Paul Cantor Transcript
Taped November 15, 2013
Table of Contents
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
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.
KRISTOL: Just to step back for a second and outline it for people, so there were the Roman plays, which themselves have a progression through regimes. Coriolanus, which is set in old Rome, I guess.
CANTOR: The Republic. In fact, for the Roman plays what I study is the change in regime. Coriolanus is the beginnings of the republic and Antony and Cleopatra portrays the beginnings of the empire, and Julius Caesar portrays the transition when the republic turns into an empire.
KRISTOL: And then there are the English plays, which are what, ten history plays?
CANTOR: Ten history plays, yes.
KRISTOL: And that is Shakespeare’s – I’m just speaking very broadly – we’ll get back to this – but Shakespeare’s attempt to do what, do more than just telling Englishmen a nice account of their history.
CANTOR: Yeah, I mean, they are a study of kingship. I think it’s an attempt on Shakespeare’s part to portray what a bad king is and what a good king is. Unfortunately bad kings are more available than good kings.
And, again, he studies a progression there where he actually is showing the emergence of the modern British monarchy out of the medieval conditions.
KRISTOL: And then some of the other famous plays, Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, they’re set in different places. Most of the time someone like me goes to one of these plays; you think it’s just an accident it’s in Scotland or it’s in Denmark, but I take it you would argue that a pretty conscious choice by Shakespeare.
CANTOR: It doesn’t help today that Macbeth will be set in New Jersey, because they want to show a gangster movie. But I think the settings are important. I tentatively make another grouping which would be Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello, which I’ll very tentatively call the Christian plays, because I think in contrast to the Roman plays, they study tragedy – a new kind of tragedy that Shakespeare sees occurring in a Christian context.
King Lear is a play unto itself, as I see it. I personally think it’s Shakespeare’s greatest play. It’s roughly set in pre-Christian Britain and I think Shakespeare abstracts more than he usually does from history in that play, because it’s a play about nature.
And he wants to study nature in a more, dare I say, natural setting there. That’s why that play does not have the specificity of locale that many of the other tragedies do.
KRISTOL: And then there are very famous plays set in Italy or in other countries –
CANTOR: Yeah, that would be another grouping. It cuts across the tragedies and comedies. I think Othello is usefully studied with Merchant of Venice; they are two plays about Venice. It gets a little complicated when we start talking about specific cities like Padua or Verona, whether Shakespeare had any particular conception about them.
He does understand Italy as important and it’s surprising in a way how many of his plays are set in Italy because Italy, I think, embodies the tension between religion and politics that’s so important to Shakespeare’s plays.
KRISTOL: So, if you step back you could say I guess that Shakespeare is trying to give – portray the different human possibilities, the different political regimes, and the different human types in those regimes. You’ve got ancients. You’ve got – and there are additional plays that are also randomly set – Troilus and Cressida – in different places or confusingly set in more than one place it seems.
But there are ancient plays, there are Christian plays, there are English plays, there –
CANTOR: Yes, it really is remarkable what an effort he made – I’ll even call it an archaeological effort – to survey as much as he could of the Europe he lived in but also to go back to antiquity.
Now, that’s what the Renaissance was. Shakespeare lived in a period we call the Renaissance. Renaissance means rebirth. And it was the rebirth of classical antiquity. This is the time when people dug up those wonderful statues from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. It’s when the study of Homer was revived. Virgil was studied all over Europe, and Shakespeare was part of that Renaissance movement.
And to me the most remarkable thing he did, among many remarkable things, but maybe the most was bringing ancient Rome back to life on the stage.
I think the continuing focus on Rome – because after all it’s right there in our culture – we’ve got an HBO series on Rome, we’ve got other – and I think Shakespeare didn’t do this uniquely but he helped to revive Rome in a way that has made it a permanent reference point in our culture ever since.
KRISTOL: That’s interesting. Let’s go back to the Roman plays in a minute, but just to complete the kind of general survey, there are the comedies which we really haven’t mentioned, which seem to be set all over the place and sometimes hard to tell where they’re set. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but isn’t it the case that very few playwrights have written great tragedies and great comedies and Shakespeare seems to have been able to do both easily?
CANTOR: It’s arguable that Shakespeare is the only one to have done it on that level. It’s interesting that in Plato’s Symposium, at the end of a very drunken party, Socrates proposes that the greatest playwright would be able to write both comedies and tragedies.
Because we have Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus who wrote tragedies. We have Aristophanes and Menander who wrote comedies. They seem very different to us and in this dialogue, the Symposium, Aristophanes, the comedian and Agathon, a tragedian – none of his plays survived, but we know he wrote tragedies.
And Plato portrays them very differently. And in a weird way Shakespeare is the fulfillment of Socrates’ prophecy there and I think Shakespeare is a deeply philosophical poet and had chosen the fact that he wasn’t bound by the limits of either tragedy or comedy.
To this day, if Woody Allen makes a serious film, we say, what’s going on here? Or if Ingmar Bergman tried to make a comedy, we say, what’s going on here? Generally speaking, playwrights, filmmakers, they either, we want to say, have a tragic or comic vision.
Now, you know Ben Jonson wrote a couple – he’s mainly a comic writer, wrote a couple of tragedies – Roman tragedies, Catiline and Sejanus; they are actually pretty bad. A guy named Thomas Middleton, who is sort of in the second rank of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and may in fact have co-written a couple of plays with Shakespeare, he seemed to move easily between comedy and tragedy.
He wrote some very good tragedies and some very good comedies but they’re not on the level of Shakespeare. So, the level that Shakespeare is operating on – there’s no one who can combine tragedy and comedy the way he does.
KRISTOL: Just to complete this sort of 30,000-feet look at Shakespeare’s works, there are plays that are sort of – people don’t know quite what to categorize them as. Isn’t that right? Problem Plays, some people call them. . . .
CANTOR: Yeah, there’s this guy, Ernest Schanzer came up with this category, “Problem Plays.” Most of them I would say are, in fact, comedies. And then there are these last plays, sometimes called the romances, Pericles, Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Henry VIII in some ways belongs with that group, and then there’s this play Two Noble Kinsmen. Both Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen were probably written along with a guy named John Fletcher, but they definitely fit in this sort of late phase of Shakespeare’s career.
Let me go back to the comedies though and say one thing in regard to what we were saying about their setting. The comedies are different from the tragedies and by and large they tend to abstract from politics. That why it is somewhat difficult to fit them into a political scheme.
Shakespeare is interested in romantic love in those plays and in some ways he has to abstract from a political problem to examine the love problem. So, I think – now, The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, those plays, the setting is highly political and relevant.
But in a lot of Shakespeare’s comedies it’s as if he is saying, “Let’s bracket out the political problem and see what trouble people can get into when they fall in love.”
KRISTOL: Which maybe has less to do with the political order.
CANTOR: Although ultimately it does.
KRISTOL: It still does, right. Because even the comedies have a certain surprising amount of politics going on. There are princes and there are dukes and there are issues of who should marry who based on dynastic considerations –
CANTOR: But still A Midsummer Night’s Dream is nominally set in Athens but it’s not like any Athens I’ve ever read about. Especially since they have nunneries available.
KRISTOL: And Shakespeare also wrote poems, the sonnets?
KRISTOL: Have you spent much time on those?
CANTOR: Actually I have not. They fit in with what I have to say about the analysis of romantic love in Shakespeare.
There are such textual problem with the sonnets, it’s hard to know how to deal with them. And Shakespeare did not publish them; they seem to have been published over his objections. Therefore we can’t know the order – the order in which they were written, which would be key to any interpretation, does not have authorial agreement to it. So, I hesitate to get involved with the sonnets, though I have been known to bring them up in talking about romantic love in the comedies.
There are also two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and some other things too. It is interesting that in those days, to become famous and respected, you had to write poetry. And Shakespeare seems to have wanted – obviously play-writing was his day job. It was like waiting tables in Hollywood, waiting for his big break, and he was trying to write poems that would make him famous and fortunately he discovered, I think, that the plays – writing plays was better than writing poetry, and he became very famous for writing plays. And, I think, fortunately for us he gave up his hope of being a poet instead of being a playwright. It’s rather strange, but play-writing then had the status, let’s say, of TV writing now. It was not a respectable thing.
KRISTOL: It had been in ancient times, of course, as you say in the Symposium. I guess it had fallen out of favor as a serious –
CANTOR: As early as 1598, a guy named Francis Meres went into print, comparing Shakespeare to the ancient playwrights. Mostly the Roman playwrights, Seneca, Plautus and Terrence – and that was in a way his big arrival moment when someone’s saying you know this guy Shakespeare is as good as these Roman playwrights. And you know, maybe it went to Shakespeare’s head. And he decided “okay, I don’t have to do this poetry stuff anymore.”
KRISTOL: So Shakespeare you say brings Rome to life for 16th-century, 17th-century Britons and, I guess, for us too. How did he put together the Roman plays, he brings it to life, he also brings to life the change within Rome, right?
CANTOR: I think the most remarkable thing is Shakespeare’s interest in Republican Rome. That is, he was living under a monarchy. There was great fascination with the Roman Emperor and empire in his day. After all, you had a Holy Roman Emperor in Europe, and Henry the VIII actually tried to become a Holy Roman Emperor. And several English monarchs were interested in it.
And a lot of the other Roman plays being written in this time dealt with the imperial period, Ben Jonson’s Sejanus, for example. The most remarkable thing is that Shakespeare goes back to the beginnings of the Republic in Coriolanus and wanted to understand Rome at its most different from modern politics.
And he chose a subject that is not all that popular. He’s writing about Julius Caesar – other people had done it, Antony and Cleopatra. . . . A few other people have written about Coriolanus, but he’s not one of the major figures in world literature.
So, in some ways I see that choice as telling us a lot about Shakespeare. And, again, I happened to be studying this seriously for the first time when I was taking this course with Harvey Mansfield when we were learning the details of the Roman Republic and Shakespeare had got them right. That’s what most struck me, that he understood that the Roman Republic had two consuls; he understood the function of the tribunes.
He was reading Plutarch, very carefully, Plutarch’s “Life of Coriolanus” and all these details were there. He may have been reading Livy as well, Livy’s history of the Roman Republic. He probably was reading Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. So he had sources for understanding it.
But what I saw was that he understood how this Roman Republic functioned and why it became such a world conqueror. Again, one of the strange facts is the Roman Republic put together what we call the Roman Empire. That vast amount of land was conquered by the armies of the Republic largely, and the Empire was largely a holding action of that.
So Shakespeare shows in Coriolanus what it is to live in a deeply political regime; that is, a regime where human life is focused on politics. Part of it is –
KRISTOL: Coriolanus is very early?
CANTOR: In Roman history, it’s 500 BC.
KRISTOL: So, it’s almost the beginning of the Republic?
CANTOR: In a certain sense it is the beginning of the Republic because it’s the beginning of the tribunate. That is, Rome had just expelled the Tarquin Kings (these Etruscans had been ruling the city) and they in effect declared a Republic – the name of king was hated in Rome for five centuries because they looked upon kings as foreign usurpers, these Tarquins, who rape Roman women – that’s the story of the rape of Lucrece and the instigation for expelling the Tarquins.
And, so, Rome was being ruled by a Senate and these two consuls, and Coriolanus deals with that very important moment when the people rebel and they are mollified by being given a role in the regime. This – these five tribunes in the play – only two of them are characters in the play. And they’re given among other things a right of veto over anything that the Senate rules – so Machiavelli understood this and I think Shakespeare understood it – that the tribunate introduced the popular element into the Roman Republic regime and created what was known in antiquity as a mixed regime.
Not monarchy, not democracy, not aristocracy, but elements of all three. The consuls were the kingly element. The executive element, we would say. The senate was the aristocratic element, and the tribunes represented the people who were the popular or democratic element.
Machiavelli taught us all about this. Actually it goes back to antiquity. Polybius and his history of Rome in the famous Book Six has a description of the Roman regime. And Shakespeare understood how that worked and in particular how it worked to elicit political life among the wholecommunity.
Rome had these two consuls. They were chosen every year. That meant a lot of people in the Roman Republic could aspire to the chief executive position. The consuls led the armies, they convened the senate, they were essentially what we would call chief executives.
But there were two of them, so you had the beginnings of what we call checks and balances in the regime. The senators basically ruled Rome. They were the wealthy landowners. But because of the role that the plebeians had, the people could feel they had a say in things.
What Shakespeare shows about the Roman Republic is not that it was a democracy in the modern sense and not that there was full and equal participation in politics, but there was widespread participation. So the senators or the patricians, they could legitimately aspire to become consul at some point in their lives.
The plebeians were not going to become consul, but they could become tribunes. Shakespeare is very good at that, showing that the ambitious people among the plebeians have a role in the regime. That’s why politics becomes the focus of life in Coriolanus.
KRISTOL: So this play that’s set at the beginning of this fantastically successful Roman Republic isn’t a happy play, though, and Coriolanus who was a great man, I think, isn’t he supposed to be in a way? A great man is exiled or leaves and then dies, fighting against Rome, as I recall. So what’s that about, the tension between the great individual –
CANTOR: Yes, certainly the play is tragic because it deals with the great tension between the most prominent figure in the community and the community itself. But, here’s the deal, Coriolanus threatens the Roman Republic precisely because of his overwhelming superiority. This is a man who seems to win battles single-handedly.
And the threat in the play actually to the Republic is that everyone is fawning all over him, the patricians and the plebeians, and we see there a formula that was eventually going to produce Julius Caesar. What eventually was going to destroy the Republic is the moment when one of the patricians becomes so prominent that he rules the city singled-handedly.
So, actually the Coriolanus episode teaches the Romans, I believe, a lot of valuable lessons. It teaches the patricians that, no, they shouldn’t be too haughty, too proud in the face of the plebeians. It teaches them they shouldn’t let one of their number become too prominent.
The plebeians learn that they have the power to expel a great patrician but it backfires. Because in that play he comes back leading their enemies, the Volsces, and nearly destroys Rome. And so it’s actually a tragic story, which has a sobering effect, I would say, on the city. It’s a lesson in moderation.
The patricians learn that they have to be more accommodating to the plebeians. The plebeians have to learn not to press their power too much, and actually what emerges from that play is the balance in this mixed regime that sustained itself for five centuries.
KRISTOL: And Shakespeare skips those five centuries because maybe it’s less exciting to write plays about, you know, stable, successful regimes –
CANTOR: Well, he could have written some great plays. . . .
KRISTOL: He could have, but he skips – just to get back to Coriolanus – the most evident thing about it is also just this amazing expulsion of him, the greatest Roman of the time. And so the tension between, I guess, individual greatness in any regime – is that part of the point? – in that respect it’s not Roman-specific?
CANTOR: It’s really – the central theme of Shakespeare tragedy is the tension between a single great individual and the community he both serves and defies. And you see that in Macbeth, you see it in Othello. In a weird way you see it in Hamlet. You can see it in King Lear and certainly all the Roman plays.
That’s one of the most fundamental tragic facts for Shakespeare that political excellence and human excellence are not the same thing. And that a great man can be very dangerous for the community he seems to serve, but may in fact want to go beyond and even take over in some cases.
KRISTOL: Just to get ahead of the Roman plays for a minute, it is striking how impressive these pretty awful tyrants are in Shakespeare. You know you can’t like or admire a Macbeth, presumably. On the other hand, he’s a great man in a way, right?
CANTOR: Shakespeare is very interested in the phenomenon of tyranny. The plebeians accuse Coriolanus of being a tyrant. Certainly, it’s a major charge against Julius Caesar, and I show in my book Shakespeare’s Rome that Antony behaves like a tyrant.
Shakespeare takes us back to the original Greek meaning of the word, tyrannos, which basically meant a self-made man. A Greek tyrannos at the start of the use of the term was not necessarily a bad guy. It was some guy who came to the throne by his own power, and the sixth century BC is known as the age of tyrants, and the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus was a pretty great guy. He may have created Athenian tragedy. He may be the first guy to have Homer’s poems set down in writing.
And only gradually did the Greeks learn that if you came to the throne on your own efforts you might be a nasty ruler, because you were very worried about someone doing the same thing to you. And that’s the logic that Shakespeare shows with tyranny in Richard III, Macbeth as well.
So, in some ways he was very fascinated by this phenomenon because he had his doubts about people who had simply inherited the throne. They often are not good rulers then and I think he was in tune with the Machiavellian theme about the tensions between legitimate princes and illegitimate princes and how illegitimate princes have more energy, and that’s certainly what you see in someone like Richard III.
So, yes, they are not in moral terms admirable but their sheer energy can be pretty impressive.
KRISTOL: And so is Caesar, speaking of energy. So we have Coriolanus. And then we fast-forward, so to speak, to this amazing moment, which was, of course, an extremely famous moment in world history, before Shakespeare and Julius Caesar, I suppose, of Caesar and his assassination.
CANTOR: As far as we know Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar first, and maybe seven, eight, nine years later he wrote Coriolanus. But it’s seamless how he integrates the two plays and you can see their relation in the opening scenes.
In the opening scene in Coriolanus, the people are hungry, they’re complaining about the grain that the patricians are hoarding, and they’re in rebellion. They’re accusing Coriolanus of being an enemy of the people. Fast-forward to Julius Caesar, and the plebeians in the opening scene are out on holiday. They’re wearing their best clothing, which is a big development because they have best clothing now. In Coriolanus’ day they just had rags.
And they’re celebrating Caesar’s triumph over Pompey and their tribunes are berating them for doing that. In Coriolanus, Shakespeare shows the plebeians were still deeply suspicious of the patricians and that checked patrician power in the city.
But what we see in Julius Caesar is the guy that played Roman politics perfectly, Julius Caesar, and what he has learned to do is get the people on his side. And once he does that he unbalances this mixed Roman regime and is on the verge of becoming sole ruler of Rome, even maybe king. Though it’s clear people still don’t like the name of king and so he’s trying to arrange a deal with the senate – he’ll be called king outside Italy, everywhere else in the empire, but he won’t take the title in Rome.
The whole scene of Mark Antony offering the crown is part of that public relations stunt to keep the people convinced that he’s not going to become king: “We won’t impose a king on you.” And, yet, we see from Casca’s account that Julius Caesar is coveting that crown.
So, basically – again, it’s something that Roman historians know and again Shakespeare would have learned from Machiavelli – the great problem for the Roman Republic was growth and size. Once it reached this pan-Mediterranean empire, they had to extend the terms of the consuls. It took you a year just to get your army to Spain.
And as Machiavelli argues and other people have argued about Rome, once the consuls have served for more than one year, their armies would start to become loyal to them and not to Rome.
And that’s what we see at the opening of Julius Caesar. The armies loyal to Pompey had been defeated by the armies loyal to Caesar, and no one’s loyal to Rome any more. They’re loyal to their leader, and so that’s what the Empire is: personal politics. And Shakespeare shows how that transforms everything now.
KRISTOL: And Brutus, is he loyal to the old Republic?
CANTOR: Yes. You see these figures like Brutus and Cassius and all the conspirators who are trying to restore the Republic and who bitterly complained about the preeminence of one man. I mean Cassius has this great speech where he says, “When did we ever see this before in Rome that one man is ruling the whole city?” and “This guy Caesar, he’s not better than I am, I once had to rescue him from drowning – and he once had a fever in Spain, he’s just a human being.”
And you do see the old Republic spirit alive, but it’s about to be defeated. To me, the turning point – and I think Shakespeare has indicated this – is when Brutus gets up and gives this fairly good speech defending the murder of Caesar and the effort to restore the Republic – some guy in the crowd says, “Let him be Caesar,” and that’s when it’s over, when you realize that this whole thing that was done to restore the Republic at most can produce a change of regime and the very name Caesar has become a title now. We don’t need kings, we need Caesars.
KRISTOL: And I suppose Antony and Cleopatra, I mean it’s set right afterwards, so those two are kind of a pair?
CANTOR: It’s interesting that, really, in terms of composition, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra are the pair. That is, they were written at the same time. I believe that, having written Julius Caesar, at some point, perhaps even when he wrote Julius Caesar, Shakespeare conceived of having two pendant plays, one which would go back and show the foundation of the Republic – that’s Coriolanus – and one would show effectively the foundation of the empire, namely Antony and Cleopatra, growing out of what happens to Julius Caesar. And they’re roughly quite continuous.
KRISTOL: And Antony and Cleopatra, which is taken to be – I don’t know what it’s taken to be exactly by most viewers and critics – a bizarre love story, I guess. I mean what’s the political implications of that and looking forward and –
CANTOR: Well, the bizarre love story follows from the transformed regime. That is one thing – again, this is one of the things that Shakespeare is so good at. He shows how un-erotic the Rome of Coriolanus is. Coriolanus is a married man. He greets his wife as “my gracious silence, hail!,” and he talks about how since he left Rome, my lips “hath virgin’d it e’er since.” No sex for Coriolanus. Coriolanus is quite striking among Shakespeare’s plays for the absence of sex. There are no dirty jokes in it.
Shakespeare shows that as a consequence of the focus on politics under the Roman Republic the whole erotic side of life is suppressed. In Julius Caesar, you start to see that change, and the relation between Julius Caesar and Calphurnia and between Brutus and Portia is a much deeper, richer relationship than any romantic relationship shown in Coriolanus.
Under the empire, eros is released. The whole thrust of the empire is to suppress politics. Getting people interested in politics will only get them to challenge the emperor and so it’s in effect imperial policy to encourage love affairs.
We talk about bread and circuses as the policy of the Roman emperors, and that’s something Shakespeare shows. Caesar – Julius Caesar has that speech early in Julius Caesar where he says, “Antonius, let me have men about me that are fat.” And he talks about, “Cassius has a lean and hungry look, such men are dangerous.”
Caesar – Julius Caesar doesn’t like political men, ambitious political men. He wants people like Antony who go to parties, who stay up late, who like music, who will be interested in anything but politics and so the whole love affair in Antony and Cleopatra occurs in the context of a de-politicizing world. The emperors precisely want people to divert their energy into love so that they won’t challenge the rule of the emperor.
KRISTOL: And Antony and Cleopatra ends with the victory obviously of Augustus and the beginning of the Roman Empire and I suppose these were all pre-Christian – but isn’t there – it seems to me you argue this in your book – there’s a sort of looking forward you might say to Christianity in Antony and Cleopatra.
CANTOR: Yes, and I develop that very esoterically in my book, Shakespeare’s Rome. I’m hoping to write a new book that will make these arguments more explicit.
There are a number of references in Antony and Cleopatra to Herod, for example. There are five references to Herod that can’t help but make you think of what was happening contemporaneous with these events.
There are some varied quotations from the New Testament. Antony refers to the bulls of Bashan at one point. Look that up, it’s Psalm 22, the one that begins, “My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?,” which is a line famously associated with Jesus.
And I do think Shakespeare is correlating the rise of the Roman Empire with what would become the rise of Christianity. After all, under Constantine, the Roman Empire became Christian, but I’m particularly interested in the way the Roman plays show the emergence of a Christian ethic.
I actually use Nietzsche a lot, Friedrich Nietzsche, in developing this, and I do think that Shakespeare anticipated Nietzsche in some ways through keys that come out of Machiavelli.
But one of the great transformations in the course of the Roman plays is: losing becomes winning. In Coriolanus, winning is winning. It’s very much what Nietzsche would call a master-morality culture. It’s one where strength is virtue. It is held that “valor is the chiefest virtue,” one of the Roman patricians says, and you prove yourself in that play by winning.
It’s very interesting–the transformation that starts to occur in Julius Caesar in a new world where personal loyalty has replaced the old loyalty of the Republic. And Brutus dies saying, “I’m going to have more glory losing today than Mark Antony and Octavius are going to have from winning.”
Why? Because his followers will be more deeply attached to him in loss. And he starts to suggest – he calls what happens to Mark Antony and Octavius, the man who became Augustus, “vile conquest.” What we start to see is what Nietzsche referred to as the “revaluation of values” in the ancient world, that suddenly losing becomes winning, defeat becomes victory. Even death becomes life, and that’s all over in Antony and Cleopatra.
That’s a play in which your aim is to lose a battle. The beginning of Act III, a Roman captain, Ventidius, comes out and is being urged to purse the Parthians and carry the frontier of Rome further. He says, “No. I could do that, but then I’d frighten Antony. He’d think I was trying to replace him.”
And so he says, “I’m going to make choice of loss.” That’s an amazing moment in the Roman plays. These are plays that have been geared towards the Roman notion – choice of victory – and suddenly you see in the transformed conditions of the empire – now when there can be only one ruler – if you look ambitious, if you win a great victory, that ruler, that emperor is going to be suspicious, and Ventidius points out, “A friend of mine just got fired because he won a victory that made Antony look bad.”
So, this is a real – this is a very interesting aspect of the Roman play that, in effect, they show the development of what Nietzsche understood as this reevaluation of ethics. And so by the end of Antony and Cleopatra, you have Cleopatra talking of heaven. It’s very interesting, for example, that she says, “Then, is it a sin to seek death?” For the first time in the Roman plays, suicide is presented as a sin. We are very far on the way –
KRISTOL: And she uses the word sin?
CANTOR: She uses the word sin.
KRISTOL: Which is not – which is anachronistic, I guess, you might say?
CANTOR: The play has a lot of interesting anachronisms that I think are quite deliberate and that are pointing towards the whole transformation of antiquity – really, the end of classical antiquity as we know it and the beginnings of the Christian world.
KRISTOL: And then Shakespeare writes all these Christian plays, if you want to call them that. The plays in which, let’s say, the monarchies are – the political order very much is in a Christian context, in some cases, claims the authority of Christianity, and in other cases, just seems to be in Christian times. And Shakespeare seems – always seemed to me, at least – to be very interested in the effect of Christianity on politics –
CANTOR: Yes, and this is the thing that, for example, makes him different from Plato and Aristotle. I think one way or another he was familiar with Plato and Aristotle, and in many ways I think his attitudes are what we would describe as ancient. I think he really admired republican government, for example, or the idea of the mixed regime. And so he’s very interesting to explore on that.
But the thing he has to deal with that Plato and Aristotle did not is Christianity and he – I think he’s fascinated by the way Christianity transformed the terms of human life, and Nietzsche is famous for being anti-Christian. He even wrote a book called The Antichrist.
But Nietzsche says Christianity made man an interesting being. And I think Shakespeare would have understood that claim, and, indeed, I view Shakespeare as a figure of the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a rebirth of classical antiquity, but within a Christian civilization. And that means some of Shakespeare’s most fascinating figures – and I have in mind particularly Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth – are people who are caught between the tension between the classical and the Christian traditions.
Now, when it comes to tragedy, I’m very much guided by Hegel’s theory of tragedy. Most people know Aristotle. I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of people don’t know that Hegel had a very important theory of tragedy. Hegel’s theory of tragedy looked at the tragic situation. And for Hegel a tragic situation is the one where there is a conflict of two goods.
If you just have a conflict of good and evil, that’s just melodrama and it’s easy to resolve. But his prototypical tragedy was Sophocles’ Antigone, where Antigone stands up for the good of the family and Creon stands up for the good of the city. And though they’re not equally justified, at least both Creon and Antigone can make a public defense of what they’re doing.
And I think Shakespeare – though he had not read Hegel – was operating with this notion of tragedy – by the way, Hegel to some extent developed it from his own reading of Shakespeare – so Shakespeare finds the Renaissance a particularly tragic era.
Because by reviving classical antiquity within a Christian civilization you basically were setting up two ethics for people to follow. Hamlet’s a case in point. Here, Hamlet is faced with this issue of revenge.
Now, the classical tradition and the Christian tradition dictate very different responses to a revenge situation, and I feel that’s the key to understanding Hamlet’s inaction. His inability to make a decision. He’s being torn in two directions. So, I think Shakespeare in the play is, like Hamlet, exploring the deep ethical contradictions at a time when people were trying to revive the ancient world in a modern context.
As I like to put it, the Christian principle is the meek shall inherit the earth. The classical position is the Greek shall inherit the earth. Those are two very different views of the world.
KRISTOL: So Hamlet is not just about an indecisive guy who couldn’t make up his mind, had issues with his mother, and all that? It’s funny when you read a lot of the literary critics, it’s so psychological, but Shakespeare puts it in a particular time and place. And as you say, the characters discuss, don’t they, to some degree or allude to at least ancient and classical and Christian –
CANTOR: Hamlet’s always thinking of “Oh, I’m off to kill my mother but wait a minute, Nero did that and that was horrible. I can’t do that.” As I like to put it, Hamlet has some genuine things to think about, and Shakespeare presents the situation, which really gets to the heart of the ethical contradictions of the Renaissance, this issue of revenge.
And, so the play turns on the moment when Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius and doesn’t and gives a long speech about why he doesn’t do it, and the reason he gives is, “If I kill him now, he’s at prayer, he may go to heaven. I’ve got to kill him at a moment when he goes to hell.”
Now, virtually every critic I know simply dismisses that speech as an excuse. The whole Freudian theory of Hamlet begins from the idea that Hamlet can’t mean this. He’s got to have some other motive.
I begin with what Hamlet says. And you realize then that one of the things the play is showing is that the task of revenge has become incredibly more complicated in the Christian world. When Achilles goes to kill Hector, all he has to do is kill him. He doesn’t sit there and worry, “Is he going to the Elysian Fields or is he going to Hades?”
But Hamlet does and then he’s in a bind, because he’s dealing with something invisible. Claudius’s soul, not his body. All Achilles has to do is kill that body, and his task is done. His revenge is done.
Shakespeare shows how much more incredibly complicated the task of revenge is when you’re acting upon someone’s soul. You have to wonder where the soul is going, how will you everknow? People have said, “Well, look Claudius gets up and says, ‘My soul’s not going to heaven, I know I’m a hypocrite.’ And therefore Hamlet’s not really caring about that.”
But Hamlet doesn’t hear that. And Hamlet doesn’t know where Claudius’ soul is going. Hamlet lives in an incredibly more complicated universe, because he lives in the world of the Christian afterlife.
The whole “to be or not to be” speech is about that. It’s that we don’t know where we’re going. “The undiscovered country from which no traveler returns.” That’s what puzzles the will. It’s not that Hamlet just thinks generically, he thinks about this fundamental Christian issue. Is suicide prohibited, is there life after death, who knows? They’re genuine questions. Hamlet would be pitiful if he was just an irresolute, confused person.
In fact, I think he’s the great figure he is because he thinks through to the fundamental contradictions and tensions in Renaissance life. That’s why he’s the ultimate Renaissance Man, because he thinks about both sides of the Renaissance dilemma.
KRISTOL: And Hamlet is set, I guess, in the – it’s hard to tell – fairly recently from Shakespeare’s point of view?
CANTOR: Yes, yes. Again it’s a little confusing. It comes out of a Norse saga that would be set earlier. But the references to France and tennis in it, for example, and fencing – make it – it has a real Renaissance feel.
After all, there’s a reference to the University of Wittenberg in it. I mean you can date things mentioned in the play to the 16th century, and I think –
KRISTOL: So Shakespeare wants – I think that shows his art that he, people say this is his source so his own play is somehow set when the source is, but it seems like several times he takes the source but then he moves the time and place sometimes, precisely to make a point like this.
CANTOR: Yeah, in fact my metaphor for Hamlet is a Renaissance Man thrust into an Icelandic saga. And that’s his problem. If he were a nice Norse warrior, he could handle this easily, and in the source story he just burns everybody in the end, in the castle.
But in this play there’s a kind of anachronism in the play that takes a modern man – for Shakespeare a modern man is a Renaissance Man – and puts him in a more primitive situation. And actually Shakespeare creates a sense – there’s an enormous time gap within the play where Hamlet’s father seems to live in the world of Icelandic saga.
He lives in a world of hand-to-hand combat with the elder Fortinbras, and he’s associated with the classical world. There’s all this effort to create a sense of a Homeric world. Reuben Brower has shown that the diction of the play echoes the diction of the Elizabethan translations of Homer, for example. “The sledded Polacks on the ice” for example. That’s a Homeric epithet, “sledded Polack.”It creates the sense of Hamlet caught between this Homeric world in the past and this modern sophisticated world he has to live in in the present.
KRISTOL: And some of the other tragedies, you say, similarly sort of focus on the religious, the theological-political question?
CANTOR: Yeah, I see Othello and Macbeth as the inverse of this. They are about Homeric heroes who are thrust into a modern Christian world and have the opposite of Hamlet’s problem, though in some ways, it’s the same problem, being caught between two ethics.
In the case of Macbeth, at the start of the play he’s this noble warrior. He’s being praised for cutting people in half. Everybody is just going bonkers and giving him awards because he hacks people in half.
And then he kills Duncan, and suddenly everybody’s all bent out of shape with him. And it is a sense that he would like to live in a simple Homeric world. He says this when Banquo’s ghost comes back. He says, “Face me in any other form. A Hyrcan tiger, I can handle that. What I can’t handle is ghosts.” And indeed, what we see in that play is the Homeric hero thrown off balance when he’s in a Christian world.
Macbeth says to those murderers he hires to kill Banquo, “Are you so “gospeled?” It’s really quite an amazing word. We look this up, and it’s the first use of the word gospeled in the English language. He’s convinced them that Banquo has been making life difficult for them. And he basically then says, “Are you so Christian that you won’t kill this guy now?” It’s an amazing moment. And then when Banquo’s ghost comes back, Macbeth says– excuse me if I can’t quote Shakespeare literally here – but he says, “There was a time when you killed people they stayed dead. But now they come back.”
And in a way that’s what’s so disconcerting to Macbeth, to put it mildly, that he can live in a world, the old heroic world, where you face your opponent on the battlefield then “damned be him who first cries, ‘Hold enough!,’” as Macduff says.
But now he’s living in a world where you kill people and they don’t stay dead. And he is haunted by that. He’s actually a man with a deep Christian conscience. I think the whole play is set in a moment when you see a Scotland that has been Christianized and it’s not yet comfortable with it. Whereas England is presented as being under the rule of Edward the Confessor, being highly Christian.
Now, Othello is similar in this sense that you’re in the city of Venice, which is a commercial city, a Christian city, it’s got a problem that its opponents are these Ottoman Turks who are great military figures and threatening Venice. And their solution is to hire their own Turks; they’re Christian merchants, they can’t fight these Ottoman Turks so they’ll hire Othello and he’ll win battles for them because he’s a barbarian.
They don’t care that he thinks he’s a Christian. He, in fact, is a Christian and thinks of himself that way. And, in fact, then the problem develops when he wants to marry a Venetian woman. He thinks of himself as a Venetian.
The city really doesn’t think of him that way. He is their hired Turk, their hired killer. And so he’s caught again between two worlds where in many ways he would like to be a Homeric hero. He actually offers the most Homeric simile in all of Shakespeare, that famous “Like to the Pontic sea” simile he speaks – and he then is himself unnerved when he enters this Christian city and Iago convinces him he is an outsider. That he doesn’t understand Venetians, especially he doesn’t understand Venetian women.
And why? He can’t see into their souls. It’s actually the same problem that Hamlet faces dealing with Claudius. But Iago’s genius in the play is to convince Othello, “You know, you’re a kind of country bumpkin, and you’re in the big city now. You’re in Venice. And women do very suspicious things here, and you just don’t understand.”
That’s what unnerves him. It’s amazing in a way how easily Othello succumbs to this deception on Iago’s part, but part of it is, he too is a man of battlefields. He was used to the open confrontation of soldiers on the battlefield and now he’s in this almost bedroom comedy, bedroom farce, where women are cuckolding their husbands. And he is deeply disconcerted by that.
And again – Iago says something like “her honor is something unseen,” and that’s when he grabs Othello, when he realizes he doesn’t understand the depth of soul. Something Shakespeare shows– men like Macbeth, Coriolanus, Othello, they’re warriors and a certain superficiality goes along with that.
And then they are deeply subject to the machinations of witches in the case of Macbeth; Iago in the case of Othello, and I guess you can say Aufidius in the case of Coriolanus.
KRISTOL: And I guess Othello – Venice does seem to be the place where there’s an attempt to be very cosmopolitan, and I think Bloom argues that in The Merchant of Venice. There are Jews, there are Christians. They are living in the same city and getting along okay, I guess. But then the limits of sort of cosmopolitism, perhaps, Shakespeare seems to have thought about.
CANTOR: It is interesting that Shakespeare wrote two plays about Venice. He understood it was the most modern community in Europe, that it seemed to be pointing to the future. And above all that Venice seemed to be doing what other cities or other communities were not doing, namely, incorporating Christians, Jews, and really, in effect, Muslims, if you look at the way Venice views Othello, even though he’s a Christian in his own eyes.
And Shakespeare shows that the basis the city does this on is commerce. It really is the Lockean principle, the principle of toleration. Shylock the Jew who says to the Christians in Venice, “I won’t eat with you, pray with you, but I will buy and trade with you.” And that’s the Venetian hope, that you could establish a community on the basis of commerce.
In one play, Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare treats it comically and things in Venice seem to work out, though only by having Shylock forced to convert to Christianity at the end.
In Othello, it works out tragically. So, I think Shakespeare would have said the verdict’s out on Venice. I’ll even say the verdict’s out on liberal modernity, whether this is going to work.
Because you can see the logic that’s working out in Venice. These Venetians are merchants. There are certain things they have trouble doing as Christian merchants. As Christian merchants they are not warlike enough so they hire Othello.
They can’t take interest but need a money market, so they bring Shylock and other Jews into the city and get these functions performed by people who are not of the same ethnicity. But that then leads to other tensions.
And I have to say, I think, one question Shakespeare raises is the efficacy of Venice – will it work? But I think he’s raising the question, maybe it would be a problem if it did work? Because what he does show is that old ideas, nobility, religious ideas – they have to be gutted in order to make this commercial republic function.
And, so you start to see – Shakespeare is a genius so he has this reflected comically in The Merchant of Venice when Shylock’s daughter Jessica, runs off with Lorenzo and is converting to Christianity, Launcelot Gobbo, the servant of Shylock who’s transferred to them, says, “All these Christians – all these Jews converting to Christians. It’s going to raise the price of pork in Venice.”
And he’s upset by that, and you know Shakespeare shows that you may get this agreement but only by lowering your sights. It’s going to take away a lot of the power of religion. One thing Shakespeare shows about Venice is that the power of religion is waning.
I noticed this scene at the opening of the play when they’re worried, “Why is this character Antonio so sad?” And one guy says, “Yeah, he’s a merchant, he’s worried about his ships. Maybe they’re sinking somewhere.” He says, “This always happens to me. I’m in church and all I’m thinking about is my ship sinking,” and that is an incredible clue Shakespeare gives us about Venice at the beginning of the play–where this is a community where even in church they’re thinking of commerce. And I think Shakespeare sees that as a possible lowering of the tone. I think he really – it’s amazing how well he understood the coming of modernity, even when he was writing. That Venice was it.
KRISTOL: That’s what strikes me about this – that was early. I mean this was the 1600s, and that’s before Hobbes, before Locke, contemporaneous with Bacon – who some people think Bacon wrote Shakespeare, right?
CANTOR: There’s Machiavelli already. But the economic argument is – that’s extraordinarily early – that he should show the connection between Christian conversion and the price of pork. That’s just an astounding moment. It also shows that he understood the law of supply and demand.
KRISTOL: Right. And knew something about Jewish dietary laws though there were no Jews in England then, I guess?
CANTOR: Well, you know, James Shapiro has written a very good book called Shakespeare and the Jews, which shows that it’s been estimated there may have been as many as 10,000 Jews. Because they were nominally illegal, but you had trade going on, and London was a major trading center, traded with the East – Elizabeth had a commercial treaty with the Ottoman Sultan. And, so there were probably a lot of Jews living in England, either nominally converted or concealing their Judaism.
A Portuguese, converted Jewish physician, Rodrigo Lopez, was accused of trying to poison Queen Elizabeth. I believe he was executed. Many people have seen that as connected with Marlowe’s play, The Jew of Malta, and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
So, there were certainly people suspected of being Jewish at the time, and I’m convinced that Shakespeare traveling the circles he did, namely, theater, would have met a lot of Jews. If there were Jews in London they were going to the theater. Come on, let’s face it.
KRISTOL: Good point. And he was interested in the question of, I am sure, the relation of Judaism to Christianity. I guess he doesn’t really address that in great detail. But obviously he was well aware of the tensions –
CANTOR: Yeah, and in some ways the play turns on a Jewish literalism and a more symbolic, interpretive impulse of Christianity. And he understood the function of the law in Judaism, the function of family. He really did – you know that moment when Shylock says, “Are these your Christian husbands?” – saying, “You know, no Jewish wives and husbands would argue this way.”
And that’s really quite remarkable. And, of course, it’s been shown by the – so many Jewish actors have embraced that role. I saw Morris Carnovsky play Shylock, and I’ve seen David Suchet play Shylock, and you know it’s interesting that many – it is a very popular play in the Yiddish theater. It was actually translated to Yiddish around 1900.
And, so yeah, it’s really – Jews have felt that Shakespeare understood them, and I think quite rightly. He understood everybody.
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