Xenophon and Plato in Elizabethan Culture:The Tyrant's Fear Before Macbeth


Moving on to an investigation of the “tyrant’s fear” topic in early modern English drama, this article brings the attention to the classical intersections in the production of the late 1590s, discussing how this motif was shaped and received before it became central to the dramatization of tyranny in Macbeth. Characters such as Ferrex and Porrex (1561), Cambises (1569), Mordred (1587), Alaham (1598–1600), and of course Richard III (1588–1592) paved the way to the construction of the psychology of the tyrant on stage. In turn, Seneca’s Agamemnon—well-known in John Studley’s anglicized version (1566)—offered an extraordinary new interpretation of the character of Clytemnestra as entirely imbued with a fear that weakened both her will and agency. These figures were the dramatic representations of a character-type widely described in the political treatises of the time, where the tyrant served as a negative model for the virtues of the ideal prince: he was ambitious, proud, libidinous, wrathful, rebellious, with no respect for the law (not even God’s), and, starting with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (published in 1590), provided with a titanic will to defy all social bonds. However, there is one aspect of the tyrant’s character which makes Macbeth and his wife different from their predecessors and closer to the Senecan model: fear. Even though, in political treatises, the tyrant was said to live in fear and suspicion because of his guilt, leading him on to more misdeeds and cruelties, only in Macbeth does this motif become a distinctive and important trait of the two protagonists’ personality. Why did fear become so central in Macbeth? Was it in any way connected with the contemporary cultural and political milieus?

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