Creative Writing

Interview with 2019 NBCC Criticism Finalist Stephen Greenblatt

By Michael Sullivan

Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.

Michael Sullivan, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Stephen Greenblatt about his book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (W.W. Norton), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2019 NBCC Awards.

Stephen Greenblatt stages contemporary American politics as a Shakespearean drama in his book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. From their rise to their fall, Shakespeare’s tyrants draw striking comparisons to the current administration and political discord blazoning across the country. Greenblatt expertly directs us through the reign of some of Shakespeare’s most memorable madmen, demagogues, and political cutthroats, detailing their psychological makeup and setting the social backdrop that kindles their ascent to power. Greenblatt’s plain-spoken language welcomes Shakespeare veterans as well as those unfamiliar with the Bard’s works. On every page one finds insight, understanding, and a humble but intelligent attempt to approach something that overwhelms us and everyday sends us into a new whirlwind of daze and confusion. The book reads as it must have been written: with catharsis. By the end we at least see that we are not the first nor will we be the last citizenry to bare such a burden and we are reminded that the past contains a wealth of answers and empathy.

M.Sullivan (MS): Musing to your son and wife at the dinner table about Shakespeare’s “uncanny relevance to the political world in which we now find ourselves” is how this work originated. Were these uncanny relevancies something you had considered with other contemporary figures before Donald Trump or has his presidency revealed the similarities in a more startling way?

Stephen Greenblatt (SG): In 1987 I was invited to give a keynote address at the German Shakespeare Society—the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft—which met in Weimar in what was then the German Democratic Republic, and I remember going to a student performance. The production was Hamlet, a play that features many students who had been studying abroad—Hamlet at Wittenberg, along with Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern and Laertes in Paris. There’s a moment early in the play in which Laertes asks for permission from Claudius—the king who is actually the murderer—to return to Paris, and the king asks his counselor Polonius, Laertes’ father, if he has his permission. Polonius says yes, and then in the student production that I saw, the king went over to a big desk on stage, opened the drawer, took out an East German passport and stamped it. The entire audience gasped. I looked around very quickly, but everyone’s face was completely blank. This was at a time, you should recall, when people were shot for attempting to cross the border to the West.

The lesson came home to me again in 2014, when I was invited to address the first Iranian Shakespeare Conference in Tehran. And what most powerfully struck me was a question that I was asked by the students: “do you, Professor Greenblatt, think that the revolution that was brought by Bolingbroke in Richard II was actually designed to transform society or was it another group of thugs taking over from a different group of thugs?”  That’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask about Richard II, but I think we all understood that that wasn’t the only thing being talked about.

So it’s not only Trump. Maybe his election spurred it. But I had been thinking about Shakespeare’s political relevance for twenty years and longer.

MS: To talk about something by talking about something else— it’s this same idea you proffer in the opening chapter “Oblique Angles” that sets the stage for the book. You’re referring to how Shakespeare used distance in time and geography to safely comment on what went on around him and now with this book you use the same tactic. Do you find it necessary to take an oblique approach to something to really drive out the truth?

SG: Do I find it necessary in the way that the people in the GDR or Iran or Shakespeare’s England found it necessary? The answer is: of course not. We can say anything we want! But I do think that it is useful even in a world in which we don’t have to be oblique. In part because there’s an odd effect in our world which is that we get caught up, everyday, in some kind of outrage or annoyance or obsession: give us this day our daily Tweet. And that becomes distracting. It’s not that you are kept from saying whatever you want but it is extremely difficult to get focused in a sustained way. I don’t mention Donald Trump once in the book. That’s partly because, as we started by saying, this is about Shakespeare’s relevance to a lot more than Donald Trump—it’s about much more long-term, recurrent, problematic, and complicated things. But it is also because I think authoritarian governments have made a very significant discovery, which is that they don’t need to smash printing presses or use a thumbscrew and rack on dissidents—at least not routinely.  Those are the measures of states that haven’t fully adjusted to the contemporary communicative technologies. The most sophisticated regimes in our time have discovered that in order to repress dissidents, they actually only have to keep up an enormous din. Most of us suffer not from enforced silence but from overwhelming noise. Looking in a different direction is then quite helpful.

MS: Richard III’s ascent to power, you say, is a result of “self-destructive responses from those around him [that] amount to a whole country’s collective failure.” Would Shakespeare consider the people more to blame than the tyrant?

SG: These aren’t monologues, these plays. The answer must certainly be that it’s never a single person—even in plays with enormously dominant characters. The enabling of the tyrant’s rise to power comes from a range of different motives, some of which are relatively innocent and some of which are quite dirty.  There are lots of people around who are willing for various reasons to support even what they think is disastrous.

MS: “There are always instigators who arouse tyrannical ambition, and enablers…who think that they will be able to control the successful tyrant.” So the tyrant may fall but he rises again. It’s a bittersweet notion that it is cyclical. But did Shakespeare see it this way?

SG:  It is, of course, deeply melancholy—Shakespeare’s history plays are always at the edge of tragedy—but the advantage of thinking of the threat of  tyranny as cyclical is the confidence that it will also come to an end. Of course, to reach that end can be extremely painful—in the worst case, civil war. Better to be alert and to prevent the tyrant from coming to power in the first place.  In this sense, Shakespeare’s plays functioned as a a kind of warning, a signal to a mass audience telling them to watch out.

MS: Many different classes of people saw Shakespeare’s plays, so was Shakespeare aiming these oblique commentaries at anyone in particular?

SG: I don’t think so. The genius of Shakespeare is totally bound up with the fact that his plays addressed a remarkably mixed audience. The super sophisticated, highly educated, elites, middle class citizens, and also the people who could only afford to stand in the pit. Shakespeare was not speaking to only one or another of these groups; he was trying to reach all of them.

MS: I might ask the same of your book. Who is it for?

SG: I think it’s extremely unlikely that people with absolutely no interest in or awareness of Shakespeare are going to pick this up. On the other hand it’s not written for people who are, how shall we say, thirty-second degree Shakespearians. Not only because I don’t assume that you have extensive knowledge of the insides and outsides of plays like Henry VI pt. 3 — no one does outside of a handful of people! But also because Shakespeare is actually part of world culture and American culture in a way that virtually no other writer is. He wasn’t an elite writer, as we already pointed out. Initially he was a writer for everybody. A little piece that I wrote about Richard III that I published over the summer before the election went viral and I thought, “O! There really is a world outside the narrow boundaries we sometimes despairingly imagine.” I think we’re wrong if we believe that there’s no interest in lessons from the past.

MS: “A new Tyrant is waiting in the wings” —Richard follows Henry—tyranny is allowed to happen again. Yet, “something in us enjoys every minute of Richard III’s horrible ascent to power,” as you put it. But there is nothing to laugh about. What is humor’s role in a tyranny? Is it an outlet, a distraction?

SG: Shakespeare’s not naïve. As a playwright, his business depends upon reaching a mass audience—he’s not a coterie playwright writing only for a handful of people. So he’s very aware of what skills are involved in gripping an enormous audience. And he sees very clearly that laughter lies on the edge between collaboration and resistance, between the exposure of lies and succumbing to lies.  Shakespeare is quite interested in exploring that ambiguity.

MS: Regarding the character of a tyrant—Richard III is a confidence man, Macbeth is reluctant, Coriolanus is militant, Lear goes mad—it seems Shakespeare never landed on a particular class of tyrant. Given the proper conditions, did Shakespeare think anyone could become a tyrant?

I think he thought that there were certain personality traits that made it more likely, but he tried to imagine the sequence of events that would lead to such personality traits ever succeeding. It didn’t simply depend on one person wanting to seize power. The rise of a certain kind of fraudulent populism manipulated by very wealthy, sinister people, probably in collaboration with foreign governments (the prime suspects, in Shakespeare’s time, were the French or the Spanish), would make it possible for a tyrant, in this case Richard III, to come on the scene. And his rise would be helped because of the severe weakening of political culture as revealed by intransigent factionalism where the two sides absolutely refuse to compromise.

M. Sullivan lives in Brooklyn.

Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, he is the author of eleven books, including Tyrant, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve: The Story that Created Us,The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (winner of the 2011 National Book Award and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize); Shakespeare’s FreedomWill in the World: How Shakespeare Became ShakespeareHamlet in PurgatoryMarvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New WorldLearning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare.

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