Reflective Practice

Teaching Tyranny Today

Photo by Pamela J. Eisenberg:

By Tom Ribitzky

On the night before teaching my first class on Macbeth, Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles in Syria.  The results, even though they constitute a horrific reality, seem to come right out of this play: everything is turned on its head.  With Putin crying foul, the seemingly, and troublingly, amicable relationship between the U.S. and Russia has dissolved into open hostility.  Images of horrific destruction are praised as “beautiful” by the media.  Fair is indeed foul, and foul has never been more fair.  

On this night, as I was preparing for my lesson the next day, the lines of the “Weïrd Sisters” (whom Shakespeare describes using the Old English wyrd, meaning “fate”) seemed more prophetic for us than for the Scotland of Macbeth.  Many of their lines, though, can be seen as filler,  a display of hocus pocus to satisfy the somewhat dimwitted King James I in Shakespeare’s audience, a monarch who actually believed in demons when hardly anyone else did (except, of course, for those superstitious Puritans who crossed the ocean and gave us Salem).  The days of his intellectually astute predecessor, Elizabeth I (yes she can, yes she did) were over, but still fresh in everyone’s memory, and the future of Britain was now in less competent hands.  Sound familiar?

None of the sisters’ lines feel like filler anymore.  In Act 1, one of them speaks of stealing chestnuts from the lap of a sailor’s wife as remorselessly as the current administration has ordered cuts to SNAP.  The woman’s “husband’s to Aleppo gone,” and the witch will join him to oversee the evil destruction in Syria: “I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.” If the verb “to be” governs the world of Hamlet, the verb “to do” dominates Macbeth.  In Hamlet, at least “to be” was a question; in Macbeth, “to do” is an imperative.  From the sisters, from Lady Macbeth, and from Macbeth himself, what we see is a mantra that can be summed up as: “Just Do It.”  Unlike Hamlet, who is paralyzed by neurotic thought, the deeds of Macbeth are done quickly (“If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly”) and blindly (“Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires. / The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see”).

There is a long tradition of portraying tyrants as blind men hungry for swift action, no matter the cost, which is why I teach Macbeth alongside Oedipus the King (a mistranslation of Oidipous Tyrannos).  “I, Oedipus, whom all men call the Great” is how the tragic hero introduces himself to the audience.  Thebes is beset by plague and pollution, and he vows to Make it Great Again.  But instead of heeding criticism, Oedipus ridicules the blind man accurately reporting what’s wrong with the state for his disability, and he drums up conspiracy theories against his brother-in-law Creon, justifying swift action even in the face of no supporting evidence: “When he that plots against me secretly / moves quickly, I must quickly counterplot.”  Obviously Freud found him a fascinating character study, moving from a state of infantile perversion (all action and no thought; I am the law) to neurosis (all thought and no action; I obey the law), the point at which Oedipus calls himself “ill beyond ill.”  So much for all of that rhetoric of Greatness.

What all of these tyrants, real and fictional, have in common is the snag that eventually catches up with them, undermining their swift action like Oedipus’ limp (or even Richard III’s, for that matter).  The question I ask my students is: at what expense?  Oedipus nearly runs his entire kingdom into the ground; so does Macbeth.  The value in continuing to teach these works—and teach them with a vengeance, with an enraged sense of urgency—is to foster a critical, educated public that is more alert to these warning signs, a public that is suspicious of the rhetoric of greatness, a public that understands that political hubris can translate to mass violence and devastation.  

My lectures on these works have dramatically changed from previous semesters, so that I explicitly discuss the parallels between these fictional tyrants and the frighteningly real regime we are living through today, headed by a man who is currently seeking to consolidate his powers.  In my combination of lectures and discussions, I slow down the pace both as a pedagogical and political response to the rapidity at which we’re expected to now consume information. In my first three-hour session of Macbeth, the class didn’t even get through the first of five acts in the play, and it was one of the more successful classes I’ve had.  I punctuated my lecture with excerpts that students read out loud, so they could work through the difficult language.

It is no wonder that the current Department of Education wants to slash all funding for the humanities, because they recognize the potential for these courses to train us in how to think before acting.  It isn’t lucrative to pursue the humanities in a capitalist economy where capitalism itself abides by the advertising imperative, “Just do it.”  Macbeth, the nightmarish personification of that verb, wants first and foremost to “murder” thought, the one thing that can prevent his evil doings.  Instead of doing, maybe we need to anchor the Resistance in more thought first, and that begins in the classroom.    

Tom Ribitzky is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center and a Contributing Writer for Visible Pedagogy.


  1. Barry Goldberg

    Great post — I make similar comparisons in History, though I’m wondering how they are received differently in a literature class.

    • Tom Ribitzky

      Thanks! I definitely try to anchor the works I teach in a strong historical context, but I always have to account for the fact that we’re dealing with fictional characters rather than historical figures. The focus in class then tends to shift to patterns of language and observations in the behavior of these tyrannical characters. By studying these tyrants’ rhetorical moves, I hope that my students will learn to recognize similar patterns across history, and be alert to them at the present moment. Ideally, I would love to see literature and history taught side by side, because neither field entirely exists without the other– they both foreground the ways in which language transforms the world. Masha Gessen just delivered the Arthur Miller Lecture for PEN America Voices, drawing both from the study of literature and history to make sense of autocracy in Russia and the US:

      (I’m not sure if the link will embed properly in this post, but it’s on the PEN America Facebook page)

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