Did William Shakespeare Predict Donald Trump?
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics
By Stephen Greenblatt
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Review Author: Kenneth Colston
We Catholics like to read old books, starting with the Bible, usually continuing with the classics of Augustine and Aquinas, and often including those of Shakespeare and Chesterton. We look back to an ancient foundation, the stones of which are sometimes incomprehensibly dense, in order to find sure footing today. Therefore, historical scholarship is necessary. Who could make sense of St. John’s Apocalypse without footnotes on Roman history and the early Church, on the persecutions of Domitian and Nero, and on the numerology of Hebrew transferred to Greek? We American Catholics especially need such reading aids, being comparatively young in the world to begin with, and at a distance from our European Catholic past.
When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, historical contextualization was under assault. The text, the whole text, and nothing but the text was the hermeneutic that had supplanted historical contextualization, which was seen as irrelevant and antiquarian. A text, however, cannot always explain itself; an author always assumes some knowledge, which is “context,” and a reader does not always have it. At the same time, literary critics who sought to inform texts with historical scholarship argued that “context” had been, at its worst, a false history by power-insecure elites to keep the powerless at bay. The Old Historicism had given a one-sided or even false view of the past. The New Historicism was necessary to reveal the opaque text and correct the biased context.
The New Historicism’s inventor and foremost practitioner, Stephen Greenblatt, is now the dean of American literary criticism and, as editor of The Norton Shakespeare and The Norton Anthology of English Literature, the most powerful English teacher in the country. His work on Shakespeare has brought fascinating fruit for Catholic readers of Shakespeare; he has taken seriously and popularized the long-held suspicion that the Bard had Catholic sympathies, friends, and family. His books Hamlet in Purgatory (2001) and Will in the World (2004) even suggest that “Shakespeare became Shakespeare” in his most famous play of 1600 because of a paralyzing guilt: The banned and suspect doctrine of Purgatory in Reformation England deprived the son of praying for the soul of his departed Recusant father.
Despite this achievement, the New Historicism has forgotten its own criticism of the Old Historicism: Sometimes the present context is misread into the past context. Greenblatt has made this mistake before, but in his most recent book, he celebrates it. He has said, in so many words, that the historical fallacy is indeed a hermeneutic breakthrough: Reading books with the lens of the present unearths them. Is this not solipsism?
A special problem with the New Historicism is that it is weak in the most important area of the Western past: religious history. The gracious opening nod to oppressed Catholicism was short-lived. Reading old books is consequently not a means of learning what the present has forgotten but finger-wagging and forcing the present’s enlightened Coastal views on old stories.
So, if you want to know what Shakespeare thought of Donald Trump’s mother, just check out Greenblatt’s Tyrant. The 2016 election devastated Ivy League English departments. When election results confirmed their “worst fears,” something had to be done. “Write something,” a fellow historian urged. And so Greenblatt did, with the help, encouragement, and inspiration of 110 no doubt Trump-haters in the two-page acknowledgements. If we would only read Shakespeare, he implies, we would never elect such a despot again.
A tyrant is now President, Greenblatt says. Shakespeare “uncannily” told us so in “code” decipherable to today’s scholars but unsuspected by Elizabethan censors: “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, Greenblatt continues, “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, his spectacular indecency?”
Greenblatt compares Hillary Clinton to Elizabeth I, with “her fundamental respect for the sanctity of the realm’s political institutions” and “her prudent sense of the limits to her power.” He likens ISIS fanatics to Catholics who threatened the realm: “Like the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the beheading of Mary on February 8, 1587, did not end the threat of terrorism in England; nor did it end with the defeat of the Spanish Armada.” Concepts such as “group loathing,” gridlock, and “class warfare” are all there.
For “fraudulent populism” we just need to read Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III. “Populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots,” Greenblatt writes, “but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation. The unscrupulous leader has no actual interest in bettering the lot of the poor.” His tastes “run to extravagant luxuries, and he finds nothing remotely appealing in the lives of underclasses. In fact, he despises them, hates the smell of their breath, fears that they carry diseases, and regards them as fickle, stupid, worthless, and expendable.” Henry VI’s real-life rebel hero Jack Cade “promises to make England great again.” His classist appeal is to “left-out” ignorant rural deplorables who hate lawyers, judges, and the educated elite. These poor “have been left out of an economy that increasingly demands possession of a once-esoteric technology: literacy. They do not imagine that they can master this new skill, nor does the leader propose that they undertake any education. It would hardly suit his purposes if they did so.”
Shakespeare foresaw it all: the surprise of 2016, the demise of the Bush and Clinton dynasties, the takeover of the Republican Party by an upstart, collusion with Russia, the shunning of Hillary, and the overlooking of presidential treason. Four years of further chaos include “a dynastic ambition,” a political party that “makes secret contact with the country’s traditional enemy,” betrayal of principle that “does not produce any great outrage,” and so on. If we had only listened to Shakespeare, legitimate Hillary would not have been usurped by a Richard III who is “pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant,” who has “a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses.” No sooner elected, he hands down brutal executive orders like decrees. “He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning.”
Richard III’s payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels reveals masochistic misogyny: “His possession of power includes the domination of women, but he despises them far more than desires them. Sexual conquest excites him, but only for the endlessly reiterated proof that he can have anything he likes.”
Greenblatt offers more of Shakespeare’s predictions on 2016 and its disastrous aftermath for those who don’t subscribe to the New Yorker. “Fake news, income gap between rich and poor, fiscal policy, adults in the room, mentally unfit for office, patrician party” — all these clichés bring Shakespeare up to date, as Macbeth is no doubt being produced in high schools all over the world right now wearing an orange wig. Richard III and Coriolanus have such trouble with mothers in this book that I believe I must have missed that element in Trump’s story on National Public Radio. Much of this quick knock-off of lit crit is lib-splained every day by Adam Schiff and Judy Woodruff.
Tyrant, made to sound more serious in the U.K. with its title Tyranny (or perhaps to expand the smear beyond Donald and Boris to such as Victor of Hungary), is a clever scholarly conceit that would have made a great tongue-in-cheek essay if there were an ounce of humor in it. One wishes, however, that Prof. Greenblatt had instead used his considerable narrative gifts and fruitful knack for finding overlooked historical gold mines on richer mysteries than what makes Trump tick according to Shakespeare interpreted by Freud’s view of childhood and Foucault’s take on power.
What Greenblatt does here with minor villains, like the henchman Exton in Richard III or, in his earlier book Shakespeare’s Freedom (2007), the condemned Barnardine in Measure for Measure, is deft and artistic: He lets these rascals live in their raw humanity. But using the past to confirm the present, as he does with the major figures, is the other way to commit historicist fallacy. Recognizing the ignored little punk over the celebrated lout is a kind of de rigueur humanitarianism. In a morally imaginative passage on Lear, Greenblatt observes Shakespeare’s “shocking” admiration of the unnamed servant who is murdered while protesting Gloucester’s blinding. Greenblatt would deny Trump and his precursors, however, such Shakespearean humanity. Why? Perhaps because he also denies Shakespeare’s religious vision.
The founder of the New Historicism uses far more scholarly caution when he comes upon Shakespeare’s role in his own age’s fractious politics, at the heart of which was the European Catholic-Protestant civil war. One suspects that Greenblatt is so agnostic here because looking for the English language’s greatest writer’s ultimate views might require admitting that a genius is not always a skeptic from the modern academy but, in fact, sometimes has ultimate, even metaphysically orthodox, views. If there is a real code at play in Shakespeare, it’s not to be decrypted like Nostradamus predictions but to be broken for openings into the magnificent work.
For example, Greenblatt narrates the tantalizing story of plotters in the Earl of Essex’s failed coup who paid Shakespeare’s company a bonus to perform Richard II, in which the king is deposed and assassinated, on the very day before Essex marched through London hoping to gather support. Essex instead was arrested and executed with some of the plotters, and Queen Elizabeth herself recognized the dangerous play’s allusion to Her Majesty, saying famously, “Know you not that I am Richard II?” Shakespeare’s company got off with a fine, but Greenblatt, who has bigger fish to fry in Trump the Tyrant, only concludes, “Shakespeare was a fool to get so close.” Shouldn’t it be asked why Shakespeare took such a risk? Greenblatt doesn’t mention that Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, Essex’s co-conspirator, came from a disaffected Catholic family, and that Essex surely hoped to bring on board his rebellion disaffected Catholics. Mightn’t that association be a clue about Shakespeare’s place in the great political debate of his age?
Contemporary scholars are so anti-religious, or a-religious, that, when squinting to find distant resemblances to modern issues, they block out the huge role religion played in the past. A parliamentarian of Shakespeare’s day said, “The three most important things in this realm are religion, religion, and religion.” Through his career, Greenblatt has done much to bring the Protestant-Catholic controversy to bear on Shakespeare’s biography and plays, only to conclude that we cannot determine the Bard’s allegiances. His Shakespeare remains Montaigne the skeptic (whose translation into English by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Florio, Greenblatt has edited). In Tyrant, Greenblatt interprets two plays, King Lear and The Winter’s Tale, yet is utterly silent about or baffled by their religious meanings. As these are plays on the more urgent theme of an “executive mentally unfit for office,” he omits other historical meanings.
And yet he offers total interpretations that glide over the general Christian themes of reconciliation, forgiveness, salvific suffering, and resurrection and the specific Protestant-Catholic markers on images, Purgatory, cooperative grace, and works of righteousness. The result is the conventional presentation of Lear as Beckett nihilism and Winter’s Tale as contrived magic. Cordelia is hanged, “never, never, never, never, never” to breathe again, but Lear is also reconciled with and forgiven by this “soul in bliss” and purged on “a wheel of fire” of his egoism. The tyrant Leontes has prayed and fasted every day for 16 years as penance for the false accusation that he thought killed his wife, and, mirabile dictu, she “resurrects” from a statue. It doesn’t take squinting to see the banished Marian devotion in the background of Cordelia’s apparition and Hermione’s statue, or condign merit rewarded by grace through works in Leontes’s sorrowful passion. That’s the “buried” historical context as wide as an elephant’s rear end in a Cambridge studio. This context of unbidden generosity is not a surprise because, in his first soliloquy, villainous Macbeth makes a natural-law argument against killing virtuous Duncan even while admitting that “vaulting ambition” absurdly weakens his will. Wicked Coriolanus, yielding to a hectoring mother, chooses mercy over vengeance against his native city, for which he loses his life. Shakespeare believed that tyrants, sons of God like all men, can know and defy their iniquity and yet grow in grace; pagans, Calvinists, NPR reporters, and academics believe only in unredeemable monsters.
The academy’s ideology controls Greenblatt’s hermeneutic as tightly as the Index of Prohibited Books ever oppressed truth. In Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (2017), it takes the courage of Darwin to quash the Church-enforced literal interpretation of the creation story for all time, as if the medieval scheme of historical-literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical had never distinguished texts, except of course in marginalized, persecuted voices like Origen’s and Arcangela Tarabotti’s. Original sin was a perverse superstition started by Monica’s bad relationship with Augustine’s father and thankfully demolished by Voltaire’s daring to know. It turns out that the New Historicism also over-determines contexts: Its pat stories’ endings are set from the beginning in modern stone; yesterday’s living characters are today’s stock villains. It’s not so new after all. The historical fallacy, backwards or forwards, always produces a key that doesn’t fit.
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