Shakespeare's Close Call with Tyranny

Richard Stanley

Well-Known Member
The following excerpt is the opening from an interesting article by scholar Stephen Greenblatt regarding the the manner in which William Shakespeare, and his contemporaries, had to navigate the political environment of the day, heavily influenced by the torrid schism between the Church of Rome and the Tudors' Church of England. The opening asks some questions that seem pertinent for the day, and as well were asked about the rise of Hitler.

Greenblatt discusses that Shakespeare employed 'displacement' and 'strategic indirection' in order to discuss politically sensitive issues. Thus displacing the narratives and their respective issues to distant places and distant times, perhaps the island in The Tempest being the ultimate example.

However, Greenblatt names two examples that might have gotten Shakespeare into more than hot water, namely Richard II and Henry V. With the latter, Shakespeare demonstrated plausible support for the then current Earl of Essex, who would soon lead a rebellion against Elizabeth's court, and by implication against Elizabeth. With Richard II, the real episode of regicide having occurred centuries beforehand, it's unusual performance the day before yet another failed rebellion.

From the early fifteen-nineties, at the beginning of his career, all the way through to its end, Shakespeare grappled again and again with a deeply unsettling question: How is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant? “A king rules over willing subjects, a tyrant over the unwilling,” the influential sixteenth-century Scottish scholar George Buchanan wrote. The institutions of a free society are designed to ward off those who would govern, as Buchanan put it, “not for their country but for themselves, who take account not of the public interest but of their own pleasure.” Under what circumstances, Shakespeare asked himself, do such cherished institutions, seemingly deep-rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile? Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to? How does a figure like Richard III or Macbeth ascend to the throne?

Such a disaster, Shakespeare suggested, could not happen without widespread complicity. His plays probe the psychological mechanisms that lead a nation to abandon its ideals and even its self-interest. 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, to his spectacular indecency?

Shakespeare was not accusing England’s then ruler, Elizabeth I, of such behavior. Quite apart from whatever he privately thought, it would have been suicidal to float such a suggestion onstage. Dating back to 1534, during the reign of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, legal statutes made it treason to refer to the ruler as a tyrant. The penalty for such a crime was death.

There was no freedom of expression in Shakespeare’s England, on the stage or anywhere else. The 1597 performances of “The Isle of Dogs,” an allegedly seditious play, led to the arrest and imprisonment of the playwright Ben Jonson and to a government order—fortunately not enforced—to demolish all the playhouses in London. Informants attended the theatre, eager to claim a reward for denouncing to the authorities anything that could be construed as subversive. ...

Greenblatt mentions Richard III in the opening paragraph, yet we have seen lately that this king has been the subject of considerable propagandic (including in Shakespeare's play about him) and other abuse. That Richard III's own minions killed his two nephews is likely Fake News, yet his brother was likely indeed illegitimate in a literal sense. Today we are dealing with an orange-haired (albeit dyed and fertilized) tyrant seeming to be intensely paranoid about his own legitimacy.

Sic semper tyrannis!!

A friend of mine has recently pointed out, in contrast to the severe laws and practices (to protect the crown) of Elizabeth's Tudor predecessors, the USA protects its 'crown' by the bizarre accountability exceptions to the famed constitutional checks and balances granted to the office of the President (as opposed to the lesser members of the executive branch. Now, supposedly thanks to a brutal joke told by his "no-drama" predecessor, we have a narcissistic, psychopathic, faux populist who appears to have ethical and national security compromise in his genes, yet we are held hostage to his ways by constitutional loopholes, the existential fear of feckless 'law and order' politicians, the confirmation biases of his base brownshirts, this 'heel' exploiting our Achilles heel.