Shakespeare on Politics: How the Bard understood what makes Trump tick

Originally published in the Hamilton Spectator, Aug 29, 2018

Plays written 400 years ago say more about the shenanigans of Trump’s White House than the media

by J.S. Porter

Stephen Greenblatt, one of the great Shakespeare critics of our time, doesn’t mention Donald Trump anywhere in the 212 pages of his new book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. He works the way Shakespeare himself worked: obliquely, with “strategic indirection.” Greenblatt does, however, let the reader in on a little secret in his Acknowledgments page:

“Not so 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.”

You wouldn’t expect plays written over 400 years ago to say more about the political shenanigans of the Trump White House than most things written in today’s newspaper, but that seems to be the case. Shakespeare even created the figure of Rumour, in a costume “painted full of tongues” whose task was to circulate stories “blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures” (2 Henry IV). Sound familiar?

Shakespeare knew the narcissistic personality, the sycophants who surround it and the dupes who are deceived by it. He knew that a tyrant “does not need to traffic in facts or supply evidence. … Anyone who contradicts him is either a liar or an idiot.” He knew the ruthlessness of Macbeth, the self-aggrandizing Coriolanus who believed himself “author of himself,” and in Richard III, he knew “the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate.” He knew the “grotesque sense of entitlement,” the expectation of absolute loyalty while giving no one loyalty in return. In Richard III, Shakespeare created a character — does this sound familiar? — with “no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.”

I’d add one more Trumpian detail: no self-humour. Tyrants, real and imagined, take themselves very seriously.

Greenblatt argues convincingly that Shakespeare asks the big questions, relevant in his time and relevant to ours:

“How is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?

Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to?

Why … 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, his spectacular indecency?”

I’m not sure even Shakespeare himself fully answers these questions, but he does explore them in several of his history plays and tragedies.

Both Shakespeare and Greenblatt make clear how populism works, how it “may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation.”

Greenblatt moves from consideration of “Fraudulent Populism” — “the plutocrat, born into every privilege and inwardly contemptuous of those beneath him … mouths the rhetoric of populism during the campaign” … and abandons it “as soon as it has served his purpose”— to “Enablers.” These people (characters) “trust that everything will continue in a normal way. They persuade themselves that there will always be enough adults in the room … to ensure that promises will be kept, alliances honoured, and core institutions respected …” They rely on “a structure that proves unexpectedly fragile.” Greenblatt is talking about the men around Richard; he could just as easily be talking about the men around Trump. And the American political structure does seem very fragile.

As I read Greenblatt on certain Shakespearean characters, I imaginatively transpose them to now when the Supreme Court is stacked, when the Congress is dominated by one party, when the free press is derided on a daily basis, where the Pences and the Pompeos and the Boltons think they can control the uncontrollable one for their own purposes. “Watching longtime anti-Russia hawks,” Thomas Friedman in the New York Times Feb. 25, 2018 points out is to witness “careerism, sycophancy and cynicism on an industrial scale.” A system famous for its checks and balances seems to have lost all balance and any check on reckless presidential power. “There is one critical defence line left — that formed by F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein,” Friedman writes.

Can a few good men — in the U.S. a few good women don’t have any measure of power — successfully resist a tyrant?

J.S. Porter reads and writes in Hamilton

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