Paul Cantor Transcript

Taped November 15, 2013

Table of Contents

Episode 1

I: Shakespearean Beginnings 0:15 – 7:04

II: The Settings of Shakespeare’s Plays 7:04 – 11:34
III: Comedy and Tragedy 11:39 – 18:15

IV: Roman Plays 18:15 – 29:10

V: Rulers and Regimes 29:10 – 41:04
VI: The Christian Plays 41:05 – 50:16

VII: The Theological-Political Problem 50:17 – 1:03:11

I: Shakespearean Beginnings (0:15 – 7:04)

KRISTOL: I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to the next in our series of CONVERSATIONS. We have with us today, Paul Cantor, who I’ve known for many years, and I’m thrilled to have him as a guest.

He’s a Professor of Literature at the University of Virginia. I took his course, I think, in the English department, when I was an undergraduate and when he was a young assistant professor at Harvard many decades ago. At the time he had already done important work on Shakespeare and continued that work for the next three, four decades. So we’re going to talk about Shakespeare. Paul, welcome.

CANTOR: Thanks for having me here.

KRISTOL: Good to have you. So, how did you get interested in Shakespeare? I guess everyone’s sort of interested in Shakespeare, if you’re an English professor, but you distinctively –

CANTOR: I feel I was destined to study Shakespeare because my mother was born on April 23rd and that’s Shakespeare’s birthday too.

KRISTOL: Is it really Shakespeare’s birthday, or is that one of those legends? Do we know that?

CANTOR: Well, now, you know it’s based on the fact – I think he was baptized on April 26th, so they usually waited three days to see if the kid would live. And since he did die on April 23 in 1616, they kind of – April 23 is his accepted birthday.

And I really come from a literary family. My mother had an M.A. in English from Cornell. She used to take me to Shakespeare plays. My grandfather had a Ph.D. in English. My brother was very interested in literature, so I grew up – my father collected books. I grew up in a house with all sorts of Shakespeare books around.

And then I was taken particularly to Stratford, Connecticut, which in those days had a wonderful Shakespeare theater. I remember particularly seeing Morris Carnovsky playing King Lear. It was so good we went to it twice. I would go to Shakespeare in the Park. I grew up in Brooklyn, so as long as I can remember – I remember loving Shakespeare.

KRISTOL: But you decided to actually study Shakespeare and to study it in a distinctive way. So how did that happen?

CANTOR: Well, I started in the ninth grade in what was then called junior high school. Our ninth-grade project was Julius Caesar. It’s kind of funny because the Roman plays play such a great role in my life, and it all began with our – I was just amazed at Julius Caesar. That was the first time I sat down and read a Shakespeare play carefully and then that led me to the other Roman plays. And by my senior year in high school, I wrote a long paper on King Lear.

But it really was my experience at Harvard that changed things for me. And it’s odd because it wasn’t so much through the English department as through the political science department from a man whom we both know, Harvey Mansfield.

I met him in my junior year and I had joined a reading group he was doing. But I took a course he gave – the spring semester of 1965, called Government 112C. It was a course on comparative government. It compared the Greek polis, the Roman Republic, 18th-century British monarchy, and the American Revolutionary government.

And that’s when I first learned about Polybius, Machiavelli, Livy, all these things about ancient Rome and one of the supplementary readings was Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. So, I was already interested in the play and I wrote a paper for Harvey on that topic and that was really the start of things. That’s when I understood that it was important to take into account the political dimensions of the play.

The key thing in the course was the classical idea of the regime: different forms of government shape different kinds of people and I understood that that was fundamental to Shakespeare, that his Romans were different from his Englishmen and in fact his Republican Romans are different from his Imperial Romans.

KRISTOL: So politics is central to Shakespeare though he’s not of course thought of primarily as a political author in any narrow sense. I mean you saw that early on.

CANTOR: Yes, junior year in college. That’s pretty early.

KRISTOL: And then you wrote your senior thesis I think on –

CANTOR: King Lear.

KRISTOL: But then at graduate school you wrote about the Roman plays?

CANTOR: Yes, my dissertation, which became my first book, Shakespeare’s Rome, was on Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, with some stuff on Julius Caesar.

KRISTOL: So, when you think about Shakespeare the way you do – give us a slight overview – then we’ll talk about the Roman plays and other categories of plays and obviously these plays deserve detailed interpretation in their own right. And then every line can be interpreted.

But stepping back, I don’t think most studies of Shakespeare really approach it this way, thinking about Shakespeare’s kind of universe as different – his reflections on different regimes. I think that’s really been key to your work.

CANTOR: Yeah, and I was very inspired by the work of Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa, particularly the book they did, Shakespeare’s Politics, which coincidentally came out in 1965 when I first started working on this with Harvey Mansfield.

I put it this way: everybody talks about the wide diversity of human types in Shakespeare. That’s something he’s generally credited with and I like to connect that diversity with the diversity of regimes he looks at.

I think Shakespeare understood that not all human types are available at all times. So, for example, he’s very aware of how living in a pagan republic as his characters do in Coriolanus is very different from living in a Christian monarchy as, say, his characters do in his history plays.

A simple issue is suicide – I guess suicide is not so simple an issue to be thinking about – but it’s a simple way of making this contrast that when Shakespeare sets a play in a Christian land suicide is forbidden. It’s after all almost the first thing Hamlet says, “had not the Everlasting fixed his canon ’gainst self-slaughter.”

Suicide is a very difficult issue for Hamlet because his religion forbids it. On the other hand at the end of the play when Horatio wants to join Hamlet in suicide, the way he says it is: “I’m more an antique Roman than a Dane,” by which he’s saying I believe in the Roman view where suicide is the honorable thing to do in certain circumstances.

And in a play like Julius Caesar the characters are more or less lining up at the end of the play to commit suicide, who could do it first. That shows you that here’s a very serious human issue and yet people approach it very differently depending upon the regime they live under and that’s what I’ve tried to explore in Shakespeare’s plays and, again, suggesting that he’s able to portray a different kind of human being in, say, Coriolanus because he’s portraying a different regime, which means a different set of fundamental beliefs, different attitudes, different options in life.

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