Of course I knew what to expect when I picked up a copy of Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. Still, though, there are times when I feel like turning around to tell Greenblatt that it’s hard to enjoy the book with him leaning over my shoulder, breathing on my neck, trying to make sure that I don’t miss any of the unsubtle parallels he draws. I mean, really — Jack Cade, in capturing Lord Saye, “has in his hands the realm’s highest fiscal officer, the emblem of the swamp that he has pledged to drain”? “He promises to make England great again”? Countless other examples, without being quite so on-the-nose, are still framed in unambiguous ways, as if we can’t be left to draw our own conclusions. Much of the book, simply by virtue of centering on Shakespeare’s plays, is enjoyable enough to read — that is, when the reader is allowed to forget for a moment that THERE’S A RELEVANT LESSON TO LEARN HERE.
As it happens, I’ve added Shakespeare to my book-juggling routine these last few months, trying to read a scene here, a scene there, a sonnet before bed, etc. One of the many enjoyable things about doing so is that it’s a break from the incessant cicada-drone of omnipresent, up-to-the-millisecond media and its infatuation with the Eternal Now. At the risk of making it sound like just another utilitarian, productivity-enhancing “hack,” it’s good to spend some time considering the differences between, say, Elizabethan England and our own time. Granted, there are constant themes in human nature and history which we can’t help but notice. But we have to be careful not to force history onto the Procrustean bed of our fleeting obsessions, lest we end up finding social media in ancient civilizations, or Silicon Valley start-ups in colonial America.