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:
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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.
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