Greenblatt: Tyrant – Shakespeare on Power (review)

Love it, hate it? Just try it, and see what happens …

bh greenblatt tyrantStephen Greenblatt: Tyrant:  Shakespeare on Power, (Bodley Head: London, 2018).   ISBN: 9781847925046.

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I probably need to declare my bias, not least for new visitors.

I’m an unashamed socialist (I don’t understand how an educator could be otherwise, given that our efforts benefit society more than ourselves); I’m anti-Brexit in the UK, and anti-Trump in the US. One of my most popular blog posts, from two years ago, equated Richard III with Trump. “I am unfit for state and majesty” indeed …


For most people, the book will be Marmite:  you will either love it, or hate it, according to your political persuasions.  On the other hand, I think it’s worth reading by anyone with a political bent and an interest in democracy.  If my views (or Greenblatt’s) are not yours, I challenge you to step outside your self-affirming bubble and take another point of view on board.

Over the past year or two, I’ve really enjoyed, respected, and been relieved by the willingness of the arts community – in the US in particular – to challenge what is going on. My view is that whatever your political outlook, democracy demands healthy, active, checks and balances. Wherever I currently look, our other, more ‘official’ oppositions are passive at best, complicit at worst. On that basis, I welcomed the book. Greenblatt starts off on a mischievous, angry polemic. It’s almost breathtaking in the early chapters – given Greenblatt’s status and reputation – in its thinly-veiled attacks on Trump, and I thoroughly enjoyed this section. It reminded me of some of our angry historical satirists at their best.  Here’s an example, in another post, of his writing: this time on Macbeth.

That said, I feel the book lost its way a bit in the second half. The satire was less angry, less humorous, more laboured. He went, perhaps, from satire of individuals towards satire of a system, and that’s harder to pull of with the same degree of entertainment, even if it is equally important?  This section coincided with his treatment of Coriolanus, a play I am less familiar with, and that might have contributed to my changed response to the book.

Nevertheless, I think that overall it fell between two stools. The anti-Trump, anti-Brexit stuff will age. The rest won’t, but isn’t necessarily strong enough to endure as a truly great satire … ****/*

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Visit the Boar’s Head Bookshelf or Goodreads for further reviews …

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

3 thoughts on “Greenblatt: Tyrant – Shakespeare on Power (review)”

  1. I was eyeing a copy yesterday in Daunt Books. Sounds like I need to go back and get one, so thanks for that (and I’m with you all the way politically).


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