The Death of Tyrants

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At the time of writing, the former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi (Colonel Gaddafi) has fled from Tripoli, and is being hunted by rebel forces. As such, he is in a position to offer some unique insights into the dramatic treatment of a number of Shakespeare’s characters. Now would be a good time to ask him what it is like to be forced from power, to go from having absolute power to being a fugitive. We could also ask him how he has rationalized the many horrific acts committed on his behalf, in his name.

Shakespeare was fascinated with the predicament of the disempowered. He returned to the theme of powerful men and women who lose power time and again in his writings. His earliest plays, from Titus Andronicus to the three parts of Henry VI, show a keen interest in the personal consequences of history. King Henry is thrust from power, captured, made to give up his son’s inheritance, gains power again, loses it and is finally murdered by Gloucester, the future Richard III. In one of the most moving scenes of 3 Henry VI, Henry watches as the two sides in a civil war clash like storms and raging seas. He is witness to the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, and as he watches he imagines himself as a shepherd with a life free from the responsibilities of power, the consequences of history. Only when he is brought face to face with the violence of the battle does he lament the burden of the ‘bloody times’ which make him ‘o’ercharg’d with grief.’


Unlike Gadaffi, Henry never wanted power. By contrast, Richard II is forced to abdicate by Henry Bolingbroke. Shakespeare focuses on Richard’s experience of not being King anymore. Asked to resign his crown, Richard struggles against the inevitable: ‘Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be’. What is he without his crown? Hesitating as Bolingbroke waits impatiently for him to sign his abdication papers, Richard calls for a mirror so that he can see what he looks like. When he gets it, he throws it on to the ground, shattering the mirror into pieces, fragmenting and distorting his reflection, ‘crack’d in a hundred shivers.’ It is one of the most arresting images in Shakespeare, and foreshadows the harrowing scenes of Lear’s madness, when he too confronts the consequences of being reduced to a ‘poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man’, a ‘slave’ rather than a king. In one of his last plays, Henry VIII or All is True (written with John Fletcher), Shakespeare returns one last time to this theme as he shows the wheel of fortune turning unforgivingly on those in power.


Gaddafi is not yet in a position wholly like that of Lear’s or Richard’s, though he may soon be joining other latter-day tyrants such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milošević in being completely disempowered. Gaddafi may well be turning to Shakespeare for consolation, as he is apparently a fan of the bard. In fact, he is one of the best known proponents of the theory that Shakespeare was an Arab immigrant named Sheik Zubayr bin William. Gaddafi is often credited with being the source for the Shiek Zebayr theory, but the author of the fascinating blog ‘Shakespeare in the Arab World’ has traced its origins back to a mid-nineteenth-century Lebanese satirical writer, Amad Fāris al-Shidyāq. (Strangely, Gaddafi is not listed on the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’s list of notable authorship deniers – perhaps someone should tell them). Which character would Gadaffi identify with then? Perhaps Richard III, on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth, broken but defiantly himself: ‘Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.’ But perhaps he is more likely to see echoes of himself in Coriolanus, who, exiled for his pride, refuses to give up his identity and resolves instead to seek a ‘world elsewhere’, before returning to Rome determined to destroy it.




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Author:Stuart Hampton-Reeves

Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Central Lancashire.
  • Sylvia Morris

    Stuart, Thanks for this fascinating analysis. I suspect Gadaffi sees himself as a man more sinned against than sinning, a King Lear or Richard II rather than Richard III who revels in what he’s done. Would he accept responsibility for the crimes done in his name?  Why I wonder does Shakespeare return so often to the idea of the powerful person who loses his power?

  • Ty Unglebower

    Very interesting piece. (With an amusing nod towards Colonel Gadaffi’s plight.)

    This notion of power obtained and power denied is one of the recurring Shakespearean themes with which I am the most fascinated. (Probably why I, unlike most of my contemporaries in the theatre am a huge fan of the history plays.) Almost as though the enormity of the power previous held by a character in a play is brought into even greater focus by the losing of same later in the play. To witness such transitions, (usually due to violence of course) play out within the Shakespearean canon is to in a way combine the political with the emotional and poetic. We almost feel sympathy even for tyrants as they fall among such poetic settings and using such lyrical speech to respond to said downfall.

    ALMOST feel sympathy.

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