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.

See our complete list of Arts & Culture Podcasts.

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