TCS: ‘I knew him tyrannous’ – Will Shakespeare on TYRANNY – Part One

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“Brush up your Shakespeare, start quoting him now..” – from KISS ME KATE



April Musing, the Second: This is the second week of my annual April series on Shakespeare, this one written especially for any who think that the 400-year-old words of William Shakespeare have no relevance in the 21st Century.

NOTE: I marked the portions of the speeches which are in bold, to emphasize the points being made.

I knew him tyrannous, and tyrants’ fears
Decrease not, but grow faster than the years.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre — Act I, scene 2

William Shakespeare lived in an age of great change. His world was growing larger, as explorers from Europe first set foot on the soil of lands previously unknown to them, and their nations vied to plunder the “New World.”

There had been a massive upheaval in the religion of England in the years before his birth, the state religion going from Catholic to Protestant, then back to Catholic during the five years of Queen Mary I’s reign, and finally re-settling as Protestant with the ascension of Elizabeth I to the throne.

Queen Elizabeth had only worn the crown for six of the 44 years she would reign by the year Shakespeare was born, so tension between Catholics and Protestants was still very much in evidence. This was an age not only of religious conflict, but also a time of stirring among European peoples to question not only the Roman Catholic church, but the ‘divine right’ of monarchs to rule.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded in 1587 for her part in one of several Catholic conspiracies to assassinate Elizabeth, conspiracies which had escalated after the Pope in 1570 declared Elizabeth illegitimate, and did his best to undermine her authority by “releasing” her subjects from obedience to her, under threat of excommunication.

William Shakespeare launched his career as a playwright shortly after that, with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, probably first performed in 1589 or 1590, and The Taming of the Shrew, debuting in either 1590 or 1591.

Scholars think Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3, regarded as his first “serious” plays, were originally performed (out of order!) sometime between 1591 and 1592, when Shakespeare was in his mid-20s. But to add the confusion, he later wrote Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, so I‘m going to cover Henry the Fourth first — because otherwise, you’ll be as confused as I am by the Henrys.

At the opening of Henry IV, Part I, King Henry wants to go on Crusade to the Holy Lands, but there have been dangerous rebellions in Scotland and Wales, and his son Prince Hal is most likely to be found keeping low company in taverns with his best pal Sir John Falstaff.

Very quickly, Henry offends his able young warrior ‘Hotspur,’ newly come from victory in Scotland, in a disagreement over the prisoners of war. Hotspur’s family were very instrumental in helping Henry to the throne, so his cousin, the Earl of Worcester, reveals to the furious Hotspur a conspiracy already in the works to overthrow this king that his family views as ungrateful.


Peace, cousin, say no more:
And now I will unclasp a secret book,
And to your quick-conceiving discontents
I’ll read you matter deep and dangerous,
As full of peril and adventurous spirit
As to o’er-walk a current roaring loud
On the unsteadfast footing of a spear.

So from very early on in his career, Shakespeare writes about the possibility of overthrowing a ruler.

By Henry VI, Part III, in Act III, scene 3, he gives us Margaret’s speech and Warwick’s answer to Prince Edward, during the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, whose legitimacy has been under constant question. And don’t forget, all plays at this time had to be submitted to the Master of the Revels for permission to be performed.

Is Shakespeare brave, foolhardy, or too truthful to craft his words to suit the times? Perhaps by maintaining that this was a history of past events, he got it by the censor.


King Lewis and Lady Bona, hear me speak,
Before you answer Warwick. His demand
Springs not from Edward’s well-meant honest love,
But from deceit bred by necessity;
For how can tyrants safely govern home,
Unless abroad they purchase great alliance?
To prove him tyrant this reason may suffice,
That Henry liveth still: but were he dead,
Yet here Prince Edward stands, King Henry’s son.
Look, therefore, Lewis, that by this league and marriage
Thou draw not on thy danger and dishonour;
For though usurpers sway the rule awhile,
Yet heavens are just, and time suppresseth wrongs.


Injurious Margaret!


And why not queen?


Because thy father Henry did usurp;
And thou no more are prince than she is queen.


And the next plays by order of performance are Titus Andronicus and Richard III.

Titus Andronicus is a bloodbath of mutilation, torture and beheading, turning Rome into “a wilderness of tigers.” It was very popular in Shakespeare’s day, more akin to Nightmare on Elm Street than to his Romeo and Juliet of a few years later. It also echoes the gore of the ancient Greek tragedies, but the Greeks kept violence offstage, and gave us messengers and choruses to report the bloody deeds, in detail, but without weapons hacking and thrusting.

The violence begets violence, and revenge is not sweet when it is covered in dismembered body parts. The play begins with the crowd clamoring by voice vote for Roman general Titus to be made ruler, but he refuses, and sides in the election with the much less worthy older son of the late Emperor, Saturninus, instead of his more virtuous and able younger son, Bassianus.

Marcus Andronicus, Titus’ younger brother, one of the few characters left standing by Act V, brings the mayhem to close:

You sad-faced men, people and sons of Rome, 
By uproar sever’d, like a flight of fowl 
Scatter’d by winds and high tempestuous gusts, 
O, let me teach you how to knit again 
This scatter’d corn into one mutual sheaf, 
These broken limbs again into one body; 
Lest Rome herself be bane unto herself, 
And she whom mighty kingdoms court’sy to, 
Like a forlorn and desperate castaway, 
Do shameful execution on herself. 

Shakespeare’s title character in Richard III tells us in his very first speech that he is as black-hearted a wannabe tyrant as you’ll ever see:


Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag’d war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now,–instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,–
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I,–that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;–
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore,–since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,–
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,–
About a prophecy which says that G
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul.
Here Clarence comes.

His made-up prophecy that ‘G’ will murder Edward’s heirs is actually a bit of misdirection — Clarence is George, the Duke of Clarence, but the real killer will be Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. Richard does just what he tells us — he hacks and connives his way to the crown. Unlike many tyrants, Richard has charm and courage, so it’s hard not to have a sneaking bit of admiration for him in the beginning, but he loses us completely when he arranges the murder of his young nephews. And here Shakespeare does follow the Greeks, leaving the deaths offstage, but sending their murderer, fresh from his kills, as messenger.

Before the final battle in the play, RIchmond, who will become the next king, rouses his troops for battle:


. . . . . For what is he they follow? truly, gentlemen,
A bloody tyrant and a homicide;
One raised in blood, and one in blood establish’d;
One that made means to come by what he hath,
And slaughter’d those that were the means to help him;
Abase foul stone, made precious by the foil
Of England’s chair, where he is falsely set;
One that hath ever been God’s enemy:

Then, if you fight against God’s enemy,
God will in justice ward you as his soldiers;
If you do sweat to put a tyrant down,
You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain;
If you do fight against your country’s foes,
Your country’s fat shall pay your pains the hire;
If you do fight in safeguard of your wives,
Your wives shall welcome home the conquerors;
If you do free your children from the sword,
Your children’s children quit it in your age.
Then, in the name of God and all these rights,
Advance your standards, draw your willing swords.
For me, the ransom of my bold attempt
Shall be this cold corpse on the earth’s cold face;
But if I thrive, the gain of my attempt
The least of you shall share his part thereof.
Sound drums and trumpets boldly and cheerfully;
God and Saint George! Richmond and victory!


Shakespeare took a little break from mass murder, writing a couple of comedies next, but then he goes right back into it with Richard II.  

Richard assures himself and his dwindling followers that God will preserve his crown, even as men flock to Bolingbroke, his chief enemy:


His treasons will sit blushing in his face,
Not able to endure the sight of day,
But self-affrighted, tremble at his sin.
Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.
For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel. Then if angels fight,
Weak men must fall; for heaven still guards the right.

 — Act III, scene 2

At the end of the play, the imprisoned Richard dies fighting his assassins, and his body is to be carried to the new-crowned king who overthrew him.

The Death of Richard II


Of course, Shakespeare’s play that seems most obviously about tyranny is Julius Caesar, but we are presented with conflicting views of him — Is he a tyrant? It depends on who you believe. In the real history of Rome, he is the pivotal figure in the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire, but in Shakespeare’s play, things are more ambivalent.

Are we to believe Cassius, once Caesar’s friend but now eaten by envy, as he sounds out Brutus, to see if he can win him to his side?


Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates;
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that “Caesar”?

Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
“Brutus” will start a spirit as soon as “Caesar.”
Now in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art sham’d!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!
When went there by an age since the great flood
But it was fam’d with more than with one man?
When could they say, till now, that talk’d of Rome,
That her wide walks encompass’d but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed and room enough,
When there is in it but one only man.

Or should we be swayed by the brilliant funeral oration of Mark Antony?


Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar … The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it …
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest,
(For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all; all honourable men)
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral …
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man….
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?
O judgement! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason…. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

I think that Cassius is closer to the mark, but premature. Julius Caesar was on the path toward tyranny, but might still have turned back, if he had lived. However, when great ambition meets great power, that’s not the way I would bet.

The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.

— from Julius Caesar —  Act II, Scene I


If you’ve just stopped by for the first time, WELCOME.

Did you enjoy these musings? Then please come back next Monday for ‘I knew him tyrannous’ – Will Shakespeare on TYRANNY – Part Two 

Last week’s TCS post dated April 3rd was about the poetry in Shakespeare’s plays – click ‘View all posts’ below to check out what you’ve missed

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Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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