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Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  1,577 ratings  ·  363 reviews
World-renowned Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt explores the playwright's insight into bad [and often mad] rulers.

As an aging, tenacious Elizabeth I clung to power, a talented playwright probed the social causes, the psychological roots, and the twisted consequences of tyranny. In exploring the psyche (and psychoses) of the likes of Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Coriol
Hardcover, 212 pages
Published May 8th 2018 by W. W. Norton Company
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Dylan O'Connell If you aren't familiar with any of Richard III, Henry VI Part 2, Macbeth, Winter's Tale, King Lear, Coriolanus, or Julius Caesar, then there will be a…moreIf you aren't familiar with any of Richard III, Henry VI Part 2, Macbeth, Winter's Tale, King Lear, Coriolanus, or Julius Caesar, then there will be a chapter or so that won't make much sense (although, the book functions just fine if you're unfamiliar with a 1-2 of those). Otherwise, I don't remember many other plays getting more than the light reference.(less)

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Jeffrey Keeten
Dec 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
”Why would anyone, he asked himself, be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to the truth? Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, hi ...more
Bill Kerwin
Jun 20, 2018 rated it really liked it

Whenever Trump brazenly arrogates another royal prerogative to himself, I find myself thinking of him—solemnly, and in horror—as if he were Donald of Orange, America's very bad king. And when I do, my mind turns to Shakespeare. Now, what would that sage observer of power, plots, and hubris say about a would-be tyrant like this?

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt—author of the Shakespeare biography Will in the World, and founder of the “New Historicism”—was way ahead of me. He was thinking about
Jan 25, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"What is the city but the people"
- Coriolanus: Act 3 Scene 1

"Tyrants are enemies of the future."
- Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics


Stephen Greenblatt, like Harold Bloom, is a man steeped in Shakespeare. So, it is obvious that Greenblatt would be a wise choice to turn to to see if Shakespeare can give us any information (via Shakespeare) on the behavior, motives, and reason for tyrants. And he does, well. He examines such plays as Henry VI (all three), Richard II, Richard III,
Jul 02, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
“Tyrants are enemies of the future.”

“Tyrant” could have been a great book. Unfortunately too often Mr. Greenblatt allowed this text to descend into something it never should have been, a thinly veiled justification of his political views thru the study of Shakespeare.
First, my issues with this book.
The first part of the chapter “Enablers” is a cheap shot at Greenblatt’s political foes. He makes a lot of unsupported (textually) leaps and bounds to connect the psychology of Richard III to Donald
Sherwood Smith
One of the reasons Shakespeare is still passionately read today is how extraordinarily sharp was his insight into the complexities of human nature—and how he managed to make poetry even of the muck of evil.

The opening chapters are worth the price of the book alone as Greenblatt gives the reader a precis of Tudor history and culture, focusing on playwrights, censorship, and the social as well as political climate.

The specifics are so enlightening. I had not known, for example, that a couple of w
Heather Jones
May 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a book about Shakespeare. It doesn't mention contemporary politics at all, not even once. Why would it? It is a book about how Shakespeare's plays explore the concept of tyranny, and of what happens in a country when flawed, selfish, foolish people use power for their own benefit. Any connections between the contents of this book and contemporary politics are entirely in the mind of the reader. And, of course, completely intentional.
Jul 29, 2018 rated it liked it
"Shakespeare's Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyal ...more
Carol Douglas
May 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
In Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, noted Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt draws comparisons between Shakespeare's tyrants and contemporary politics. Greenblatt never says outright the name of the modern leader who has the personality of a tyrant, but it is obvious whom he means.

Shakespeare knew about the domination of Protestants by Catholics and Catholics by Protestants. He could see the Puritans' potential for tyranny. As Greenblatt points out, Shakespeare lived in a time when people
Aug 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: from-publisher, arc
This book discusses Shakespeare's different portrayals of the Tyrant. It is broken down into chapters about conditions necessary for the Tyrant's rise to power, specific aspects of the Tyrant's personality, and the eventual fall of the Tyrant. Greenblatt relates 6 plays: Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, A Winter's tale, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, drawing parallels to one Tyrant currently in power. Greenblatt makes no attempt to hide his inspiration in writing this book, which was refreshing.

Linda Robinson
Jul 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Breathtakingly current, terrifyingly close to what we are experiencing in the U.S., and maybe the entire world. Greenblatt combines all his interests in this book. For those not familiar with his CV, here 'tis.

The politics in Shakespeare's plays have always been the trickiest for me. I'm not good at treachery, especially at court, but Will sure was. "How is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?" Greenblatt educates us in the
Description : As an aging, tenacious Elizabeth I clung to power, a talented playwright probed the social causes, the psychological roots, and the twisted consequences of tyranny. In exploring the psyche (and psychoses) of the likes of Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Coriolanus, and the societies they rule over, Stephen Greenblatt illuminates the ways in which William Shakespeare delved into the lust for absolute power and the catastrophic consequences of its execution.

Cherished institutions seem fra
Katie Dimtses
Aug 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An engaging look at Shakespeare's construction of tyrants in the Early Modern era, as well a topical and unfortunately necessary discussion that applies to how tyrants are born, raised, and enabled in our current socio-political climate.

Greenblatt thoroughly breaks down the historical context of the political situation of England at the turn of the seventeenth century, and explores the ways in which Shakespeare, while never directly involved in political commentary unlike many of his contempora
Jason Furman
I saw this in the bookstore and thought it was essentially going to be "how Shakespeare shows us how terrible Donald Trump is" and since I already knew the terrible part I thought I didn't really need Shakespeare's help on the topic so I passed on reading the book. Then I was given it as a present and I generally try to read books given to me as presents and was happy to learn that the words "Trump" and 2016 were no where to be found in the book itself--although in the acknowledgments Stephen Gr ...more
Michael Austin
Jun 19, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2018
In the first chapter of Tyrant, Stephen Greenblatt tells us that Shakespeare lived in a politically perilous time, that it would have been his death to talk about or criticize the politicians of his day, but that he and other playwrights developed a way to talk about current events in code. They could talk about Elizabeth, or Essex, or Mary--but they had to do it by talking about Ancient Kings, or mythical monarchs, or English Kings dead for at least a hundred years. By working his political com ...more
Amy Layton
May 15, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
YES.  This was a book where I underlined practically everything.  Was Greenblatt speaking about Shakespeare or today's current climate?  And how is it possible that Shakespeare is so politically relatable today?  Perhaps, like McGinn might think, there's a human nature within politicians.  But the more that Greenblatt spoke to the past political climate in Elizabethan England, the more it rang true and important.

Going over the teopics of multiple historical and tragedy plays such as the Henriad,
Scriptor Ignotus
"Orangeth maneth badeth."

- William Shakespeare, apparently
Alisi ☆ wants to read too many books ☆
A short read. Woohoo! After the past couple books I've read, that was refreshing.

The specific tyrants the book goes over in-depth are Richard 3, Macbeth, King Lear, and A Winter's Tale. He goes into detail (but not as much) with Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus.

This is obviously a political piece meant to reflect the politics of modern day USA. You should know that going in. If you're a fan of Trump, you probably won't like this. I have no love for the guy so it didn't bother
Jun 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
While working through the entire collected plays of William Shakespeare I'm also devouring anything and everything written about the man and his work, and so I picked up this book because I was passing a coworker at the library who was just about to finish entering it into the system.

Stephen Greenblatt's book is a fascinating observation of how power operates in the writings of William Shakespeare, and how the actions of the powerful in said plays implicate both the reader, the audience, and the
Jun 10, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The best bits of this book are the opening chapter (on how Shakespeare was forced to write about Elizabethan politics obliquely by setting his plays in foreign countries and the distant past) and the coda (which returns to this topic). The inner chapters are a series of thematic summaries of a range of plays shaped deliberately so as to make us aware of their 21st century resonances. For example, there is a long description of the character of Richard III using only the pronoun ‘he’ so that you ...more
Jan 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: all readers of all ages
Recommended to Brent by: WWNorton
Remarkable... and so relevant.
Thanks for the loan(s), Atlanta-Fulton Public Library.
Highest recommendation.
Feb 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
An engaging exploration of Shakespeare’s insights into the nature of tyranny - how it arises, how we respond to it, how it affects the tyrant and those around him. Greenblatt makes it clear throughout (though never explicit) that he has the contemporary political situation in mind. Very readable and thought-provoking.
Ed Erwin
Apr 07, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Quick and easy to read survey of the many ways Shakespeare depicted tyrants in his plays. He could not possibly have written about Elizabeth or James and lived long, but he could tell psychologically complex tales of tyrants in other lands or other times. From Coriolanus to Richard III, all tyrants are sort-of the same, so you can easily see parallels to current leaders (in multiple countries). But the details, as well as the bravery, or absence of it, in those around them, leads to very differe ...more
Apr 24, 2019 rated it liked it
Shakespeare basically predicted our current political catastrophe.
Jan 10, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's fairly simple: if you're a Never Trumper, you're going to love this book. Greenblatt's analysis of tyrannical figures in such plays as the early "Henry VI" cycle, "Richard III," "Macbeth," and "King Lear" lays out clear one-for-one correspondences to our contemporary political moment and features rather thinly veiled critiques of Trump's dangerous character failings (even though he never names the president once) on a regular basis: his "narcissism, insecurity, cruelty, and folly...a pronen ...more
Jul 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I purchased the hard copy of this book to read, because I wanted a book that I could re-read anytime from my bookshelves, and hard copies are just easier to read, (for me).

This is an outstanding compilation of Shakespeare's plays dealing with tyrants. Professor Greenblatt knows his Shakespeare extremely well! And the stories he shares with us in this book are so much easier to read than the original Shakespeare plays. I never was able to gain an interest in Shakespeare because the original plays
Vincent Li
Jun 05, 2019 rated it liked it
A fun series of essays about tyrants in Shakespeare. In Shakespeare's time, it was a punishable crime to criticize the government, so often his plays would never reference contemporary politics, only historical or even fictional stories. This use of historical allegory had a practical purpose but also had the effect of creating universal stories, that as Greenblatt shows, is relevant across time and space.

Each chapter explores a different tyrant and a different aspect of their psychological make
Daniel (Attack of the Books!) Burton
Rarely have I enjoyed a piece of political commentary as much as I did Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.

IIn William Shakespeare’s day, it wasn’t safe to disagree with power. Unlike today’s America, with the protections of the First Amendment, his world was governed by the near-absolute power of the monarch, the aging Queen Elizabeth. And speaking ill of the queen led to swift and often deadly punishment. Instead, the Bard through his plays would examine the ways and means of
Dennis Murphy
Jul 15, 2018 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Those swathes of the democratic voter base who enjoy shakespeare
Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt is a good book encased in a misguided polemic that ultimately harms the entire enterprise. I procured an advanced copy by way of goodreads, so I have no idea how much of the politicking is in the final publication, but it does appear that the final product is at least twenty pages longer than the book I read. It would be safe to assume some changes.

Greenblatt is a Harvard Professor who, after being deeply disturbed by the 2016 presidential election, started seeing p
Cullen Haynes
May 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An intriguing addition to your isolation reading list, well, if you're wanting to explore Shakespeare's insights into bad (and often mad) rulers.

As a tenacious and ageing Elizabeth I clung to power, one talented playwright endeavoured to probe the social causes, the psychological grounding and warped consequences of tyranny.

In exploring the psychosis and psyche of the likes of spider like Richard III, King Lear, Macbeth and Coriolanus, and the people they ruled over, world renowned Shakespeare s
Matt McCormick
Sep 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Absolutely fantastic. I pleasure to read, a pleasure to learn, a pleasure to appreciate an intelligent historian and writer.

I'm handing this book out to any family member or friend I can get to read it.
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Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition, he is the author of nine books, including Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Practicing New Historicism; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of t ...more

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