, but rather it was precisely someone who ruled, who came to power outside the ordinary ways in which the norms of society allowed people to come to power, and it could be a good tyrant in that sense or a bad tyrant. But by Shakespeare’s time, it clearly has negative associations, and in our own time it has, of course, negative associations.

BOGAEV: Oh, well that explains why you discuss a number of the characters that you do in your book. You talk about Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Jack Cade, Macbeth, and we don’t really see some of them governing as, or any of them really, governing as tyrants per se, rather we see their tyrannically ethically questionable or bankrupt rise to power and the consequences of that, or other people questioning their tyranny, whether they might become a tyrant in the case of Julius Caesar.

GREENBLATT: Yes. To rule outside the acceptable norms. To come to power in violation of the ways in which the acceptable, understood ways in which people come to power, that’s part of the way in which at least the term is understood by Shakespeare, or the possibility is understood by Shakespeare. Coriolanus was, after all, running for office, but he was running for office with the very clear notion—that the play makes clear, in any case, and that he makes clear to his political cost—that he wants to do away with the system that existed in Rome. To get rid of the tribunes once he becomes consul.

BOGAEV: Now, before we talk about Shakespeare’s tyrants, now that we’ve defined our terms, could you remind us what was informing Shakespeare and inspiring his examination of tyrants at the time? And maybe just start us off, if you could, please read the passage from your book on page six, which is about what you might call terrorism in England at the time.

GREENBLATT: It was widely feared that the kingdom faced an implacable enemy, a ruthless international conspiracy whose leaders trained and then dispatched abroad fanatical secret agents bent on unleashing terror. These agents believed that killing people labeled as misbelievers was no sin; on the contrary, they were doing God’s work. In France, the Netherlands, and elsewhere they had already been responsible for assassinations, mob violence, and wholesale massacres. Their immediate goal in England was to kill the queen, crown in her place one of their sympathizers, and subjugate the country to their own twisted vision of piety.

BOGAEV: So that was the level of organization of Roman Catholic activists slash terrorists at the time, or was that the perception?

GREENBLATT: It was more the perception probably than the reality. There were some such people, and Queen Elizabeth’s secret service, and then subsequently King James’s secret service, managed to infiltrate such groups. But it was a much smaller group, set of groups, a much smaller population, at least than most anxious protestant authorities in Elizabethan and Jacobean England feared. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a completely paranoid fantasy because, after all, as we know in 1605, there was an actual attempt, if there’s any truth to the government reports at all, and I think there probably was some truth, to blow up the parliament and kill the king and his family in the Gunpowder Plot.

BOGAEV: So this kind of terrorism, that’s what’s informing Shakespeare’s plays?

GREENBLATT: Well, it’s certainly part of the deep background of Shakespeare’s sensibility and his, at least as important, the sensibility of his audience. Shakespeare had to be extremely sensitive to the interests and fears of his customers and probably his own world as well. He writes in a world in which there’s the fear that there might be assassination attempts, violent transformation, the bringing to power of a new regime in the most terrifying way possible. And then, of course, there’s the further background for Shakespeare and for his audience in the 1590s—when Shakespeare’s career got underway—of the fact that the legitimate ruler, the queen, was aging. There were people who called her a tyrant as well, but I don’t think that Shakespeare was one of them. But there was a fear that no one knew what was going to replace her, and she hadn’t designated an heir and refused to do so. So there was growing anxiety about who was likely to take her place when she died.

BOGAEV: So was Shakespeare making veiled references to Queen Elizabeth in these plays that explore tyranny? Or was he talking about what might come after the queen in these histories, as a way of avoiding getting arrested? Or because audiences just loved the exoticism of these period plays?                                                                                                                 

GREENBLATT: We don’t know, Barbara, if he was making veiled references to Queen Elizabeth as herself a tyrant. They were very veiled indeed. It’s possible that people in the audience, and it’s even conceivable that Shakespeare himself could’ve thought so, but I doubt it. What we do know is that Shakespeare and his entire culture, certainly his audience, was extremely alert to the half-hidden political implications of what you’re calling “exotic stories.” Shakespeare always, as you suggested already, set his plays in some other time, some other place, and he did so for very good reasons having to do with the obliquity, the censorship, the look, a glance aside that was required, because if you tried to address these things directly, you could get in tremendously serious trouble and he knew it. You could write a comedy, a light comedy, that was set in your own time, but you couldn’t address the political issues that were uppermost in people’s minds. But you could do so at an angle.

BOGAEV: And you point out that Shakespeare had a lot of ways to insert commentary or contemporary politics into the plays in these convert ways, for instance, putting them in the mouth of Lear when he is at his most mad.

GREENBLATT: The extraordinary thing to me, in a way that’s really the most interesting thing, Barbara, is that given this absolutely severe, extremely dangerous situation that Shakespeare was in, in terms of any free expression about the contemporary situation in his world, he finds a way. He finds a way to say what he needs to say, what he wants to say, or what he thinks needs to be said in his world. So he has a character stand up before several thousand people on an afternoon and say, “Plate sin with gold, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy straw does pierce it.” In other words, the rich get away with whatever they want to get away with and the poor get punished for almost nothing. And he got away with it. So how did he get away with it?

BOGAEV: Because that’s Lear speaking in his delirium. And, you also describe how any talk about current events had to be in whispers. So Shakespeare would have minor characters share rumors, right?


BOGAEV: And debate current events.


BOGAEV: That was his way to diffuse the situation, like the gardeners in Richard II, or soldiers in Henry V.

GREENBLATT: Yes. Not to diffuse the situation so much as to diffuse the risk of saying these things openly. You could say them openly, but you could say them openly in this special theatrical context. It’s one of the things that was astonishing about the theater in his time. It was one of the places in which things could be said that couldn’t be said anywhere else.

BOGAEV: Well, one aspect of tyranny that you explore is not just the tyrant’s motivation or the rise, obviously, but how society becomes ripe for a despot. And for that you look at the parts of Henry VI, which you call acutely perceptive about this. So what conditions does Shakespeare lay out?

GREENBLATT: People often dismiss the Henry VI plays as if they were merely apprentice work and we would find the most interesting things about politics elsewhere in his work, but actually early in his career, Shakespeare began to think through, I think in a rather deep way, how it’s possible for a society to fall into the hands of a catastrophic leader. And he thought that the process would begin with bitterly factionalized party politics, two factions that absolutely refused to compromise and that had lost sight of any collective interest of the society in which they participated. And then that in turn might give rise, he thought, to a kind of fraudulent populism, demagogues stirring up the crowd with resentment or fantasies of greatness in—

BOGAEV: And you’re putting these in kind of modern terms. I mean, we think in terms of partisanship, but another phrase you might use is self-serving nobles and a very young, weak king. Henry was young, so you have weakness in the heart of the realm, and then these self-serving nobles.

GREENBLATT: Yes, self-serving nobles or factions. We still use the word factions, surely, to describe this. It’s true that Shakespeare doesn’t speak of political parties in our sense and wouldn’t have conceived of them in that way, but it’s not an accident that he has the red rose and the white rose, which function in effect as party symbols for these two groups.

BOGAEV: And we’re talking about York and Somerset here in the Henry cycle. But is that what the real York and Somerset were like, or did Shakespeare change the focus to one more pertinent to his time and to the politics of this rivalrous court that was growing so unruly under an aging, weakened Queen Elizabeth?

GREENBLATT: The interesting thing I think, from my perspective, is that Shakespeare could have, using the same sources, the chronicle sources that he was working with, have depicted York and Somerset as feudal magnates. Not party leaders, but feudal magnates with private armies in a country that had almost no central authority. But he represents them in a quite different way as something like what we would think of as the equivalent of the leader of a party.

BOGAEV: Right. And you write of the plays that “party warfare cynically makes use of class warfare. The goal is to create chaos, which will set the stage for the tyrant’s seizure of power.”

GREENBLATT: Of course, class warfare is very far from the interest of someone like York, who’s hardly going to profit from class war. He’s at the very top of the status hierarchy, but he’s able to use it.

BOGAEV: And that’s where the cynicism comes in, right?


BOGAEV: So how do the elites take advantage of the poor? And your main example of this is, of course, in Henry VI, is in the form of York using this lower class rebel Jack Cade as his foil.

GREENBLATT: Yes. It’s actually a thought that continued in Shakespeare’s career, all the way through I think to Coriolanus where, again, there’s an interest in the possibility, of how people in power can use the anxieties of the poor. But it’s much sharper and clearer in a way early in Shakespeare’s career in Henry VI, where York deliberately, we might say crudely, unleashes this grotesque demagogue, Jack Cade, who claims actually himself to be a Plantagenet and a Lacy. “Right”, says one of his followers. “His mother sold laces.” They see through this ridiculous claim. But he releases this force of demagoguery into the mob, and it works for a while. It succeeds.

BOGAEV: It does work, and this is what is so interesting about the story that you tell about Jack Cade because Cade, as you say, he’s known to his fellow townspeople as just an inveterate liar. There’s a scene in which a butcher is just listening to Cade shamelessly lie. The butcher exposes every lie. But why does the mob believe the demagogue’s promises, even when they know him as a liar?

GREENBLATT: The fascinating thing is that they go along with him even though they know he’s a liar. It turns out for Shakespeare, for a politician to be caught in an outrageous falsehood does not necessarily at all lead to the end of that demagogue’s power. So why is that, as you ask? I wish I knew the answer very clearly. We could say that it’s the pleasure of joining the fantasy that the demagogue is offering, the fantasy of wealth and power. “You can drink on my tab,” says Jack Cade, as if he were an enormously wealthy person who was gonna pay the bill at the tavern. They know that that’s not true. They know that it’s outrageous flapdoodle, but they still go along. So part of it is the fantasy, part of it is the release of aggression.

But then there’s something else that’s harder to articulate, Barbara, but I think it’s quite important, and it is important in many of these plays. If you ask yourself, I ask myself, why was Shakespeare interested in these things? Why does his imagination clearly go on fire with a character like Jack Cade? I think part of the answer is that he, Shakespeare, was in the business himself. He’s in the business of manipulating crowds who know that the stories they’re being told are not true, who know that they’re swallowing fabrications. So he’s fascinated by how it is you can get large numbers of people to take pleasure in fictions.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s fascinating. And while we’re talking about Jack Cade, this is where that beloved line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” comes from, right?

GREENBLATT: [LAUGH] Yes, that’s the only line that people know from Henry VI. That’s right. But behind the laughter, which that line, “Let’s kill all the lawyers,” always provokes, there is, at least in Shakespeare’s account, a desire to sweep away all the obligations that people have, the debts that they have to pay, the contracts that they’ve signed. And the fantasy that somehow you could be released from everything, as if suddenly you wouldn’t owe anyone anything, you wouldn’t have to pay taxes anymore, you wouldn’t have to pay your bills at the tavern. It’ll all disappear.

BOGAEV: Well, moving on to a tyrant that most people are much more familiar with, Richard III. You write that Shakespeare brilliantly develops the personality traits of an aspiring tyrant in this play that he began to sketch out in the Henry VI trilogy. So you can trace that direct line between the two?

GREENBLATT: Absolutely. You can watch, you can read, Shakespeare’s imagination coming alive in Henry VI when he gives the character of Gloucester a soliloquy far too long and elaborate for the immediate theatrical occasion. But it’s as if Shakespeare found something responding in himself, rising up in himself, that he must have said, “I can do something with this. I can develop this.” There was another Richard III play around, and his company presumably said to him, “Could you do this?” “Absolutely I could do this,” he must’ve said to himself. “Look at what I’ve done already in Henry VI,” and he develops that character. Because he simultaneously, in the Henry VI plays, depicts the whole surrounding set of conditions that we’ve already talked about, the factionalized party politics, the fraudulent populism, the weak central authority, that allow a certain instability to arise in a society, and then into that space of instability there’ll be a certain kind of personality. You glimpse it in York, and then you see it fully formed in the ghastly Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Shakespeare then takes that character.


BOGAEV: Is this the Shakespearean tyrant, or are all tyrants different? Because Richard does seem to be in a class of his own, a psychopath.


GREENBLATT: All tyrants are different. Anyone who loves Shakespeare understands that though he often came back to comparable or similar situations, he sometimes returns to an idea that he’s had and develops it—the way he takes the situation in Othello of jealousy and comes back to it in Winter’s Tale—but he always does it with surprising differences. He never simply repeats himself so each of the characters that represent tyranny in Shakespeare is actually quite individual, quite distinct. Nonetheless, the ones who immediately surge up in mind if you think tyrant Shakespeare, you think immediately of Richard III and Macbeth. Very different as they are, but those are the two I think paradigmatic tyrannical figures in Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: And looking at Richard, your analysis goes way beyond his deformity to explain his psychopathology.

GREENBLATT: It’s clear that Shakespeare in Henry VI soliloquy and then again in the beginning of Shakespeare’s play Richard III, Shakespeare calls attention to that deformity and to its damaging psychological effects, to Richard’s feeling that he’s grotesque, that he’s despised, that dog bark at him when he walks in the street, that he’ll never get a woman. But then, of course, as the play develops, the play Richard III, it’s not that Shakespeare depicts dogs barking at Richard III in the street or the fact that he can’t get a woman. Within minutes, he’s got a woman. He seduced Lady Anne, or, in any case, he’s bullied his way into the bedroom of Lady Anne. But nonetheless, that psychological disturbance, the disturbance that comes from his sense of his own ugliness, must play itself out in the course of the play in the kind of person that he is.      

BOGAEV: Well, you trace it to mother love—a lack of it.

GREENBLATT: Yeah. Here too, it’s hard to know. We get a huge version of that, a very complex version of that, in Coriolanus. We get a glimpse in Shakespeare’s Richard III of the tyrant and his mother. We get glimpses of it. We get Richard’s own account of it in Henry VI, and then we get a much more powerful representation of it in Richard III when Shakespeare actually shows Richard and his mother. His mother speaks very frankly of her loathing not simply her loathing for her son because of his wickedness, but her instinctive loathing for her son from the moment he was born, from his touchy and wayward childhood, from his infancy, in other words from his difficult infancy, from his neonatal teeth, from the distress that he’s given her virtually from the moment he was born. And then Shakespeare asks us in effect to ask ourselves what would it have been like to be brought up by such a mother who loathed her own offspring?

One of the striking things I think that Shakespeare depicts about Richard’s relationship to his mother is already captured—I actually maybe don’t make enough of this in my book—is captured by the moment at which Richard commands the trumpets that play when his mother is cursing him. And he basically wants to make so much noise that that’s what will be in your head. Not his mother’s words, but his noise, the noise that he’s commanded. And the reason I emphasize that is that one of the features that Shakespeare comes back to repeatedly in his account of tyranny, certainly in Richard III, but elsewhere as well, is the tyrant’s ability to get into your head, to make an enormous noise, to occupy your brain. Shakespeare, I think, asks himself, where does that weird ability come from? That he’s there in you all the time, that his noise is with you all the time. And I think Shakespeare gives as part of the answer, look at this relationship to his mother. Look at how hard it was to get into his mother’s mind, to be accepted by his mother, to be taken in, as it were, by his mother.

BOGAEV: Well, in terms of tyranny, you say that Shakespeare gives us a blatant scene of the birth of a tyrant with Macbeth.

GREENBLATT: The interesting case in Macbeth is. . . unlike Richard III, where Gloucester—before he becomes Richard III, when he’s the Duke of Gloucester— is fantasizing about this desire of his to become king, to be crowned king, and the dream of it. Shakespeare doesn’t give you anything like that in Macbeth. It’s not represented, and in the obvious ways, coming from in Macbeth. It has this weird spectral form of the witches’ prophecy. And Shakespeare deliberately makes it, I think, unclear whether the fantasy entirely outside of Macbeth, or is actually in some ways in him, or is being planted in him in this demonic way through the witches. It’s extremely ambiguous. As it remains ambiguous, I think, throughout these stupendous early scenes how much Macbeth wants this. He seems to want it, and yet he seems not to want it. He longs for it, and yet he fears it. He shares the dream with his wife, and yet he’s horrified and says he wants to call it off and is only basically driven into doing it by his wife. Does he want her to drive him to do it? It depends, as I say. It’s a deep unresolved question in the play, and even a great production of the play will not necessarily answer that question.

BOGAEV: One very interesting point you make about Macbeth as a tyrant, and this is a quote from the book, “Tyranny’s sick dream is to poison not merely the present, but generations to come. To extend itself forever.” You’re describing a scorched-earth mentality there.

GREENBLATT: It’s not an accident that both Richard III and Macbeth are about people who kill children or try to kill children—well, actually, they both do kill children. In the case of Richard III, there are the princes in the tower. In the case of Macbeth, there are, of course, Macduff’s children, but he also tried to kill [Banquo’s son, Fleance]. I think that it is quite telling in Shakespeare that the tyrant tries to, must, in effect, not only tear children away from their parents, but kill them if possible.

BOGAEV: You know, most people will be able to identify the, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in its petty pace from day to day,” as coming from Macbeth. It’s one of the most famous soliloquies. You though say it’s not at all about the existential condition of mankind, which is how people usually cite it and read it. So what are they missing with that reading?

GREENBLATT: I hope it’s not the existential condition of humankind [LAUGHS]. It would be a terrible thing if it were. But I think it’s true that of course the play is sometimes interpreted as leading you there—toward grappling with the meaningless of it all, as if it were by Camus or Sartre. But I don’t think that that’s what’s going on here at all. I think it is precisely what it means to have made the choices that Macbeth has made, that the tyrant has made. I think it’s about a possession of power that can never—not only never satisfy you—but will eat away at whatever you have in you, whatever satisfactions life could possibly give you.

BOGAEV: Well, one thing we haven’t talked about yet is the big determinat-ing force, of course: how people respond to tyranny. In plays like Macbeth and King Lear and The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare deals with that problem. What is to be done when a ruler is mad or unstable and what do people try? So remind us what he lays out as options.

GREENBLATT: Shakespeare has a variety of figures who resist tyranny. There are those, first of all, who get out if they possibly can. Who escape.

BOGAEV: Right. Flight is always the first choice. [LAUGHS]

GREENBLATT: Yeah. And there are, Shakespeare thought, always people who manage to escape. There are always people who get out, however much the tyrant tries to throw the net in a way to catch everybody, that there’s always someone who escapes the net. And that is true from his earliest plays I think all the way up to the end. And some of those figures become resistance leaders, as you get in Richard III and in Macbeth. And then there are those who don’t escape, either who don’t try or who don’t succeed, but who speak truth to, who dare to speak truth to the tyrant. There’s Cordelia and Kent in King Lear who are willing to stand up and tell Lear that his behavior is insane. There’s the marvelous Paulina in The Winter’s Tale. And then there are characters who fascinate me. Maybe the small characters, characters without names. The most remarkable, in my view, is that servant…

BOGAEV: The servant in Lear, right?

GREENBLATT: That nameless servant in King Lear, who’s Cornwall’s servant, the torturer’s servant, the wicked ruler’s servant, but who doesn’t run away. But when he sees his master not only authorizing but actually carrying out the torture of Gloucester, an accused traitor, he says, “Hold your hand, my Lord. I’ve served you all my life, but better service have I never done you then to tell you now to hold.” Now, that is an astonishing moment, and must have been even more astonishing in Shakespeare’s world where a nobody, a villain, in the feudal sense as Cornwall calls him, comes out of the shadows—and this is a world in which you are always surrounded by servants if you were one of the rulers—and orders you to stop. He pays for that with his life, but not before he deals a fatal blow to Cornwall.

BOGAEV: Well, so far we’ve been discussing your book about tyrants as if it has no corollary in modern times, in American history. But often the language you use, it sounds ripped from the headlines of mainstream American newspapers, or at least their op-eds. At a talk you gave at the Folger, you said, “I’m not trying to be coy. I use the passions of the present as a way to illuminate and encounter the past.” But as I read your book, I think it felt more as if you’re doing the opposite, that you’re using the passions of the past and this playwright to illuminate the present and really doing it in a just barely veiled way, not unlike what Shakespeare did with his histories.

GREENBLATT: I won’t dispute you. It’s possible to read it the way you are reading it. We are living in a time in which there are winds blowing, winds representing counter-currents to the liberal democracies that represented, at least for Americans, our norms.

And if we try to grapple with those forces, one thing we can do is to read the newspaper every day or listen to the news, and many of us do that, but I think many of us experience, certainly, what I have experienced, which is a kind of exhaustion at the daily news cycle, a sense that you can’t keep up with it and with a sense of surprise, dismay, that the noise of the present, the constant noise, is the equivalent of the silence of the past about politics. It’s as if in the contemporary world, that shouting and the noise of the headlines has been discovered to be the equivalent of the censorship that existed in the past. You can’t get things in focus any longer. So one thing, yes, that I have deliberately tried to do is to look away from the present, not to escape the present, but to get a focus on it by looking back at our greatest playwright.

BOGAEV: So you felt things were revealing themselves to you as you returned to the text in this way.

GREENBLATT: Absolutely. Let me give you an example of it, Barbara. I think that the representation of the politicians, Brutus and Sicinius—the ordinary, somewhat miserable, not particularly distinguished politicians, the tribunes of the people, in the Rome of Shakespeare’s last tragedy, Coriolanus—I think they look in a very different light in the illumination of the present than they, at least look to me, before. I had always seen simply their negative qualities, their somewhat embarrassing qualities, as almost comic versions of what Shakespeare was imagining a politician and an electoral system would look like. And they do. But I think at the same time their insistence on ordinary procedures, on following the rules, on the absolute necessity of Coriolanus doing what he needs to do if he wants to become elected tribune, is what saves the state as much as Coriolanus’s mother kneeling down to him. That it is an insistence on the heroism of the ordinary, of the legal procedures, seems to be one of the things that Shakespeare’s depicting in Brutus and Sicinius. And I’m not sure I would’ve seen that before.

BOGAEV: This raises the big overarching question: political perspective seems impossible or, you know, quite hard to avoid when you talk about tyrants and then when you go either back into history or you look into Shakespeare you always bring that with you. So how do you think about that—your responsibility as a critic, as an analyzer of the text?

GREENBLATT: One thing I believe is that you don’t check yourself at the door when you go to the theater or when you sit down and read the text. At least I don’t. I think a writer like Shakespeare stays alive because he speaks to the present and because the present speaks back to him. So I’m not particularly afraid of having the present speak back to him, and I understand perfectly well, as you suggest, that different times, different moments, different political perspectives, see different things in Shakespeare, authentically see different things in Shakespeare. I think he thought that was part of his business model.


GREENBLATT: I think he wrote plays that actually live in lots of different circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that ones attempt to bring one’s life to bear on the past is illegitimate, it just means that you have to be tolerant of other people’s views, and listen to them, and think about them.

Take the case of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare thought that violence as an attempt to avoid the rise of a tyrant was a catastrophic idea. It was likely to hasten the very thing that you thought you were trying to prevent. And I’m not, in any sense, advocating anything like tyrannicide, but I am actually interested in how Shakespeare thought it was possible to resist, or if not resist at least to survive, endure, and live to the other side of the destruction of the civilized norms of a civic culture.

BOGAEV: Well, thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been so provocative. I really enjoyed it, as well as the book. Thank you.

GREENBLATT: You’re welcome.


WITMORE: Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. His new book, Tyrant, was published in 2018 by W. W. Norton & Company. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

“He Affects Tyrannical Power” was produced by Garland Scott. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Graham Ball at Harvard University’s office of Public Affairs & Communications.

There’s something I’d like to ask you to do, if you could. It’s something I ask on every episode of Shakespeare Unlimited, and I’d like to share with you why rating and reviewing the podcast makes such a difference. It’s this: A lot of the podcasting platforms decide which podcasts to recommend by looking at which ones have the most reviews and ratings by their listeners. So if you like Shakespeare Unlimited, and you’d like to tell others how good it is. . . and it is. . . please rate and review the podcast on whatever service you get it from. Thank you so much for your help with that.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.