“What’s past is prologue”.

In his new book “Tyrant. Shakespeare on Politics” (W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2018), Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt depicts political perils that ring completely contemporary. His description of Richard III in chapter 4, “A Matter of Character” applies to an astonishing degree to Donald Trump.


What really struck me, though, was the way Greenblatt analyzes how Richard came to power. The parallels with Trump’s ascendancy are striking.

In the interest of brevity, I have unconscionably butchered the text – sorry, you will have to buy the book! From this on, this is Greenblatt:


“ Richard’s villainy is readily apparent to almost everyone. There is no deep secret about his cynicism, cruelty, and treacherousness, no glimpse of anything redeemable in him, and no reason to believe that he could ever govern the country effectively. (……….) [His] achievement, Shakespeare suggests, depended on a fatal conjunction of diverse, but equally self-destructive responses from those around him. Together these responses amount to a whole country’s collective failure.

A few characters are genuinely fooled by Richard, crediting his claims, believing in his pledges, taking at face value his displays of emotion (…..) they count merely among the dupes and victims.

There are those who feel frightened or impotent in the face of bullying and the menace of violence. (….) It helps that he is an immensely wealthy and privileged man, accustomed to having his way, even when his way violates every moral norm.

Then there are those who cannot keep in focus that Richard is as bad as he seems to be. They know that he is a pathological liar and they see perfectly well that he has done this or that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is. They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal.

Another group is composed of those who do not quite forget that Richard is a miserable piece of work but who nonetheless trust that everything will continue in a normal way. They persuade themselves that there will always be enough adults in the room, as it were, to ensure that promises will be kept, alliances honored, and core institutions respected. (…..) They have relied on a structure that proves unexpectedly fragile.

A more sinister group consists of those who persuade themselves that they can take advantage of Richard’s rise to power. Like almost everyone else, they see perfectly well how destructive he is, but they are confident that they will stay one step ahead of the tide of evil or manage to seize some profit from it. These allies and followers (…..) help him ascend from step to step, participating in his dirty work and watching the casualties mount with cool indifference. (……)

Finally, there is a motley crowd of those who carry out his orders, some reluctantly but simply eager to avoid trouble; others with gusto, hoping to seize something along the way for themselves; still others enjoying the cruel game of making his targets (…..) suffer (…).”

This post was written by
Comments are closed.