How do tyrants come into power, and what does power do to them? Are a tyrant’s subjects merely victims or complicit in the tyrant’s rise to power? May one take up arms in order to depose or even kill a tyrant? Throughout his long career as a dramatist, Shakespeare returns again and again to these questions and probes the political, social, and psychological preconditions and consequences of tyranny in a manner that still resonates with us today. In Shakespeare’s age, traditional ideas of kingship and good government underwent drastic change. The sixteenth century saw the rise of increasingly centralised nation states and of absolutism, which posited that rulers are not bound by laws but above it. In addition, a new sense of political realism and reason of state was associated with the notorious Florentine writer Niccolò Machiavelli, who rejected moral idealism and Christian piety as useless and even counterproductive in the sphere of politics. In this seminar, we will read three plays, Richard III, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar, in which Shakespeare reflects on such new styles of politics and their relationship to tyranny.

Set in fifteenth-century England, Richard III chronicles the rise to the throne of the ruthless Richard, Duke of Gloucester, by means of lies, manipulation, and deception. However, the play also shows that keeping power may be more difficult than to win it, as the freshly crowned Richard begins to lose his grip on his fellow-conspirators and is haunted by his own conscience. Macbeth, a claustrophobic psychodrama set in a supernaturally charged early medieval Scotland, shows how even a good man may be overcome by his worst instincts, as he is tempted by ambiguous prophecies to kill the King and take his place. However, Macbeth’s soul is deeply scarred by his own deeds, and he realises too late that he has triggered a vortex of violence spiralling out of his control. Finally, Julius Caesar revisits the transition from Roman Republic to Empire – a historical watershed from which many early modern observers hoped to learn lessons in order to better understand the political developments of their own time. Julius Caesar reflects not only on how ancient Rome could lose its republican liberties, but also raises the question whether these liberties may be won back again and whether violence is a legitimate way to do so. Taken together, these three plays offer a rich portrait of tyranny, which we will analyse in its historical context. However, we will also have a look at modern performances and adaptations on screen, in order to trace how Shakespearean representations of tyranny have never ceased to speak to later generations and are found to be as relevant today as ever.