Steven Greenblatt’s new book, Tyrant, provides a concise and cogent look at Shakespeare’s depiction of political tyrants, including but not limited to Macbeth, Richard III, and would-be demagogic tyrants such as Jack Cade (a fascinating character from one of the minor works, Henry VI, part 3). Although Greenblatt is very politic, never mentioning any current US politician by name, he explicitly considers the following tyrannical traits, reprising them from the Bard’s canon while also asking how someone manifesting them could end up in a position of power and authority: impulsive, amoral, mendacious, pathologically narcissistic, verbally and physically abusive, misogynistic and dishonest.
I cannot recommend this book strongly enough, for bardolators and concerned citizens alike.
Inspired in part by Professor Greenblatt’s work, as well as my own fascination with Will, I began re-reading some of my Shakespearean favorites, including The Winter’s Tale, a lesser-known fantasy/romance/comedy. In it, I encountered an intriguing tyrant-relevant situation, one not covered by Tyrant. Here — not for the first or last time — Shakespeare illuminates a deeply psychological, intensely practical issue that transcends time, place, and cultural specifics, speaking to a particular yet surprisingly universal human dilemma: what to do if you are stuck with a boss (or spouse, parent, teacher …) who is mentally unhinged, and yet has considerable power and authority.
In The Winter’s Tale, the problematic tyrant is Leontes, King of Sicilia, who has unaccountably developed a psychotic fixation that his wife, Hermione, has been having an affair with his best friend, King Polyxenes of Bohemia. It isn’t true; in fact, all of Leontes’ attendant lords know that the charge is utter nonsense, but none of them is willing to risk his — they are all male — position (or their life) by disputing the king’s delusion. Leontes proceeds to demand that Camillo, his most trusted confidant and adviser, kill Polyxenes.
This places Camillo in an impossible situation: He is too moral to murder an innocent person (not to mention a sitting king), and yet, his own king makes it clear that if he doesn’t do so, he will himself be killed. What to do? Camillo warns Polyxenes that his life is in danger, and then flees. It’s certainly an option, albeit an uncomfortable one.
Reading of Camillo’s conundrum, I found myself for the first time feeling some empathy for current appointed figures who are presumably moral and are confronted with similar dilemmas. Their boss may be unhinged, and although their lives aren’t literally at risk if they express their worry, their careers may well be. Its a situation not limited to politics, and distressingly common in the wider workplace; moreover, when extended to cases of domestic abuse, personal safety is all too often threatened.
Telling truth to power is not for the faint of heart. It is even more difficult to act ethically when confronted with someone whose power is dangerously enhanced by mental instability. I am grateful not to be in such a position, while nonetheless wishing that those who are so situated would find the courage, decency and opportunity to do the right thing.