Book Review: Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt is a noted Shakespeare scholar and here turns his analytical eye on Shakespeare’s treatment of tyrannical rulers in some of his most famous plays. Greenblatt brings us in-depth, yet highly readable, analyses of Macbeth, Richard II, Richard III, Julius Caesar, King Lear, and others. Greenblatt provides us with historical context for both the figures the play was based on, and the political and social (and religious) context of the years during which Shakespeare was writing.

As Greenblatt points out, the late Elizabethan era was a frought time, do I an aging and heirless monarch on the throne, increasingly violent religious fundamentalists threatening terroristic attacks and assassinations (if you guessed Roman Catholics, you would be right), and a society fraying apart in the face of external and internal strife.

While unwilling (or possibly simply unable, due to censorship) to speak directly to events in his lifetime, Shakespeare was a master of taking past (or legendary) events and people and creating a story that nonetheless spoke to his audience.

Greenblatt also brings this scholarship to bear on modern events. While he never names names, it is very clear which individual he is referencing in terms of a modern world leader with decided tyrannical propensities

This, to me, is both good and bad. Good because Greenblatt makes quite a few good points and parallels not just to Shakespeare’s work, but also to the historical events which inspired them. Bad because I feel like this book appeals to a certain kind of person, who I will collectively call “the choir,” and it is not them we need to preach to.

Ah well. This is a wonderfully researched book, well written and readable even to those who aren’t Shakespeare scholars. The subject matter is incredibly interesting, and Greenblatt’s treatment ofnthe material is refreshingly entertaining.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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