Donald Trump looms over Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics like one of the Bard’s ghosts, unavoidable, untouched, a dark dream of dread too fearsome to face.
In his Acknowledgements section at the book’s end, Greenblatt writes:
Not very long ago, though it feels like a century has passed, I sat in a verdant garden in Sardinia and expressed my growing apprehensions about the possible outcome of an upcoming election. My historian friend Bernhard Jussen asked me what I was doing about it. “What can I do?” I asked. “You can write something,” he said. And so I did.
In the next paragraph, he writes:
And then, after the election confirmed my worst fears, my wife Ramie Targott and son Harry, listening at the dinner table to my musings about Shakespeare’s uncanny relevance to the political world in which we now find ourselves, urged me to pursue the subject. And so I have.
Note that Greenblatt writes of his trepidations about “an upcoming election,” and that “the election confirmed my worst fears.”
He’s being coy, and that doesn’t help his book. He’s talking about Donald Trump, but he won’t deign to use the President’s name here or anywhere else in the book for that matter.
But, still, he wants it clearly understood that he’s looking at Trump through the lens of Shakespeare’s kings and would-be kings — or, maybe better, that he’s looking through the lens of Trump at those fictional rulers from the Bard’s plays.
He’s giving the reader an intellectual nod-nod-wink-wink. Essentially, he’s saying, “You know who I’m writing about.”
It’s as if Greenblatt is so worried about the impact of the President that, for him, Trump has moved into the area of superstition. He dare not say the feared one’s name, sort of like the way the Harry Potter world is afraid to say the name of Lord Voldemort.
It doesn’t say much for a scholarly study that it invites comparisons with fantasy stories about wizards, werewolves, a basilisk and dark magic.
It’s misguided, to be sure. And it cripples Greenblatt’s book.
“An oblique angle”
Throughout Tyrant, when Greenblatt writes of Richard III and MacBeth and King Lear and other monarchs, he’s wanting to evoke Trump for his reader. But it’s the wispy shade of Trump who’s there, a ghostly presence that poses no danger to the writer. He can remain a scholar who is dealing with the literary merits of Shakespeare’s plays rather than risk being called a polemicist who is using the literary canon for his own political ends.
He can write that, for instance, Richard III is willing to sacrifice everyone in his way to get to the throne and then turns out to be incompetent. And the reader is expected to say: “Oh, yeah, that’s what Trump did and that’s how Trump has been as President.”
It is, however, a wispy argument since the writer has chosen not to grapple directly with Trump — to say: “Look here, in this particular way or these ways, Trump is acting just like Richard III.” In that case, a reader could weigh and judge the argument.
Instead, Greenblatt declines to fight Trump. He wants to win his argument by shadow-boxing. He seeks to prove the President ambitious and incompetent and many more things by discussing these aspects in Shakespeare’s characters. He can land punches with abandon because Trump isn’t present on his pages to fight back.
He suggests that he’s doing what Shakespeare did — commenting on the present-day at “an oblique angle” through drama.
However, it seems to me that Shakespeare’s true subject is always human nature, and the playwright deals with human nature directly and clearly through the actions and words of his characters.
Greenblatt wants to write about Trump without writing about Trump. He wants to take a stand without taking a stand.
That’s no way to write a good book.
Patrick T. Reardon