Stephen Greenblatt | Excerpt adapted from Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics | W. W. Norton & Company | May 2018 | 14 minutes (3,827 words)

From the early 1590s, at the beginning of his career, all the way through to its end, Shakespeare grappled again and again with a deeply unsettling question: how is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?

“A king rules over willing subjects,” wrote the influential sixteenth-century Scottish scholar George Buchanan, “a tyrant over unwilling.” The institutions of a free society are designed to ward off those who would govern, as Buchanan put it, “not for their country but for themselves, who take account not of the public interest but of their own pleasure.” Under what circumstances, Shakespeare asked himself, do such cherished institutions, seemingly deep-rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile? Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to? How does a figure like Richard III ascend to the throne?

Such a disaster, Shakespeare suggested, could not happen without widespread complicity. His plays probe the psychological mechanisms that lead a nation to abandon its ideals and even its self-interest. Why would anyone, he asked himself, be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to the truth? Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?

Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to?

Shakespeare repeatedly depicted the tragic cost of this submission — the moral corruption, the massive waste of treasure, the loss of life — and the desperate, painful, heroic measures required to return a damaged nation to some modicum of health. Is there, the plays ask, any way to stop the slide toward lawless and arbitrary rule before it is too late, any effective means to prevent the civil catastrophe that tyranny invariably provokes?

Shakespeare understood something that in our own time is revealed when a major event — the fall of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the housing market, a startling election result — manages to throw a garish light on an unnerving fact: even those at the center of the innermost circles of power very often have no idea what is about to happen. Notwithstanding their desks piled high with calculations and estimates, their costly network of spies, their armies of well-paid experts, they remain almost completely in the dark. Looking on from the margins, you dream that if you could only get close enough to this or that key figure, you would have access to the actual state of affairs and know what steps you need to take to protect yourself or your country. But the dream is a delusion.

At the beginning of one of his history plays, Shakespeare introduces the figure of Rumor, in a costume “painted full of tongues,” whose task is ceaselessly to circulate stories “blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures” (2 Henry IV Induction 16). Its effects are painfully apparent in disastrously misinterpreted signals, fraudulent comforts, false alarms, sudden lurches from wild hope to suicidal despair. And the figures most deceived are not the gross multitude but, rather, the privileged and powerful.

For Shakespeare, then, it was easier to think clearly when the noise of those babbling tongues was silenced and easier to tell the truth at a strategic distance from the present moment. The oblique angle allowed him to lift off the false assumptions, the time-honored beliefs, and the misguided dreams of piety and to look unwaveringly at what lay beneath.


Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the lawbreaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.

He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt. He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning.

He has always had wealth; he was born into it and makes ample use of it. But though he enjoys having what money can get him, it is not what most excites him. What excites him is the joy of domination. He is a bully. Easily enraged, he strikes out at anyone who stands in his way. He enjoys seeing others cringe, tremble, or wince with pain. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult. These skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delight, even if they cannot have it to his unmatched degree. Though they know that he is dangerous, the followers help him advance to his goal, which is the possession of supreme power.

His possession of power includes the domination of women, but he despises them far more than desires them. Sexual conquest excites him, but only for the endlessly reiterated proof that he can have anything he likes. He knows that those he grabs hate him. For that matter, once he has succeeded in seizing the control that so attracts him, in politics as in sex, he knows that virtually everyone hates him. At first that knowledge energizes him, making him feverishly alert to rivals and conspiracies. But it soon begins to eat away at him and exhaust him.

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. The question the play explores, then, is how such a person actually attained the English throne. The 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. Since there is little they can do to help or hinder Richard’s rise — they are, for the most part, small children, and too innocent, naïve, or simply powerless to play a significant role in political life — they count merely among the dupes and victims.

There are also those who feel frightened or impotent in the face of bullying and the menace of violence. “I’ll make a corpse of him that disobeys” (Richard III 1.2.37), Richard threatens, and the opposition to his outrageous commands somehow shrivels away. 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.

He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning.

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. Richard is so obviously and grotesquely unqualified for the supreme position of power that they dismiss him from their minds. Their focus is always on someone else, until it is too late. They fail to realize quickly enough that what seemed impossible is actually happening. 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 — Hastings, Catesby, and, above all, Buckingham — help him ascend from step to step, participating in his dirty work and watching the casualties mount with cool indifference. Some of these cynical collaborators, as Shakespeare imagines them, will be among the first to go under, once Richard has used them to obtain his end.

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Finally, there 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, often high in the social hierarchy, suffer and die. The aspiring tyrant never lacks for such people, in Shakespeare and, from what I can tell, in life. True, there might be a world somewhere where this does not happen. Such is the world that Montaigne’s friend Étienne de La Boétie once envisaged, where the dictator would fall simply because of a massive, nonviolent refusal to cooperate. He would call for some strawberries or for a round of executions, and no one would move a muscle. But Shakespeare seems to have regarded such a proto-Gandhian idea as hopeless pie in the sky. He thought that the tyrant would always find willing executioners, men who would, in Hamlet’s phrase, “make love to this employment” (Hamlet 5.2.57).

Listing the types of enablers risks missing what is most compelling about Shakespeare’s theatrical genius: not the construction of abstract categories or the calculation of degrees of complicity but the unforgettably vivid imagining of lived experience. Faced with the deep disturbance caused by Richard’s ambition, grappling with confusing signals, and utterly uncertain of the outcome, people are forced to choose among flawed alternatives. Richard III brilliantly sketches men and women making anxious calculations under unbearable pressure and taking fateful decisions, conditioned by emotional currents beyond their rational control. It is the power of great theater to bring these dilemmas to life.

At the outer edge of complicity are those who, despite what they may have heard or even directly witnessed, still count on Richard’s assurances. Such people find it almost impossible to resist the big, bold lie, shamelessly reiterated. The young and inexperienced are a relatively easy mark. When the murdered Clarence’s son is told that his uncle Richard’s show of grief is fraudulent, the child replies, “I cannot think it” (Richard III 2.2.31– 33). “I cannot think it” serves as the motto for those who simply cannot get their minds around such perfidy. And what, after all, was the little orphaned boy to do with the cruel disillusionment his grandmother offered him?

Youth is not the only factor in fatal gullibility. Indeed, most conspicuous among those who trust Richard’s fraudulent professions of friendship is not a child at all but, rather, his tough, experienced, and politically adroit older brother Clarence. Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 had depicted Clarence’s strategic shifts in loyalty during the Wars of the Roses. He is therefore fully immersed in the web of hypocrisy, betrayal, and violence, and he has had every opportunity to see his dangerous brother in action. Why, when he is suddenly arrested and taken to the Tower, would Clarence credit Richard’s offers of help?

The answers to this question take us to several key reasons why otherwise savvy political players could be tricked by so obvious a scoundrel, thereby making his wildly implausible rise to the throne possible. Events happen at a dizzying pace. “Plots have I laid,” Richard discloses in his opening soliloquy,

By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate the one against the other.
(Richard III 1.1.32– 36)

At the next moment, we see the guarded Clarence being led off to the Tower. In a brief conversation, under the eye of the jailor, Richard quickly promises sympathy and suggests that the imprisonment has been caused not by the king — who is, after all, their own brother — but by the king’s wife. Clarence thus finds himself plunged into a frightening and complex political situation, one difficult to untangle. There is residual tension between himself and his brother Edward, whose rise to the throne Clarence had not fully supported. There is an entirely predictable jostling for power between the queen’s family, on the one hand, and the king’s family, on the other. There is also the king’s mistress, Jane Shore, an independent influence, to reckon with. How, under the pressure of a rapidly unfolding crisis, is the prisoner supposed to sort it out? If he could imagine Richard’s insane plan to kill off everyone between himself and the throne, it would all become clear, but without that key, everything is murky.

Richard dangles the lure of fraternal solidarity: “We are not safe, Clarence, we are not safe” (1.1.70). And Clarence rises to take it, counting on the primacy of such basic human instincts as family loyalty. We know that it would have been far safer to throw himself on the mercy of the king or the queen or the king’s mistress, but in this swirling confusion he has no way of seeing clearly. His mind, as we shortly learn, is further clouded by guilt, his awareness of the moral compromises he has made in the past. He is hardly alone: in Shakespeare’s play, there are almost no morally uncompromised lives. Virtually everyone grapples with painful memories of lies and broken vows, memories that make it all the more difficult for them to grasp where the deepest danger lies.

There are those who cannot keep in focus that Richard is as bad as he seems to be. They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal.

And yet Clarence does, after all, have an intimation of the mortal danger that resides in Gloucester (as he calls his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester); the problem is that this intimation resides only in his dreams. In a remarkable scene in the Tower, the prisoner awakens from a miserable night’s fitful sleep and tells the jailor about a terrible dream he has just had. It began, he recalls, with a fantasy of escape:

Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower
And was embarked to cross to Burgundy,
And in my company my brother Gloucester,
Who from my cabin tempted me to walk
Upon the hatches.
(1.4.9– 13)

At this point, the dream plunged abruptly into nightmare:

As we paced along
Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,
Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in falling
Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
O Lord, methought what pain it was to drown.
(1.4.16– 21)

It is almost all there: in his subconscious, Clarence grasps that his brother keeps himself upright by striking down those around him and even that his brother will be the cause of his death. What is missing however, is a grasp of either Richard’s malevolence or his motive. In the dream, it is simply a horrible accident.

A few minutes later, not in a dream but in broad waking, two thugs hired by Richard appear in the Tower. Assuming that they have been dispatched by his brother Edward, Clarence reverts to his delusional trust. “I will send you to my brother Gloucester,” he tells the thugs, “Who shall reward you better for my life/Than Edward will for tidings of my death.” “You are deceived,” one of them informs him. “Your brother Gloucester hates you.” This terrible truth Clarence absolutely refuses to believe: “Oh, no, he loves me, and he holds me dear./Go you to him from me.” Replying with grim humor, “Ay, so we will” (1.4.221– 26), the assassin stabs Clarence, then drowns him in a wine barrel, after which he hurries off to Richard for his reward.

In hindsight, Clarence’s dream had a horrible premonitory power, extending to the detail of his death by drowning, but its significance reaches beyond this local irony. It reveals something broadly important about tyranny on the rise: its frightening ability to penetrate the mind in sleep, even as it can also penetrate the body. In Richard III, dreams are not decorative touches or mere glimpses of individual psychology. They are essential to an understanding of a tyrant’s power to exist in and as everyone’s nightmare. And the tyrant has the power to make nightmares real.


Shakespeare himself may have had some difficulty deciding how much popular support there actually was for the tyrant’s ascent. There are two texts of Richard III both of which can claim authority. In the Quarto, a small, inexpensive edition published during the playwright’s lifetime, only the Lord Mayor shouts “Amen” to Buckingham’s “Love live Richard!” (Quarto 3.7.218– 19). But in the Folio, brought out seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the speech prefix for the decisive “Amen” is “All” (Folio 3.7.238– 39). In one version, then, it is only the tyrant’s shill who voices consent; in the other version, it is the whole crowd.

The ambiguity seems built into Shakespeare’s conception of Richard. Notwithstanding his ugliness, does he have some allure? Is there a moment in which the crowd actually supports him, or is it only a conspiracy? Are his lies somehow still effective, even though people see through them? A strange tightrope act is performed almost from the beginning, most notably in a famous scene in which Richard forces himself on Lady Anne, the person in the world least likely to succumb to his blandishments. Lady Anne has every reason to hate Richard, who has, as Shakespeare stages it, killed both her young husband and his father, King Henry VI. When the murderer woos her — quite literally — over Henry VI’s dead body, Anne curses him, spitting in his face in a visceral expression of loathing and disgust. But by the end of the scene, she has accepted Richard’s ring and, in effect, agreed to marry him.

Actors can play the scene in radically different ways. Vulnerable and powerless in the presence of a monster, Anne has almost no choice. Alternatively, though she loathes and fears Richard, Anne can seem strangely fascinated by him, aroused somehow even in the midst of their most aggressive exchanges. At the end of their intense back-and-forth, after steadily expressing her contempt for his professions of love, Anne finds herself not cursing but musing: “I would I knew thy heart” (1.2.192). For his part, when she exits, Richard exults, “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?/Was ever woman in this humor won?” (1.2.267– 68). There is not a shred of tenderness or truth in anything he has said; “I’ll have her,” he coolly reflects, “but I will not keep her long” (1.2.228). Richard is incapable of love, and he will soon do away with her, as he promises. But his power, wealth, and sheer brazenness permit him to seize upon someone he wants, even someone who finds him repellent. It counts for him as pleasure.

Where is the audience in relation to this spectacle, part rape, part seduction? To the extent that the actor evinces anything other than sheer disgust, Anne exhibits the peculiar excitement that Richard arouses in most spectators. The play does not encourage a rational identification with Richard’s political goal, but it does awaken a certain complicity in its audience, the complicity of those who take vicarious pleasure in the release of pent-up aggression, in the black humor of it all, in the open speaking of the unspeakable. “Your eyes drop millstones when fools’ eyes fall tears,” Richard says to the men he has hired to kill his own brother. “I like you, lads” (1.3.352– 53).

Within the play, Richard’s rise is made possible by various degrees of complicity from those around him. But in the theater, it is we, the audience, watching it all happening, who are lured into a peculiar form of collaboration. We are charmed again and again by the villain’s outrageousness, by his indifference to the ordinary norms of human decency, by lies that seem to be effective even though no one believes them. Looking out at us from the stage, Richard invites us not only to share his gleeful contempt but also to experience for ourselves what it is to succumb to what we know to be loathsome.

In his jaunty wickedness and perverse humor, Richard has seduced more than four centuries of audiences. One of the rare anecdotes that survive from Shakespeare’s time suggests that this seduction began almost immediately. In 1602 a London law student, John Manningham, recorded a ribald story in his diary:

Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. The message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III.

Like most stories about celebrities, this one probably says more about those who circulated it than about those it describes. But it does at least suggest that Richard Burbage, the famous actor who first played Richard III (as well as such parts as Romeo and Hamlet), had not by virtue of his villainous role lost all of his glamour.

From the start, the play seems to have aroused intense interest: first performed in 1592 or 1593, Richard III was published in quarto no fewer than five times during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Its villain — the “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog” (1.3.267), the “poisonous bunch-backed toad” (1.3.245), the heartless cur sent, as he himself puts it, “deformed” and “unfinished” (1.1.20) into the world — has seemed weirdly and compellingly attractive to generations of actors, playgoers, and readers. Something in us enjoys every minute of his horrible ascent to power.

* * *

Stephen Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of eleven books, including TyrantThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern (winner of the 2011 National Book Award and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize); and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. He has edited seven collections of criticism, is General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, and is a founding coeditor of the journal Representations. His honors include the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, the Erasmus Institute Prize, and two Guggenheim Fellowships. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky