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, 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 fragile, political classes are in disarray, economic misery fuels populist anger, people knowingly accept being lied to, partisan rancor dominates, spectacular indecency rules—these aspects of a society in crisis fascinated Shakespeare and shaped some of his most memorable plays. With uncanny insight, he shone a spotlight on the infantile psychology and unquenchable narcissistic appetites of demagogues—and the cynicism and opportunism of the various enablers and hangers-on who surround them—and imagined how they might be stopped. As Greenblatt shows, Shakespeare’s work, in this as in so many other ways, remains vitally relevant today.
"Elegant and deftly written." — Eliot A. Cohen, Washington Post
"[Tyrant] is valuable less for what it has to say about Shakespeare's plays than for how it applies the wisdom it has acquired through careful study of these works to the crisis roiling American democracy." — Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times
"Both the risk and the thrill of this rhetorical daring electrifies Tyrant. Shakespeare lived five centuries ago, yet Greenblatt's book has the feel of a series of urgent and very contemporary dispatches." — Steve Donoghue, Christian Science Monitor
"In this brilliant, beautifully organized, exceedingly readable study of Shakespeare’s tyrants and their tyrannies—their dreadful narcissistic follies, their usurpations and their craziness and their cruelties, their arrogant incompetence, their paranoid viciousness, their falsehoods and their flattery hunger—Stephen Greenblatt manages to elucidate obliquely our own desperate (in Shakespeare’s words) 'general woe.'" — Philip Roth
"Tyrant is a striking literary feat. At the outset, the book notes how Shakespeare craftily commented on his own times by telling tales of tyrants from centuries before. In an act of scholarly daring, Greenblatt then proceeds to do exactly the same thing. Rarely have these blood-soaked creatures seemed so recognizably human and so contemporary." — John Lithgow
"An incisive and instructive study of personality politics and the abuse of power—topical literary criticism with classical virtues. " — Kirkus Reviews
"Offers a canny parallel to contemporary political concerns…Full of insight, both for lovers of literature and for students of history and politics." — Publishers Weekly
"Compelling literary history and analysis." — Booklist
"Even those who don't share Greenblatt's political perspective should find his well-informed survey of the making and unmaking of autocratic rulers to be instructive and entertaining. " — Bookpage
Shortlisted — National Book Critics Circle Award, 2018