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Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘Tyrant’ joins this year’s crop of hate reads

globe STAFF/Globe Staff

Donald Trump has made American publishing great again. His sulfurous personality and air of defiant illiteracy notwithstanding — his ghostwriter Tony Schwartz has suggested that Trump never even read "The Art of the Deal" — Trump has been a tonic for book sales.

Hillary Clinton's don't-blame-me apologia, "What Happened ," sold 300,000 copies in its first week. Michael Wolff's murkily sourced "Fire and Fury" has sold more than 2 million copies in the United States alone. Former FBI director James Comey has sold more than 600,000 copies of his memoir, "A Higher Loyalty," and he is still on the interview circuit, because, frankly, what else does he have to do?


Entertainment Weekly recently reported that every 2018 No. 1 nonfiction bestseller has been related to Trump.

Anti-Trump "literature" has spawned a subgenre among academics not accustomed to seeing their names on bestseller lists. Yale professor Timothy Snyder hit the bestseller lists last year with "On Tyranny," a springboard for the respected historian of 20th-century Europe to gin up Trump-is-Hitler analogies. Trump-is-crazy has proved to be another lucrative meme for Snyder's Yale colleague Dr. Bandy Lee, who corralled 27 psychiatrists and mental health professionals to analyze "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump," also a New York Times bestseller.

Now comes Harvard's Stephen Greenblatt with "Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics," which might be subtitled: "Don't Let the Gravy Train Leave Without Me."

Greenblatt, an eminent Shakespeare scholar and 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for his book, "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern," says he first had the idea for "Tyrant" in "a verdant garden in Sardinia" when a fellow historian asked Greenblatt what he intended to do about the 2016 election. " 'What can I do?' I asked. 'You can write something,' he said." And he did.


On page one, Greenblatt promises to address the question, "[H]ow is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?" Quoting the 16th-century Scottish historian George Buchanan, Greenblatt tells us that a tyrant is a ruler over "unwilling'' subjects. What are we to make of this? Sixty-three million of Donald Trump's countrymen voted for him. Just because Trump doesn't poll well at the Harvard Faculty Club doesn't make him a tyrant.

In short, crisply readable chapters, Greenblatt limns a bagful of Shakespeare's tyrants. Some, like Richard III, are better-known than others, e.g., King Leontes of "The Winter's Tale." From their stories Greenblatt teases what lessons Shakespeare may or may not offer present-day Americans.

In a chapter on "Fraudulent Populism," Greenblatt dilates on the character Jack Cade, a real-life rabble-rouser and "headstrong Kentishman" who appears in "Henry VI." "Populism," Greenblatt informs us, "may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation." Really? Greenblatt might want to have a chinwag with some of his colleagues in the history department and swot up the biography of someone like Wisconsin's Robert La Follette, a progressive populist politician perhaps more to his liking.

Cade, Greenblatt writes, is a congenital liar, who "promises to make England great again." How? By attacking the educated elite and by attacking education generally. In Shakespeare, Cade's corpse ends up tossed over a dunghill. That's such stuff as dreams are made on. In real life, Trump will receive a state funeral.


From Cade we hop to Richard III, perhaps the greatest villain in Shakespeare's rich trove of nogoodniks. Greenblatt does not stint on heavy-handed allusions to you-know-who. What Richard "likes to talk about is winning," Greenblatt writes, he "has no interest in honest loyalty or dispassionate, independent judgment. Instead he wants flattery, confirmation, and obedience."

Trump ranks high in "Inherent Loathsomeness,'' Spy magazine gleefully opined during the 1980s, but he's not yet a murderer like King Richard. Nor would anyone call Trump "a man who has achieved an unusual clarity about himself," as Greenblatt writes of Richard.

That's the problem with all of Greenblatt's half-baked analogies. Maybe Trump shares some characteristics with Lear, or with Coriolanus, or with Julius Caesar, but — who doesn't? Isn't that how Shakespeare put the fannies in the seats, the true calling of the successful playwright? By making his kings, queens, star-crossed lovers, and faeries like us, and interesting to us?

Harold Bloom, another eminent Shakespeare scholar, credited The Bard with no less than "the invention of the human." "Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention," Bloom has written, "and is not only Shakespeare's greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness." Of course there is a little touch of Trump in Shakespeare's tyrants, just as there is a hint of all of us in so many of his creations.

"Tyrant'' will give Trump haters yet another reason to feel superior to those who elected our 45th president. Intelligent readers will see this outing for what it is: a highbrow potboiler to burnish Greenblatt's already considerable bona fides in the 02138 ZIP code.



Shakespeare on Politics

By Stephen Greenblatt

Norton, 212 pp., $21.95

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Alex Beam's column appears regularly in the Globe's op-ed section. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.