Introduction:The Tyrant's Fear


Literary and dramatic representations of tyranny abound since antiquity alongside critical distinctions between different forms of totalitarian and oppressive regimes. Yet, book-length studies on this topic are relatively few. As Mary Ann McGrail remarked in one of the rare substantial contributions to Shakespeare’s tyrants, “what tyranny does to the state qua state and to its individual subjects . . . is best understood by looking within the disordered mind and passions of the tyrant himself” (Tyranny in Shakespeare, 2001). After Xenophon in his Hiero, Plato was the first to highlight the condition of fear as typical of the tyrant, and Aristotle detailed the political strategies the tyrant used to check his own fear of loss of power and retribution, in turn causing fear in his subjects. Accordingly, tyrant’s is understood as both subjective and objective genitive, and as such fear will be considered as the fundamental, if seldom investigated, condition of tyranny.

But why Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Shakespeare’s Macbeth? Because they provide fundamental models for our understanding of the mechanics of ancient and modern tyranny within a context of transhistorical continuities which look ahead to contemporary experiences of tyrannical regimes. The aim is not only to trace direct legacies, but also, and especially, to interrogate Aeschylus’s and Shakespeare’s complex responses to ideas of tyranny, and explore their potential to speak to us today. Theirs are perhaps the classical and early modern dramas most implicated with the issue of the tyrant’s fear at all levels, individual as well as collective, entailing a peculiar exploration of the performative possibilities of staging, or unstaging, fear and its causes. In both the Oresteia myth and Macbeth, fear intertwines with desire prompting a deep reflection upon human relations and the foundation of rule. In both, a questioning of the idea of “security” and “perfection” in relation to human agency, individual choice and responsibility within (or beyond) a transcendental design (be it political, dynastic, or supernatural) is raised. A comparative approach casts light upon the ideas of power, legitimacy, subjectivity, agency, and ethos as well as the capacity of theatre to perform such questions, and construct and pass down to us fundamental cultural paradigms alongside their own questioning. The articles identify both direct and indirect filiations as well as paradigmatic connections, leading the discussion to focus upon transcultural relations. The special issue considers the sixteenth century as a foundational age for the modern reinterpretaton of classical models, and contemporaneity as a crucial moment for their exploration and reinvention in the face of ever new cultural and political challenges.

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