Shakespeare and Power

Greenblatt, StephenOn our pitch-a-show thread this week Dora remembered our Thucydides show and what it made her think of: Shakespeare.

For months, I’ve been thinking about an exchange that occurred on your Thucydides show. Susan Cheever kind of bowed out of the conversation saying something to the effect of “literature is more important than politics.” She’s a wonderful writer, but I’ve just been completely baffled by this comment. I remember thinking at the time that Shakespeare seemed to believe that politics –- i.e. the struggles and dilemmas of those who wield power — were the very essence of literature.

Dora, in an show pitch to Open Source, March 23, 2007

She pointed us to an article in The New York Review of Books by Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare and the Uses of Power.

It begins with Bill Clinton as literary critic, and then goes on to discuss Shakepeare’s depictions of people who for reasons of fate and family are destined to hold power (G.W. Bush? Hillary?); his attraction to characters who attempt to walk away from power (Al Gore?); as well as his distrust of democracy (‘when he tried to imagine electioneering, voting, and representation,’ Greenblatt says, ‘he conjured up situations in which the people, manipulated by wealthy and fathomlessly cynical politicians, were repeatedly induced to act against their own interests.’)

Dora, in an show pitch to Open Source, March 23, 2007

So we’ve got Stephen Greenblatt in the studio tonight. David and I waded into his fourteen-page argument yesterday; it can be best boiled down to a single quote:

…in Shakespeare no character with a clear moral vision has a will to power and, conversely, no character with a strong desire to rule over others has an ethically adequate object.

Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare and the Uses of Power, The New York Review of Books, April 12, 2007

Greenblatt reaches deep into the catalog: King Lear, The Tempest, Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet, Coriolanus, Henry V and Julius Ceasar. We’ll try to do the same tonight, stopping to get filled in on what we’ve forgotten since college. What does Shakespeare tell us about power? Can he shed any light on democracy, or just kings deposing each other? What does power do to his characters? What can we read in Shakespeare about this century’s Presidents? Can you have both a will to power and an “ethically adequate object”?

Stephen Greenblatt

Professor of the Humanities, Harvard UniversityAuthor, Will in the World and Learning to Curse

General editor, Norton Shakespeare

Oliver Arnold

Associate Professor of English, Princeton UniversityAuthor, The Third Citizen

Jim Fitzmorris

Author and playwrightProfessor of Theatre History, Tulane University

Extra Credit Reading
David A. Bell, THe Character Issue, Open University, March 26, 2007: “So in the upcoming campaign, please, let’s not equate ‘character’ with being a boy or girl scout, still less with being ‘meek.’ As Greenblatt reminds us, the character Shakespeare most memorable defined as “meek” was Duncan, in Macbeth. And we all know what happened to him.”Guy Zimmerman, Against the New Model Army, Placebo ART, March 25, 2007: “I think in Shakespeare there’s a recogition that the vertical hierarchy of monarchy was about to be toppled by fanatics of the Self, but what would have surprised Shakespeare is how this process managed to conceal itself within the language of religion and Christianity.”

Alicia Colon, Shakespeare and Politics, The New York Sun, August 25, 2006: “I was under the impression that the Shakespeare plays were a good thing. Then I realized that my tax dollars were paying not only for something I’d never enjoy, but for productions that were less about Shakespeare than about politics.”

Rick Sincere, Report from New York, Rick Sincere Notes and Thoughts, March 28, 2007: “Asquith’s book (subtitled “The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare”) posits that Shakespeare’s plays are “coded” documents designed to support Catholic dissidents in an age of political and religious turmoil.”

Ezra Klein, McCain’s Fall, Tomorrow’s Media Conspiracy Today, March 8, 2007: “It’s possible that, when all is said and done, not only will he have humiliated himself only to lose, but he’ll have lost because he humiliated himself. It’s downright Shakespearean.”

Gerard Barker, The vaulting ambition of America’s Lady Macbeth, The Times, January 26, 2007: “Now, you might say, hold on. Aren’t all politicians veined with an opportunistic streak? Why is she any different? The difference is that Mrs Clinton has raised that opportunism to an animating philosophy, a P. T. Barnum approach to the political marketplace.”

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  • nother

    “The devil hath power

    To assume a pleasing shape.”

    Hamlet, 2. 2

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  • Lumière

    ////There are a lot of “extra credit” readings listed, so …\\\

    Listen only mode…

  • Tom B

    As I reach ‘a certain age’, I’ve come to see King Lear as less a political play or as a tragedy and more and more as a cautionary tale: ‘How to Really Screw Up Your Retirement!” I wonder what contemporary ex-politician can match this story for sheer ‘failure of judgment’ after hanging up his stirrups. Akira Kurosawa directed his masterpiece, “Ran”, (based on Shakespeare’s “King Lear”) when he was age 75. It’s interesting that Kurosawa was still making movies at age 83; perhaps he decided Lear’s fate was avoidable.

  • Tom B

    When I first read Hamlet in high school (along with my classmates), we agreed it was a strange play: ‘Gee, by the end of the play, everybody is DEAD!’ — Years later, I realized that Shakespeare would have had many more fans if we had been made to read ‘Titus Andronicus’ — but our horrified parents and the school board would have banned the Bard of Avon from our cirriculum forever had they ever read this ‘really cool’ play… Finally, it still amazes me how many folks don’t realize that the phrase ‘”The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” is ” uttered by one of the conspirators in Cade’s Rebellion, who planned to overthrow the English government, destroy the ancient rights of English men and women, [as such ‘rights’ were available to women at that time], and establish a virtual dictatorship.” . Though few of us know Yorrick (either well or badly), Shakespeare deftly combined jest, parry and thrust, skewering us all 🙂

  • Tom B
  • During the dark early days of the Iraq war when the Bush administration was at its most powerful and sinister in the cold dark heart of winter our local Shakespeare group put on a performance of MacBeth with stark lighting and spare sets. It was the perfect play for the times.

    “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” Macbeth Act V, Sc. I)

  • Beyond Skakespeare, this reminds me of a pamphlet I read a week or so ago by Chrimethinc, “Art of Politics,” of which this is a particularly good section:

    politics is not an art at all.

    It is the opposite of art: it is the obliteration of creativity and spontaneity, the reduction of human relations to a network of interlocking chains. Likewise, any art which is to be worthy of the name—the art of living, for example—must be the opposite of politics: it must draw people together, put them in touch with their hidden strengths, enable them to do what they think is right without fearing what the neighbors will think or calculating what’s in it for them.

    I agree with nearly all of this, but that it is a statement of the present, not really of what should be. And it reminds me that many of us get into politics because we don’t like it.

  • DreadfulBastard

    Tip of the chapeau to Professor Greenblatt for this:

    In poetry’s gallery of diverse ways of thinking, divers aspirations, and diverse desires, we come to know periods and nations far more intimately than we can through the misleading and pathetic method of studying their political and military history. From this latter kind of history, we rarely learn more about a people than how it was ruled and how it was wiped out. From its poetry, we learn about its way of thinking, its desires and wants, the ways it rejoiced, and the ways it was guided either by its principles or its inclinationsJohann Gottfried von Herder

  • mynocturama

    It’s been a little while since I’ve read it, but the scene in Henry IV, part 2, where Hal, now Henry V, renounces Falstaff, still sticks with me:


    God save thee, my sweet boy!

    My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!


    I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;

    How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

    I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,

    So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;

    But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.

    I wonder if there’s a point here about the opposition between pleasure and power, or between what Freud called the pleasure and reality principles. Falstaff, the embodiment of the pursuit of pleasure, and part of Hal’s dissolute past, is rejected, banished from the King’s presence, as Hal assumes the power of the throne. “But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.” Reality, the hard world of politics, power, control, triumphs over the softer side of pleasure and dream.

    Of course these shouldn’t be too strictly separated from each other. I suppose people pursue power in order to obtain pleasure more easily. And I guess for some there is a certain pleasure derived from control. But, as pursuits, purely in and of themselves, I do think there’s an open, receptive quality to pleasure, that’s intrinsically opposed to the more closed-off demand to dominate and control.

  • zeke

    I’ve been deep into some of Shakespeare’s early history plays (The thrree parts of Henry VI, Riichard III, and Titus Andronicus.) I’m struck by two competing perspectives on how the world works. In the traditional medieval view history is the providential unfolding of God’s preordained will. Valor consists of doing one’s best to demonstrate one is on God’s side, and success through force a validation of this. A newer perspective, somewhat misleadingly dubbed Machiavellian, forthrightly posits men as actors with the capacity to determine the direction of history for their own ends. The weak, pathetic King Henry the VI exemplifies the first perspective; Richard III the second one.

  • IXJRRisko

    Reading “King John” of a King who, at first, seems to feel being in power is all the power necessary, regardless of doubtful succession and Governmental deportment, to maintain power and wield it by any means he may. Outer doubt turns inward and John’s Sword of Damocles befalls self-immolation.

  • IXJRRisko

    Greenblatt mention Shakespeare not invoking gods as a Greek Tragedy forgetting Pericles (if Shakespeare) with Diana appearing and Winter’s Tale which relies on the Delphic Oracle.

  • vitamin_j

    …in Shakespeare no character with a clear moral vision has a will to power and, conversely, no character with a strong desire to rule over others has an ethically adequate object.

    Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare and the Uses of Power, The New York Review of Books, April 12, 2007

    This reminded me of Plato as Socrates in The Republic: (paraphrasing) “…the best leader will also least want to be the leader, and can be convinced to lead only because it is best for the society.” That’s not to imply that Shakespeare was a Platonist (no way, right?), or that his depictions of power were programmatic as The Republic is. But his education, what we know of it, was mostly in the classics, I believe. And I can’t resist the rampant speculation that he read the (pseudo)quoted section in Plato, and his mind, loving the paradoxes in the formulation, as well as the potential of its inverse, filed it away for later use or thought, perhaps just as background for his portraits of humans trying to govern.

  • enhabit

    shakespeare was skilled at going right up to that line…when writing about elizabeth’s own ancestors after all (maybe she appreciated seeing them humanized)…right up to that line…sneaking a toe or two over it, even at times, a foot..and getting away with it. anybody else would have been enjoying the hospitality of the tower.

  • loki

    Without Bebe Rebozo-who is Falstaff in the Bush Administration? I remember Gene McCathy suggesteding that we elect a Vice President and have him appoint a President.

  • enhabit

    maybe the post-modern joke is that dubya is his own falstaff…who’s henry?

  • LoganD

    I loved this show up until the point where Christopher asked the guest if there were any examples of “Bushian” wars in Shakespeare’s works. At that point I turned off my iPod in disgust. I’m no supporter of GWB, but why not refer to such wars as “Kennedian” or “Johnsonian”? There have been wars started on false pretenses, just as many by Democrats as Republicans in our history. Why bring political bias into such an interesting program?

  • herbert browne

    Re the quote (from emmettoconnell, above): it sounds more like it’s about the medieval church- not about “politics”… However, I agree with eoc himself, when he says ..”many of us get into politics because we don’t like it..”- which can be a stimulus to creative expression. ^..^

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  • hurley
  • hurley

    Yes, Shakespeare and Wart, followed by Hangnail and I…

  • jimfitzmorris

    In response to LoganD’s disgust of the attack on “Bushian Wars:” if you had continued listening, you would have heard a discussion on The Shakespearean Scope of the Johnson Administration. I don’t think Chris was so much attacking Bush as trying to keep the paralells in the now. Besides, Hillary, on more than one occasion, was alluded to as the Scottish Queen in that unmentionable play..