In his book Tyrant – Shakespeare on Politics, Stephen Greenblatt (John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University) probes the nature of tyranny in the works of Shakespeare. Greenblatt focuses particularly on the character of Richard III.
I offer one passage but recommend the entire short volume (189 pages):
“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 law-breaking, 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.
Sooner or later, he is brought down. He dies unloved and un-lamented. He leaves behind only wreckage. It would have been better had Richard III never been born.” (pages 53-54)
Though Greenblatt published this study of tyranny in 2018 in the midst of the Trump era, it is the character of Richard III – after all – that he describes in his brilliant short work. Before his death, Philip Roth endorsed the book with these words: “Brilliant, beautifully organized, exceedingly readable.”
And remarkably current!