Shakespeare and the Uses of Political Power

Stephen Green­blatt, a Har­vard pro­fes­sor, lead­ing Shake­speare schol­ar, and author of the 2005 best­seller Will in the World, penned a piece in the lat­est New York Review of Books that sur­veys Shake­speare’s pol­i­tics — his take on the uses and abus­es of polit­i­cal pow­er. The piece starts in a won­der­ful way, so for­give us for quot­ing it a lit­tle at length:

In 1998, a friend of mine, Robert Pin­sky, who at the time was serv­ing as the poet lau­re­ate of the Unit­ed States, invit­ed me to a poet­ry evening at the Clin­ton White House, one of a series of black-tie events orga­nized to mark the com­ing mil­len­ni­um. On this occa­sion the Pres­i­dent gave an amus­ing intro­duc­to­ry speech in which he recalled that his first encounter with poet­ry came in junior high school when his teacher made him mem­o­rize cer­tain pas­sages from Mac­beth. This was, Clin­ton remarked wry­ly, not the most aus­pi­cious begin­ning for a life in pol­i­tics.

After the speech­es, I joined the line of peo­ple wait­ing to shake the Pres­i­den­t’s hand. When my turn came, a strange impulse came over me. This was a moment when rumors of the Lewin­sky affair were cir­cu­lat­ing, but before the whole thing had blown up into the grotesque nation­al cir­cus that it soon became. “Mr. Pres­i­dent,” I said, stick­ing out my hand, “don’t you think that Mac­beth is a great play about an immense­ly ambi­tious man who feels com­pelled to do things that he knows are polit­i­cal­ly and moral­ly dis­as­trous?” Clin­ton looked at me for a moment, still hold­ing my hand, and said, “I think Mac­beth is a great play about some­one whose immense ambi­tion has an eth­i­cal­ly inad­e­quate object.”

I was aston­ished by the apt­ness, as well as the quick­ness, of this com­ment, so per­cep­tive­ly in touch with Mac­beth’s anguished brood­ing about the impuls­es that are dri­ving him to seize pow­er by mur­der­ing Scot­land’s legit­i­mate ruler. When I recov­ered my equi­lib­ri­um, I asked the Pres­i­dent if he still remem­bered the lines he had mem­o­rized years before. Of course, he replied, and then, with the rest of the guests still patient­ly wait­ing to shake his hand, he began to recite one of Mac­beth’s great solil­o­quies:

    If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
    It were done quick­ly. If th’ assas­si­na­tion
    Could tram­mel up the con­se­quence, and catch
    With his surcease suc­cess: that but this blow
    Might be the be-all and the end-all, here,
    But here upon this bank and shoal of time,
    We’d jump the life to come. But in these cas­es
    We still have judge­ment here, that we but teach
    Bloody instruc­tions which, being taught, return
    To plague th’in­ven­tor.


There the most pow­er­ful man in the world—as we are fond of call­ing our leader—broke off with a laugh, leav­ing me to con­jure up the rest of the speech that ends with Mac­beth’s own baf­fle­ment over the fact that his immense ambi­tion has “an eth­i­cal­ly inad­e­quate object”:

       I have no spur
    To prick the sides of my intent, but only
    Vault­ing ambi­tion, which o’er­leaps itself
    And falls on th’other.…


I left the White House that evening with the thought that Bill Clin­ton had missed his true voca­tion, which was, of course, to be an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor. But the pro­fes­sion he actu­al­ly chose makes it all the more appro­pri­ate to con­sid­er whether it is pos­si­ble to dis­cov­er in Shake­speare an “eth­i­cal­ly ade­quate object” for human ambi­tion.

The arti­cle goes on to explore just this ques­tion, and it’s well worth the read. (And, oh how do I miss Clin­ton in some ways.) The piece also sets the stage for a radio pro­gram that aired last week on one of our favorite shows, PRI’s Open Souce (FeedMp3). Speak­ing with Stephen Green­blatt and two oth­er schol­ars — Oliv­er Arnold (Prince­ton) and Jim Fitz­mor­ris (Tulane) — the host Christo­pher Lydon sorts through Shake­speare’s out­look on pow­er and lead­er­ship (with­in both monar­chies and republics), and then they cir­cle back to view Amer­i­ca’s polit­i­cal land­scape through the Bard’s eyes. Shake­speare made his polit­i­cal com­men­tary often by look­ing back over 1500 years to Ancient Rome. So is it too far fetched to project his think­ing for­ward 400 years, to Amer­i­ca 2007? Have a lis­ten and you decide.

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