Playing Shakespeare’s Rebels and Tyrants

by Louis Fantasia (Volume editor)
©2021 Monographs X, 110 Pages


Playing Shakespeare’s Rebels and Tyrants is the fourth volume in the Peter Lang series, Playing Shakespeare’s Characters. As in the previous volumes, a broad range of contributors (actors, directors, scholars, educators, etc.) analyze the concepts of rebellion, tyranny, leadership, empathy with not only references to Elizabethan and Jacobean studies, but also to Donald Trump, the social justice movement, and the January 6, 2021 insurrection. Shakespeare's rebels occupy space in both the personal and political, and often quickly turn from rebel to tyrant once in power. How can Shakespeare's text inform current conversations about race, equity, representation, rebellion and tyranny? Who gets to define the power dynamics in Shakespeare’s plays? This volume looks at the Henrys, Hotspurs, Richards, Lears, Brutuses and Caesars, as well as the Juliets, Rosalinds and Cordelias who make up the panoply of Shakespeares rebels and tyrants.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: “’Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss.” (Louis Fantasia)
  • Chapter One A Letter to My Co-Citizens (Mira Furlan)
  • Chapter Two Here or There: Staging Tyranny in Richard III (Rebecca Lemon)
  • Chapter Three Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and American Political Theater in the 1930s: The Case for Intermediality (Mary Samuelson)
  • Chapter Four Earle Hyman: The Silent Prophet of Protest (Baron Kelly)
  • Chapter Five “A visor for a visor”: Two Approaches to Staging Romeo and Juliet in a Divided Country (Ann M. Shanahan)
  • Chapter Six The Story of Cressida’s Body: The Rebellion of Survivorship in Troilus and Cressida (and Our Responsibility in Storytelling) (Olivia Buntaine)
  • Chapter Seven “In Boy, go first. You houseless povertie …” Social Justice and Transformation in King Lear (Charles Duff)
  • Chapter Eight Shakespeare in Blue: The Evolution of Marin Shakespeare’s Shakespeare in Prison Program (Suraya Keating & Lesley Schisgall Currier)
  • Chapter Nine “I know you what you are” (King Lear, 1.1.311): A Quiet Rebellion (Joyce Halsey)
  • Contributors

Introduction: “’Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss.” (Pericles, 1.2.24)

Louis Fantasia

This is the fourth volume of our series, Playing Shakespeare’s Characters. Preceding this issue we had anthologies on lovers, villains, and monarchs and madmen. Fairly straightforward: Romeo and Juliet are lovers, Iago’s a villain, Henry and Richard (pick any one) are monarchs, Hamlet is mad, and King Lear is both … which brings us to our current volume.

A surprising number of Shakespeare’s characters are both rebels and tyrants. The operative word here is the “and,” which Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines (in part) as a “function word used to indicate connection or addition.”1 How is this connection and addition possible? And what is that “connection”? Leaving aside the History plays for the moment (and only a moment) let us look at some of Shakespeare’s characters who seem to fill these seemingly contradictory roles simultaneously or sequentially.

To name a few: Petruchio is obviously a rebel against the norms of Italian (male) society, and a tyrant to his bride. Shylock is a tyrant to his daughter, and rebels against the Venetian state in demanding his “bond.” Similarly, Lord Capulet tyrannizes his daughter, and probably his wife, and is a rebellious subject and enemy to the peace of Verona. Macbeth, having put down one rebellion, rebels against Duncan and goes on to be Scotland’s greatest tyrant. Hamlet rebels against his uncle and proceeds to tyrannize (and/or kill) nearly everyone around him. Edmund, Gloucester’s rebellious bastard son in King Lear, while not given the chance to rule, shows his tyrannical instincts soon enough. And, for a final ←1 | 2→example, Coriolanus seems to be schizophrenically rebellious and tyrannical with every breath he takes.

This personal rebelliousness in Shakespeare’s characters seems to come from a sense of grievance, which resonates with our own cultural and political moment. Edmund, Coriolanus, Capulet, etc., insist on their right to do whatever they want, whenever they want, even if it upsets everyone else’s apple cart. Shakespeare’s women are no less rebellious: Juliet, Cordelia, Desdemona, Kate, among others, demand their moment of full personhood, usually against tyrannical, or at least obtuse, fathers. The problem is that the women die or are married off before they can get the opportunity to show whether their “rule” would be equally tyrannous or not. (If the examples of Cleopatra, Queen Margaret, and Coriolanus’ mother, Valeria, are any indication, I am not overly optimistic.)

This sense of grievance (the word has been unfortunately hijacked in the U.S. at the moment by debates about “white grievance”2) is a powerful motivator. Shakespeare’s rebels feel that they have a right to what they think they lack—the throne, love, money, lands—and will take the steps necessary to achieve their goals. Part of this is the zeitgeist of England in the era of early modern capitalism. The feudal “great chain of being,” to use E.M. Tillyard’s well-worn phrase, was slowly being eroded by individualists like Edmund or Juliet, let alone a Richard or Henry, who believed they knew what was in their own best interests, and took the actions needed to reach their aims. This breath-taking seizing of the moment and risking all is thrilling and exciting when it comes to young love; less so when heads are rolling or stuck on pikes over London Bridge. Of course, the problem is that one person’s act of rebellion is another’s declaration of independence.

It is this shifting point that makes the term “rebel” so problematic: do we approve or not approve of the rebellion? Whose side are we on? Federation rebels against Darth Vader and the Deathstar? Okay, I can cheer them on. Confederate rebels defending a white supremacist way of American life? Definitely not—at least for this editor.

The great thing about Shakespeare (and yes, again, even in this culturally contested moment, there are great things about Shakespeare) is that he puts us on this continuum, this roller coaster, with his rebels. We cheer Edmund when he exhorts the gods of Nature to “stand up for bastards” (Lear, 1.2.23), only to ask ourselves what we saw in Edmund two acts later. We “gallop apace” with Juliet’s “fiery-footed steeds” (R&J, 3.2.1) on her balcony, but have serious doubts about her immature game plan as we watch her take the dubious sleeping potion in Act 4. We are impressed by both Kate and Petruchio’s rebellious energy in their first scenes, individually and together, but wonder, by the end of the play, whether this sort of domestic tranquility is worth the damage done, certainly to Kate, and quite possibly to Petruchio himself. As Isabella says in Measure for Measure, “O, it is excellent / To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant” ←2 | 3→(MM, 2.2.135–7). What she doesn’t say is that tyranny is ultimately bad for the tyrant … the operative word being “ultimately.”

The irony, if that’s the right word, is that the tyrant’s sense of grievance is as bad, if not worse, than the lover’s or rebel’s, for what the tyrant lacks most of all, and will never have, is respect:


X, 110
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 120 pp.

Biographical notes

Louis Fantasia (Volume editor)

Louis Fantasia is Artistic Associate of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, and has served as Dean of the Faculty of the New York Film Academy, and President of Deep Springs College. He is the series editor of Playing Shakespeare's Characters (Peter Lang). His books include Instant Shakespeare; Tragedy in the Age of Oprah; and Talking Shakespeare: Notes from a Journey (Peter Lang). In 2003, the Council of Europe named the theatre collection at its library in the European Parliament in honor of Louis Fantasia, who holds both U.S. and European Union passports. In 2016 he was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Verdienstorden der Bundesrepublik Deutschland) for his contributions to German culture and theatre.


Title: Playing Shakespeare’s Rebels and Tyrants