There is a moment in the Polish critic Jan Kott’s 1961 Shakespeare Our Contemporary that I often think about. Discussing the scene in Richard III where Lord Hastings is woken in the middle of the night by a knock at the door, Kott notes that such a knock can only mean two things. The sole question in the audience’s mind will be if this is an arrest or warning of an arrest. After all, he asks, “Who has not been awakened in this way at 4am, at least once in his life?”
Not I, for one, and not, I suppose, most of those in Britain and America who have read Shakespeare Our Contemporary since its English translation appeared in 1964. But for Kott, writing in Poland, it was unimaginable that one could go through life without such an experience. Passing from six years’ resistance fighting against the Nazi occupation directly to academic life under Soviet occupation, Kott knew whereof he spoke, and so did his contemporaries. Reading it as a British teen after the millennium was something else: a rare moment when criticism serves as a window both into a text and into a reality quite unlike one’s own.
Shakespearean scholarship has come a long way since Shakespeare Our Contemporary but Kott’s book stands up remarkably well. In many ways, despite being nearly 60 years old, it feels less dated than Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power, which has barely hit the bookshops.
Aiming to unveil “Shakespeare’s uncanny relevance to the political world in which we now find ourselves”, Tyrant is, in fact, so of the moment as to ensure its almost instant irrelevance to Shakespeare and modern politics alike. For a scholar of Greenblatt’s status – among other things a distinguished editor of Shakespeare – it is astonishingly shallow. More surprisingly, given his skill as a storyteller, it is quite astonishingly dull.
The major issue is that Tyrant is not, in fact, about Shakespeare at all, but about the man whose “election confirmed [Greenblatt’s] worst fears”. Though Greenblatt, with Harry Potter-ish distaste, refuses to invoke “He Who Must Not Be Named” directly, Tyrant’s real subject is Donald Trump. Indefinitely definite, “the tyrant” is “unscrupulous” and “pathologically narcissistic”, has “no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency”, a “plutocrat, born into every privilege and inwardly contemptuous of those beneath him, who mouths the rhetoric of populism during the electoral campaign, abandoning it as soon as it has served his purposes”. His overcombed bulk shuffles through the book in various ill-fitting Shakespearean guises: the Richard III of America, its Coriolanus, perhaps also its rabble-rousing John Cade.
There are lots of problems with writing a Shakespeare book about Trump. The first is that Greenblatt has nothing to say about Trump that his critics do not already know, or believe ourselves to know; and Shakespeare, at least in Greenblatt’s hands, has nothing to say about him either.
The second is that reading Shakespeare through Trump is as unilluminating as any reading could be. Tint your lenses spray-tan orange and everyone begins to look like him, no matter the actual hue of their character. Take off the glasses and they look very different indeed.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the charge of narcissism transferred from Trump-même to Richard III and others. Richard – Shakespeare’s most attractive anti-hero – knows he is not “shaped for sportive tricks, Nor made to court an amorous looking glass,” and knows the generic limits that his deformity places on him. As so often in Shakespeare, he is a character who consciously resolves to be what others expect him to be, “determined to prove a villain” because he “cannot prove a lover”.
Whatever he is, it is not narcissistic in any simple, blindly self-regarding fashion. The same transference to the Roman noble Coriolanus – pathologically averse to flattery and flattering – is even more of a stretch. In fact, if you wanted to find a narcissist in Shakespeare, the closest one would be Hamlet; but that would not serve Greenblatt’s argument.
Serving his own argument, however, seems to be the main thing on Greenblatt’s mind in Tyrant. To look at a play like Coriolanus, predicated on its protagonist’s political and moral inflexibility, and his unbending loyalty to a particular idea of Romanness, and produce the charges of “psychological instability”, “narcissism, insecurity” seems such wilful misreading that you wonder if Greenblatt is taking a leaf out of Trump’s own playbook. Just tell the audience what they want to hear, and hope they will not look any further.
Even when Trump does not distort the readings, this is thin stuff: a mixture of précis and bland exegesis salted with the odd historical nugget that will be familiar to almost anyone in the book’s target audience. Despite reminding us that Shakespeare was the “master of the oblique angle”, Tyrant gives us a rather boring political allegorist, whose notion of tyranny boils down to there being a bad hombre in charge.
Tyranny, as both Shakespeare and his contemporaries knew, is not so simple: weakness and under-rule à la Richard II or pre-usurpation Prospero cause as many problems, if not more, than any overweening will to power. Bad rulers are not always bad hombres, and nor are bad hombres inevitably bad rulers.
Even one who agrees with the general sentiment of Tyrant will be left feeling that it does Trump far too much credit. It seems like the kind of inverted flattery he would relish. Long before the end of the book, I could not shake the feeling that, in entirely opposite ways, neither he nor Shakespeare deserved it.
Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt is published by Bodley Head for £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk