The Universal Utility of Shakespeare’s Teaching on Tyranny, by Carol McNamara

Carol McNamara is the associate director for public programs for the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University.

There is a movement afoot, #Disrupt Texts, that would like to “disrupt” or demote Shakespeare in the curriculum in American schools.  Their argument is that “there is an over-saturation of Shakespeare in our schools and that many teachers continue to unnecessarily place him on a pedestal as a paragon of what all language should be.”  They concede that Shakespeare can teach us something about “the depth and complexity within many of his plot arcs and characters,” but they object to Shakespeare’s primacy in the curriculum.

But why not add literary texts to the canon that teach us about politics, political rule, and even tyranny, rather than demote classical literature when it speaks not just to the past but continues to instruct us at this very moment about our contemporary lives.  Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” is such a text.  It instructs concisely and clearly about the perennial political dangers we must resist to have a healthy polity.  Why should we do without it? 

Shakespeare titles his greatest play about the dangers of political ambition, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” because Macbeth begins the play as an admirable man, a battlefield hero, decorated for honorable action on behalf of king and country, but his ambition pushes him to lie and murder his way to the crown of Scotland, and, at the end of the play, he finds himself practically alone in his castle, a desperate, paranoid man, tragically destroyed by his tyrannical ambition.  Surrounded by enemies, whose patrimony he has stolen and whose families he has murdered, he is now, when it counts the most, without a friend, without a true supporter, or a loyal army, in fact, without loyalty from any quarter. He has sold his soul, “his eternal jewel,” for his ambition for the Scottish kingship, and for what? The kingship has brought him nothing but fear, loss, and utter isolation.

Upon receiving the news of Lady Macbeth’s death, the great love and partner of his life, Shakespeare’s once great warrior sadly reflects on the empty meaninglessness of his hollow life, and he reaches the famously nihilistic conclusion that this is so for all of life, that “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.”

But Shakespeare shows us that Macbeth’s conclusions about human life are not true, or only true for him and those like him, because he misunderstands the true sources of human happiness and the purpose of leadership. There are people, principles, and ideas that give life meaning, and for the sake of which one should seek to lead. It is a former friend in arms, Macduff, who ends Macbeth’s rule and life, because he still believes in and fights for something good; he seeks redemption for Scotland from Macbeth’s cruel tyranny, a country that he still believes is capable of a decent politics, and for the evil murder of his family.  Macbeth wants power for himself and forever through his posterity and, so, he murders everyone he imagines to stand in his way. He is ready to believe in the prophecy of the three weird sisters who foretell precisely what he is most eager to hear, that he will be king and invulnerable to the assault of his enemies.  But as is often the case with the quest for unquestioned authority, Macbeth falls prey to his own willingness to believe the illusory.  He learns too late that he has pursued political power at the expense of the core of any good life, love, friendship, and the nobility of purpose he once prized most of all.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” teaches us about the perilous temptation of power in the heart of the overly ambitious human being, and the encircling delusional paranoia and fear of the tyrant, who finally achieves power, but seeks to retain it through any, even nefarious, means. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth is a perennial literary warnineg to us all to resist tyranny, then and now, but just as much a cautionary tale to the ambitious that tyranny is not worth its costs. I am not suggesting that Donald Trump began his political career from a position of heroic nobility, but Shakespeare’s picture of the solitary tyrannical character, isolated from the people, pacing the empty halls of his castle, cursing his growing list of adversaries, is not far from the truth we observe in the White House of today.

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