What can Shakespeare teach us about Donald Trump?

Political institutions in disarray, brutal behaviour on every side, narcissistic leaders lying to the public — sound familiar? It certainly was to Shakespeare. His plays reveal the toxic psychology that fuels a despot, as well as those who enable them.
In a Stratford Festival Forum, scholar Stephen Greenblatt talks about his latest book "Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics" which explores Shakespeare's insight into bad (and often mad) rulers. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Political institutions in disarray, brutal behaviour on every side, narcissistic leaders lying to the public — sound familiar?  It certainly was to Shakespeare. His plays reveal the toxic psychology that fuels a despot, as well as those who enable them.

Shakespeare might have witnessed Parliamentary elections in his time, but the powerful people in his world  didn' t get there by being elected.- Stephen Greenblatt

It seems as if everything in our modern world is refracted through U.S. President Donald Trump — how we govern ourselves, the status of women, international relations, the state of democracy, honesty in politics and personal affairs. There's almost nothing you can think of that Trump hasn't commented on, in his words or in his actions.

And it all happens so fast. Not a day goes by without some newly astonishing act — a breaking of protocol, a personal attack, a threat of economic or actual war. And the result for many people is a sense of exhaustion, numbness and powerlessness: exhaustion because there's too much to take in, numbness because each new outrage outdoes the last, powerlessness because resistance seems futile.

Enter William Shakespeare, dead four hundred years, coming to our rescue. He's seen it all before, and guess what — he's got lots of ideas about why a tyrant happens, how to recognise the various types, and who helps them get where they are.

Stephen Greenblatt is a literary historian and author. 1:31

In a conversation recorded this summer at the Stratford Festival, Harvard's Stephen Greenblatt talks about his book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. It's a brilliant exploration of the recurring drift throughout history toward the strongman, the bully, the dictator.

Stephen Greenblatt is John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, general editor of The Norton Shakespeare (2015) and the general editor and a contributor to The Norton Anthology of English Literature. His most popular work is Will in the World, a biography of Shakespeare that was on the New York Times Best Seller List for nine weeks. He won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2012 and the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2011 for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.
 



**This episode was produced by Philip Coulter. Special thanks to Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.