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Robert  Harper

Shakespeare and the Unspeakable

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Stephen Greenblatt is among the elite of Renaissance scholars, and  his works include a very readable bio of Shakespeare, two incisive and penetrating books on self-fashioning and cultural negotiations, and one on the concept of Purgatory which I found so engaging that I ended up eventually visiting Wittenberg to see where Martin Luther lived and taught and where Hamlet went to college.

 His recent work is called Tyrant and in it, he examines traits in the characterizations of Shakespeare’s plays which depict elements of what makes a tyrant. Usually usurpation of some sort is involved, but Greenblatt emphasizes the inner over the contextual. He never mentions a contemporary politician. I am posting a few segments from the book as well as his use of the word “unspeakable” :

Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to? How does a figure like Richard III or Macbeth ascend to the throne?...Such a disaster Shakespeare suggested could not happen without complicity..His plays suggest that he could best acknowledge the truth-to possess it and not perish of it-through the artifice of fiction or through historical distance… carefully kept at least a full century between himself and the events he depicted.

..the word “politician” for Shakespeare was virtually synonymous with hypocrite: Get thee glass eyes’ rages Lear, And, like a scurvy politician/Seem to see the things thou dost not.

In the Henry VI trilogy he depicts a peasant uprising  of 1450 led by a Jack Cade who proves himself to be an effective demagogue, the master of voodoo economics…Cade keeps producing demonstrable falsehoods about his origins and making wild claims about the great things he will do and the crowds eagerly swallow them. To be sure, his neighbors know that Cade is a congenital xxxx…Drawing on an indifference to the truth, shamelessness and hyper inflated self-confidence, the loudmouthed demagogue is entering a fantasyland…when the mob having broken through London’s defenses stream into the City…Cade experiences the full flush of triumph: Be it known that I am the broom that must sweep the Court clean of such filth as thou ar.t  

The horrors of the war epitomize the breakdown of basic values—respect for order, civility and human decency—which paves the way for the tyrant’s rise.

Richard III builds on these characteristics in another play of  the rise of a tyrant who usurps the crown. Richard has the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant…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.

A cynical insider like Queen Margaret knows better. How can tyrants safely govern home, she asks, Unless abroad they purchase great alliance?

Dominating others serves to shore up lonely Richard’s damaged self-interest, to ward off the pain of rejection...Exercising power, particularly the kind of power that throws people off balance, reduces his own sense of chaotic disproportionateness, or at least he hopes…He knows what he feels, what he lacks, and what he needs to have(or at least longs to have) in order to experience joy.

He is a gifted deceiver: Why I can smile and murder whiles I smile, he says, congratulating himself.
               
One of Richard’s uncanny skills – and in Shakespeare’s view, one of the tyrants most characteristic qualities—is the ability to force his way into the minds of those around him… (who) are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal….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   

A succession of murders clears the field of most of the significant impediments, actual or potential to Richard seizing power. But it is striking that Shakespeare does not envisage the tyrant’s climatic accession to the throne as the direct result of violence. Instead it is the consequence of an election.

 To solicit a popular mandate, Richard conducts a political campaign complete with a fraudulent display of religious piety, the slandering of opponents, and a grossly exaggerated threat to national security....During the play Richard has his scribe backdate an indictment against a friend now enemy.. The whole business is a lie, to cover the extrajudicial murder of one of Richards enemies:
 
Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who so bold but says he sees it not

The play does not encourage a rational identification with Richard’s political goal. But it does awaken a certain complicity, the complicity of those who seek vicarious pleasure in the release of pent-up aggression, in the black humor of it all, in the open speaking of the unspeakable.

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Robert, in reading about Shakespeare's Richard III I kept picturing Donald Trump in my mind.

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I hesitate to ask how Shakespeare relates to the JFK assassination, for I realize it might be a deep subject, though I'm not a student of his work.  Does the Unspeakable part relate to James Douglass classic work?

https://www.amazon.com/JFK-Unspeakable-Why-Died-Matters/dp/1439193886/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1WOFBXZ7E16JY&keywords=jfk+and+the+unspeakable&qid=1562642174&s=books&sprefix=jfk+and+the%2Cstripbooks%2C1996&sr=1-2

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21 minutes ago, Ron Bulman said:

I hesitate to ask how Shakespeare relates to the JFK assassination, for I realize it might be a deep subject, though I'm not a student of his work.  Does the Unspeakable part relate to James Douglass classic work?

https://www.amazon.com/JFK-Unspeakable-Why-Died-Matters/dp/1439193886/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1WOFBXZ7E16JY&keywords=jfk+and+the+unspeakable&qid=1562642174&s=books&sprefix=jfk+and+the%2Cstripbooks%2C1996&sr=1-2

From my recollections of Richard the third and Macbeth, I would have to think that Robert is focusing on Trump, not JFK. Re: Richard lll, Roberts comments may relate to JFK in that a regicide, a coup, has taken place, the people know it, the ministers rubber stamp it, and the people acquiesce. I’ll guess that Macbeth reflects the JFKA in as much as we are led to believe that “nothing is, but what is not”. I’ll have to roll-back my original comment inasmuch as Robert may not be looking at Trump here, although I can see a parallel.

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Posted (edited)

Shakespeare's plays about Henry IV and V, especially as filmed

by Orson Welles in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, illuminate the

history of the Bush family. Welles chose to make the first

sentences of narration at the start of his film (taken from Holinshed's Chronicles), "King

Richard II was murdered. Some say at the command of the

Duke Henry Bolinbroke . . ."  King Henry IV (the former duke) is an illegitimate king

who after helping assassinate the true king subdues his rivals in civil war and hopes to make his wastrel son seem more legitimate through

succession, and his last counsel to his son before Hal assumes the throne is to "busy giddy

minds with foreign quarrels." When Keith Baxter, who played Hal so brilliantly,

told Welles he was thinking of going on to do HENRY V, Welles asked, "Why? He

was such a [s word, according to the rules of this website]."

Edited by Joseph McBride

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Robert, thank you for your stimulating  review of Stephen Greenblatt's recent book, Tyrant. It gives a keen perception of the times in which we live.

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