fruitless crown of tyranny offers rich food for though
professors, two classic texts - Macbeth and Richard III
- and a room of serious but not solemn students. The seminar room
tucked under the eaves of Foster Hall has no doubt been painted
once or twice since Robert Maynard Hutchins last roamed the quadrangles.
The 1960s and 1970s have long since come and gone-leaving a trail
of burnt-orange upholstery on the mismatched chairs circling the
rectangular table that claims most of the room's square footage.
The gathering students include a bleached blond (later in the
quarter his cropped hair will be hennaed a dark auburn) and several
persons with September-in-New-York stories. The professors discuss
the viability of assignments submitted by e-mail. (One accepts
e-papers "but no viruses," while his colleague prefers
"papers that are paper-if there's a virus attached to the
paper, I'll spray Lysol on it.") Once the class proper begins,
however, it's back to fundamentals: issues and texts, students
bespectacled professor stage left begins by announcing the course's
number and name-Social Thought 34800 Shakespeare on Tyranny. He
then provides a self-introduction of sorts: "I'm Rosencrantz
," he nods to the bespectacled professor stage right,
vice versa," his sidekick replies.
minutes into fall quarter Nathan Tarcov and Ralph Lerner, AB'47,
AM'49, PhD'53, are in full performance mode. Various pieces of
paper-the syllabus, a list of possible essay topics, and course
sign-up sheets-circle the seminar table. Meanwhile Tarcov, professor
in political science and the Committee on Social Thought and a
1997 Quantrell Award winner for undergraduate teaching, and 1964
Quantrell winner Lerner, the Benjamin Franklin professor in the
College and a professor in Social Thought, take turns outlining
the course plan and finishing each other's sentences.
of these plays, like Shakespeare's other plays, has five acts,"
notes Tarcov, "and we have ten sessions, so that's kind of
neat. We'll more or less, in each session, go through the play
scene by scene, but we will surely go back-"
a retrospective view of the thing," Lerner agrees then switches
gears. "Is there anyone here who hasn't read either of these
hands ascend, so he releases his follow-up: "I take it everybody
here has read Macbeth?" Nods all around.
too bad," Tarcov deadpans. "I was hoping there would
be somebody for whom the ending would be a surprise."
such luck. A prior acquaintance with Macbeth and an interest
in tyranny may be the only things the 30-some graduate and undergraduate
students have in common. Over the next few minutes they are asked
to introduce themselves, providing name, class year and program
of study, and reason for taking the course.
instructor in the University's Graham School of Continuing Studies
is a "Shakespeare junkie." A graduate student in English
literature is interested in Renaissance drama. A fourth-year in
the College, doing a Fundamentals concentration, announces, "Macbeth
is my favorite Shakespeare play." Another fourth-year, this
one a biology student, admits, "I'm kind of sick of bio right
now and thought I'd take this." A dramatist, at work on a
play about the tragedy of Alexander Hamilton, is here for background.
Someone else is doing a Japanese translation of a work on tyranny.
There are grad students in sociology, Social Thought, and the
master's programs in the social sciences and in the humanities,
and a student who's never taken a Shakespeare course.
also a graduate student from St. John's College in Annapolis.
"You read some Shakespeare at your school?" Lerner jokes,
one denizen of a Great Books institution to another. And the blond
guy loves Macbeth for its witches: "I want to be an
alchemist when I grow up."
over, Tarcov begins with a define-your-terms question: "Would
anybody here hazard a guess on what is tyranny?"
grad student cites Alexis de Tocqueville's definition, "the
use of improper power."
"Can we push you a little further?" Tarcov pushes. "The
words tyranny or tyrant are used some 14 or 15 times
in this play," he continues, "but never by Macbeth."
No response. Tarcov tries again. "Machiavelli in The Prince
never uses the word tyrant."
think the word improper needs to be unpacked a little more,"
Lerner suggests, and the group begins to do so, distinguishing
between the unlawful acquisition and the unlawful exercise of
was ruled by tyrants," the would-be alchemist points out.
"Solon the law-giver was one of the seven tyrants.... There's
a sense in which you can still salvage tyranny."
and allusions fly, volleyed across the room at head-turning speeds:
What makes a tyrant? Desire for power? What then distinguishes
a tyrant from other politicians who after all want power? Is arrogance
required of tyrants? Or an inability to compromise? When does
steadfastness of belief become uncompromising tyranny? To what
extent do circumstances help to create a tyrant?
calls time out. "We could do more of this, but we don't want
to overdo the theme. We don't have to spend all our time talking
"-and we won't," Lerner interjects.
that, they turn to Macbeth, Act I, Scene I. The 12-line
scene is set "in an open place." Amid thunder and lightning,
three witches enter. One asks when they'll next meet ("When
the hurlyburly's done/when the battle's lost and won," comes
the prophetic answer) and where ("Upon the heath," the
second witch replies; "There to meet with Macbeth,"
the third supplies). Calling their familiars they exit, but not
before chanting, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through
the fog and filthy air."
time Lerner poses the lead-off question: "What's the value
added in Scene I?"
The students seem surprised by the question, and Tarcov offers
a helping hand. "We don't need the witches till Scene III,"
when they appear to prophesy Macbeth's kingship. "So why
do we get them at the start?"
no answer. "It need be nothing grander than a surmise,"
Lerner encourages, and from the back someone offers, "For
dramatic value. It's creepy. It also tells you this isn't just
a history play. Here's evil, the supernatural."
we have to believe in witches to read the play?" Tarcov asks.
don't have to believe in them anymore than you have to believe
in sprites or fairies to read the comedies," the would-be
alchemist shoots back. "It's like an overture, there's thunder
and lightning," he continues, starting to recite, "When
the hurlyburly's done...."
may not have a belief in life in witches," Tarcov
returns, "but we are supposed to believe in them as we go
through the play-in contrast with the dagger that Macbeth will
see," which may be imagined. Does the supernatural element,
he asks, "raise the question of tyranny and kingship on a
different level?" Is tyranny part of a "world ruled
by law or by fiendish powers?"
weeks later the same cast of characters reassembles
for the last time. On the agenda is a discussion of the final
two acts of Richard III, a short break, and then a comparison
of the two plays' tyrants. The plan, announces Tarcov, is to move
from the individual to the political and, "if time allows,
go on to the cosmological."
motives or characteristics, he asks, "might be considered
job prerequisites-or qualities that get in the way?"
minutes the discussion's volley reaches full swing. An effective
tyrant needs insight into others' characters, to emphasize utility
over emotion. Amorality doesn't hurt-a point that leads to comparisons.
Macbeth's initial reluctance gets contrasted with Richard's arrogance.
"Richard is a personification of evil throughout," a
T-shirted student notes, "while Macbeth is still struggling
with issues of good versus evil."
we want to say that tyrants are people who are unruled by scruples
and have no moral conscience, like Richard?" Tarcov asks.
"Are they both defective for the job?"
for being guilt-ridden," Lerner rejoins, "and the other
for being guilt-free?"
course ends somewhere between the human and the political. "We
talk too much about the tyrant when talking about tyranny,"
Tarcov observes, "but not enough about the other people."
For those facing a tyrant, who can choose collaboration or resistance,
tyranny is also a character test.
can be hard, in part because tyrants often corrupt public speech,
creating a background noise, a world where, says Lerner, "you
can't tell who's friend or foe." When a tyrant's words are
penned by William Shakespeare, they can be even more seductive.
Tarcov recalls the class's first discussion of Richard and "all
of you who said that you loved him and were charmed by him."
words," Lerner underscores, "had their own mesmerizing
spent, hurlyburly done, course over. But not before Lerner offers
the last word: "The play's the thing."