Mark Perry, contributing editor: No one would ever mistake Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar for actual history, because it’s not. Still, the bard gets much of it right: Rome’s established families viewed Caesar as a self-promoting upstart, mistrusted his depraved self-promotion, dismissed his populist pronouncements, and interpreted his denial of power as evidence that he yearned for it. The result is well-known: Cassius, Casca, and Brutus—those pillars of Rome’s “deep state”—conspired to save the Roman Republic from the would-be tyrant, stabbing their victim 23 times.
Writing about guys like Caesar is all the rage just now, as the American public is being doused with a surfeit of tracts on tyranny and tyrants from the great (like Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny) to the not-so: like Madeleine Albright, purveyor of the book-length snooze, Fascism: A Warning. Into this crowded arena has now raced Stephen Greenblatt, who’s recently released Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics takes the reader on a sprint through Will’s bloodiest evil-doers: Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Richard III, and the aforementioned “bald adulterer,” as Suetonius described him.
Snyder and Greenblatt are always worth reading (Snyder’s Bloodlands is subversively brilliant, Greenblatt’s Will In The World a tour de force), which is why their latest screeds seem more like exercises in currency debasement than rounded out ideas with telling insights. Not so with Albright. The former secretary of state’s currency as an enabler of America’s imperial addiction remains as debased as ever, despite her game attempt to sound like Hannah Arendt—an exercise at which (though this will not surprise), she embarrassingly fails.
That said, all three have this in common: they were driven to their typewriters (or computers, as the case may be), by Donald Trump. This, from Greenblatt: “Not so very long ago, though it feels like a century has passed, I sat in a verdant garden in Sardinia and expressed my growing apprehensions about the possible outcome of an upcoming election. My historian friend Bernhard Jussen asked me what I was doing about it. ‘What can I do?’ I asked. ‘You can write something,’ he said. And so I did.”
What Greenblatt wrote is worth the read, if only to note the obstacles he faces in explaining how Shakespeare’s take on Macbeth (for instance) tells us something about Donald Trump. “Here, as throughout Shakespeare, the tyrant’s course of behavior is fueled by a pathological narcissism,” Greenblatt writes of Scotland’s conscience-hounded usurper. “The lives of others do not matter; what matters is only that he should somehow feel ‘whole’ and ‘unfounded.’”
Rich stuff, to be sure, but ultimately unrewarding. Donald Trump is self-referencing and uncomfortably egotistical, but he golfs too much to be Hitler or Stalin and he’s too poor a speller to be Macbeth. And he’s not Julius Caesar either.
To his credit, Greenblatt senses this when (145 or so pages into his book), he acknowledges what Shakespeare scholars have long noted: that the republic’s fall was sparked not by Caesar’s tyranny, but by his murder. Then too, for Greenblatt’s Trump-is-a-Tyrant analogy to work, we need a stand-in for the current clan of talking heads who populate the likes of Erin Burnett’s OutFront. John Brennan (that purveyor of moral probity) seems absolutely doughy (if his security clearance wasn’t returned he sniffed, he would—well, he’d go to court), and most especially when compared to Marc Antony, an expert a killer as anyone who ever lived.
Greenblatt here is confessional, if only indirectly so. In truth, as he notes, the Conqueror of Gaul plays only a bit part in the play that takes his name—which, as Harold Bloom tells us, should have been entitled “The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus.” It is Brutus, after all, who underestimates not only Marc Antony but Rome’s plebs, who do not take well to the murder of a man they admire. “The very act that was meant to save the republic turns out to destroy it,” he writes. “Caesar is dead, but by the end of the play Caesarism is triumphant.” So too, while the “resisters” (that motley, snobbish, amateurish crew) might team up to take down Trump (and even dip their fingers in his blood—albeit, we trust, figuratively), they will almost assuredly underestimate the anger, and the murderous reckoning, that will follow.
Greenblatt’s unintended lesson is thus properly elegant, if unintended—and it’s why Shakespeare’s treatment of what happened in Rome 2000 years ago rings down the ages: be careful what you wish for.
Casey Chalk, contributor: Which of Mark Twain’s books did he say he liked “best of all my books; and it is the best…”? The answer is not The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s most prized work was Joan of Arc, a relatively obscure text he spent 12 years preparing and two years writing. I’ve been drawn to read the text—written, we should remember, by a white southern man who served in a Confederate unit—in part as an antidote to the radicalism of fourth wave feminism. In this respect, Twain never ceases to disappoint, writing a literary paean to a girl who, unprecedentedly, was the supreme commander of a nation’s military at the age of 17. Talk about “breaking gender stereotypes.”
Twain was oddly spellbound by the story of St. Joan of Arc. He writes in the preface:
…the character of Joan of Arc is unique. It can be measured by the standards of all times without misgiving or apprehension as to the result. Judged by any of them, judged by all of them, it is still flawless, it is still ideally perfect, it still occupies the loftiest place possible to human attainment, a loftier one than has been reached by any other mere mortal.
Perhaps his praise for the 15th century French peasant is a bit overwrought, though his prose, per usual, is penetrating and persuasive:
Joan of Arc, a mere child in years, ignorant, unlettered, a poor village girl unknown and without influence, found a great nation lying in chains, helpless and hopeless under an alien domination, its treasury bankrupt, its soldiers disheartened and dispersed, all spirit torpid, all courage dead in the hearts of the people through long years of foreign and domestic outrage and oppression, their King cowed, resigned to its fate, and preparing to fly the country; and she laid her hand upon this nation, this corpse, and it rose and followed her. She led it from victory to victory, she turned back the tide of the Hundred Years’ War, she fatally crippled the English power, and died with the earned title of DELIVERER OF FRANCE, which she bears to this day.
And for all reward, the French King, whom she had crowned, stood supine and indifferent, while French priests took the noble child, the most innocent, the most lovely, the most adorable the ages have produced, and burned her alive at the stake.
Joan of Arc, like Huck Finn and Connecticut Yankee, is prescient in speaking to the perennial tensions of of American culture. Even his criticism of the Catholic Church is pertinent. Twain “believed that the lack of internal checks and balances” within the Church “gave too great a corrupting power to its clerical hierarchy,” as Andrew Tadie notes in the introduction. As much as we return to Huck Finn for its portrayal of American racism and Connecticut Yankee for its political and social commentary, we should consider Joan of Arc for its message on women and religious faith. Like the lives of the saints, Twain remains an inexhaustible source of inspiration.