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Coursework
The fruitless crown of tyranny offers rich food for though


Two 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 and teachers.

The 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 and…," he nods to the bespectacled professor stage right, "…he's Guildenstern."

"Or vice versa," his sidekick replies.

Ten 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.

"Each 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-"

"-take a retrospective view of the thing," Lerner agrees then switches gears. "Is there anyone here who hasn't read either of these plays?"

No hands ascend, so he releases his follow-up: "I take it everybody here has read Macbeth?" Nods all around.

"That's too bad," Tarcov deadpans. "I was hoping there would be somebody for whom the ending would be a surprise."

No 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.

An 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.

There's 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."

Intros over, Tarcov begins with a define-your-terms question: "Would anybody here hazard a guess on what is tyranny?"

A 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."

"I 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 power.

"Athens 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."

Questions 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?

Tarcov 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 about tyranny-"
"-and we won't," Lerner interjects.

With 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."

This 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?"

Again 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."

"Do we have to believe in witches to read the play?" Tarcov asks.

"You 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...."

"We 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?"


Nine 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."

What motives or characteristics, he asks, "might be considered job prerequisites-or qualities that get in the way?"

In 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."

"Do 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?"

"One for being guilt-ridden," Lerner rejoins, "and the other for being guilt-free?"

The 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.

Resistance 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."

"The words," Lerner underscores, "had their own mesmerizing effect."

Discussion spent, hurlyburly done, course over. But not before Lerner offers the last word: "The play's the thing."
- M.R.Y.



  FEBRUARY 2002

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