In 1994, an ex-Goldman Sachs trader who had started dabbling in the movie business took out an option for the screen on director Julie Taymor’s off-Broadway stage production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. He decided to transform it into a space drama. His synopsis was as follows: “Titus is the leader of the Andronicii, beings of pure light who live somewhere in the Pleiades. They’re on a mission to save Earth, but their tragedy occurs upon entering the earthly plane; the Andronicii must assume human form, and all of the painful involvements of material being, thus ensuring their downfall.” The opening line of the script is: “Humanity in chaos. Alien ships sweep out of dark, sunless skies as people flee in panic.” A sample stage direction reads: “He climbs onto her and their forms dissolve, blend and blur in an erotic scene of ectoplasmic sex.” It all ends in disillusionment: “We fought for you. We gave up everything for you – and you betrayed us!”
This radical reworking of Shakespeare’s gorefest set in the age of the fictional Roman tyrant Saturninus led to a falling out with Julie Taymor. Still, the man who bought the rights did retain an executive producer credit when her movie eventually appeared, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role and a script true to Shakespeare’s original.
The man who bought the option and thought that the Bard was in a need of a sci-fi makeover was called Steve Bannon. He further indulged his taste for a Shakespearean strongman when he went on to rewrite another of the Roman plays, Coriolanus, as a rap musical set in South Central Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots. This was, of course, before he chaired the “alt-right” news website Breitbart, ran the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, served as chief strategist in the White House, and exited in ignominy, no doubt saying with his Andronicus: “We fought for you. We gave up everything for you – and you betrayed us!”
At one of the most dramatic moments in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the Earl of Essex, back from a disastrous military campaign in Ireland, burst into Her Majesty’s private chamber and uttered some words very similar to those of Bannon’s Andronicus. Before long, aided and abetted by an assortment of followers, including Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton and a historian called John Hayward, who published a book arguing that the Queen had become a tyrant, the Earl attempted a coup d’état. His men commissioned a special performance of Shakespeare’s deposition play, Richard II, as a warm-up act. When the attempted coup fizzled out, the players were hauled before the Star Chamber. “We knew nothing about it, guv, we only put on the show for the money,” they said. John Hayward took the rap instead. Shakespeare slunk back into the shadows, no doubt mopping his brow with relief.
As Stephen Greenblatt reminds us in his brisk and highly readable new book, Shakespeare was just about the only dramatist of the age not to be imprisoned or to have a play closed down by the state censor for being too close to the contemporary political mark. He perfected an art of what Greenblatt calls “oblique angles” – as his Polonius puts it, he “by indirections found directions out”. There was, for example, no way that Shakespeare could speak directly for the republican cause in monarchical England, but he could address the dangers of absolutism by examining the case of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome. In Greenblatt’s fine phrase, “His plays suggest that he could acknowledge truth – to possess it fully and not perish of it – through the artifice of fiction or through historical distance.”
Because of his method of indirection, Shakespeare is always, as the Polish critic Jan Kott reminded us in the 1960s, our contemporary. As he read the temper of his own times through the lens of ancient Rome or Plantagenet history, so we can map his plays on to our concerns. Theatre producers have known this ever since the 17th century. During the constitutional instability of 1680, known to historians as the Exclusion Crisis, several of the plays were rewritten to reflect the current political situation, sometimes with new titles such as The Fall of Caius Martius, or The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth. That one was adapted by Nahum Tate, the man who imposed a happy ending on King Lear – a play which, just over a century later, the London theatre managers quietly agreed to suspend from the repertoire in the light of the madness of King George III.
In the communist era, a Romanian production of Hamlet identified the tyrant Claudius so closely with Nicolae Ceausescu that, when the revolution came in 1989, students turned to the stage student, Hamlet as played by Ion Caramitru, to be their leader. A passing general, with a tank division to hand, said to him: “My army is at your disposal. Tell us where to go.” Where else but the TV news studio? Hamlet became Fortinbras, riding in on a tank. Caramitru proclaimed to the nation “We’re free, we’ve won. Don’t shoot anyone. Join us.”
Art, however, is sometimes more complicated than life. The ending of Hamlet offers a less certain outcome than that of the Romanian revolution: Shakespeare knows that liberation is often followed by new violence and there is a distinct prospect that Young Fortinbras might turn into a tyrant himself. Then there is the case of the New York 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production in which the actor playing Julius Caesar was made to bear a striking physical resemblance to the new leader of the free world, sparking an outcry across the alt-right Twittersphere and the withdrawal of sponsorship from the acting company. How dare these liberal arty types advocate the assassination of the beloved leader? They were, of course, doing no such thing: given their subsequent collapse into enmity and civil war, Brutus and Cassius are not exactly role models for the conduct of politics in Washington, DC.
So there is a great book to be written about the role of Shakespeare as political commentator and catalyst for regime change through the ages. But performance history and the history of Shakespeare’s cultural influence are not Greenblatt’s concern. He has one foot in the Elizabethan age and the other in his own Harvard backyard. He has accordingly mapped the representation of bad rulers in Henry VI, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear and Coriolanus on to the phenomenon of the (ir)resistible rise of Donald Trump. The omission of Claudius is a slight disappointment, because a reading of Melania as Gertrude might have been rather jolly.
Greenblatt is the author of two literary critical masterpieces. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: from More to Shakespeare was the late 20th-century’s most stylish, innovative and influential monograph in literary studies, while Hamlet in Purgatory was a revelatory exploration of the fissure between Old Hamlet doing his time in Catholic Purgatory and Young Hamlet studying in Protestant Wittenberg. Both books moved seamlessly between deeply informed historical analysis and bravura close reading of Shakespeare’s language.
Tyrant is slight in comparison. The prose lacks the sophistication of Greenblatt at his best. I occasionally found myself wondering what grade he would give if one of his Harvard sophomores wrote “Goneril and Regan are very nasty pieces of work, concerned only for themselves.” Horses for courses, though: this is not a book for graduate students. Written at speed, as provocation and catharsis, it does not pretend to elucidate, say, Jean Bodin’s 16th-century exploration of absolute versus limited monarchical power or the influence on the Elizabethans of the imperial tyrants depicted in Tacitus’s history of Rome. In this book, Greenblatt is not so much the historicist as the psychoanalyst, putting Richard III and Macbeth on the couch and probing the qualities (if that is the word) that turn them into tyrants.
He is excellent on Richard: “the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the contempt for ‘losers’, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate.” Students should be alerted to the fact that the word “loser” is not one of those Shakespearean coinages we’re always hearing about (recent research has suggested that Shakespeare didn’t coin any new words, he just did supremely original things with old ones). When Greenblatt goes on to speak of Richard being “pathologically narcissistic”, with “no natural grace” and “no decency”, we get the point. Another very effective chapter focuses on a demagogue as opposed to a tyrant: the character of Jack Cade in Henry VI Part 2, who, in true Trump fashion, slags off the educated and taps into “a fathomless pool of lower-class resentment”.
Although Mr Trump has a golf course in Scotland, the mapping of him on to Macbeth is less successful: “Here, as throughout Shakespeare, the tyrant’s course of behaviour is fuelled by a pathological narcissism.” It’s always seemed to me that this particular tyrant’s course of behaviour is fuelled above all by his pathological wife. The Scottish Play is much more House of Cards than Trump Tower. But the making and breaking of analogies is exactly what Shakespeare, “master of the oblique angle”, was always doing himself: his King Richard II is and is not Queen Elizabeth I, his Coriolanus is and is not the Earl of Essex.
For Greenblatt, the transformation where-by Coriolanus turns against Rome and joins up with his old enemies the Volscians is “as if the leader of a political party long identified with hatred of Russia – forever sabre-rattling and accusing the rival politicians of treason – should secretly make his way to Moscow and offer his services to the Kremlin”. For me, that same plot twist sounds more like Steve Bannon saying “I banish you” and then leading a caravan of illegal aliens towards the very wall of Rome. Shakespeare continues to have the gift of allowing us all to dream.
Jonathan Bate’s books include “The Genius of Shakespeare” and “Soul of the Age” (Picador)
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power
Bodley Head, 212pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 30 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead