Friday, August 3, 2018

Book Note: Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

Greenblatt, Stephen. Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. New York: W. W. Norton, 2018.

I imagine that most people in Shakespeare-related fields feel a little trepidatious when writing about Stephen Greenblatt—especially if they have any criticism to put forth. But I survived writing a negative review of his Will in the World (for which, q.v.), so perhaps I'll weather this.

Tyrant is a fine popular work. It reminds me of Harold Bloom's The Invention of the Human. But it's not a work of scholarship. The 200-page book has just twenty-one footnotes. The book is, in large part, plot summary—astute plot summary, but plot summary nonetheless.

My students are well-versed in my oft-stated advice about their essays: "Plot summary is not analysis." For a popular work on Shakespeare, especially in those chapters dealing with lesser-known plays, some plot summary is expected. But it's disappointing that Tyrant doesn't provide the full depth of analysis of Shakespeare's use of the tyrant.

The most interesting part of the book is the premise that Shakespeare obliquely commented on the politics of his day by telling (or retelling) stories of the tyrants of the past. And Greenblatt is obliquely commenting on the politics of this day by telling stories of Shakespeare's telling stories of the tyrants of the past. But even that theme of the book is too oblique. Shakespeare couldn't be incredibly direct in his commentary; Greenblatt can, but he doesn't give us much.

The book is well-written, and the plots are compellingly related; however, the deep analysis readers are expecting is lacking.

I'll give you a brief sample of Greenblatt's examination of Julius Caesar; it should give you a flavor of the book:

Click below to purchase the book from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).

No comments:

Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest