The author of 14 books, including the Pulitzer Prize winning The Swerve: How the world became modern, Professor Greenblatt is John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University.
Around the world, William Shakespeare continues to be the focus of vibrant debates and scholarship. Focusing on Professor Greenblatt’s recent bestselling book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, the Bendigo session explored Shakespeare’s obsession with language and crafting new words; and the extraordinary ability of his writings to evolve and to function as a mirror to society. The session touched on parallels between Shakespeare and the Simpsons; and the so-called Shakespeare authorship question.
Particular highlights of the session included Professor Greenblatt’s views on the Trump presidency; his account of an unexpected episode in an East German hotel; and his explanation for why Shakespeare continues to be relevant – as a window on human behaviour, and as a foil to political oppression.
La Trobe University is a major supporter of the Bendigo Writers Fest.
Professor Stephen Greenblatt, interviewed by Stuart Kells at the Bendigo Writers Fest, May 2021
SK: Tyrant has been published around the world and has been acclaimed as a compelling portrait of tyrants – a political portrait but also a psychological one. It is rich with examples of bullies, blowhards, demagogues and hypocrites. Stephen explores what defines tyranny and the forces that can lead to it. The book doesn’t name Donald Trump specifically, although I think the word ‘trump’ appears in there around four times, and there are Trumpian echoes throughout such as when, from Henry VI Part II, Queen Margaret refers to Duke Humphrey as a ‘loser’.
When the book first came out, it served as a tonic for America. It was helpful for making sense of things by putting Trump into historical, literary and psychological contexts. Please join me in welcoming Professor Greenblatt to the Bendigo Writers Festival.
SG: I wish I were there in person. I very much regret that I’m not and I hope some day to make up for it.
SK: You’re working as a professor and academic but also as an author. It’s a difficult time to be in academia right now, with lockdowns and Covid, but also with the changing place of universities. How are you going? How are you personally?
SG: Harvard decided to have all of its classes online this year, so I taught my classes in digital form. And one makes adjustments. It’s harder for the students than it is for the faculty. As the audience here today may discover, more than a few minutes of listening to people on Zoom, you begin to check out. You have to think of various ways of keeping people engaged. But we’re getting through it and next year, by the Fall, we hope everything will be back in person.
SK: Some of the people in the room are from university land but also are interested in writing. You personally straddle those two worlds of teaching and research but also of being an acclaimed author. How do you straddle those two worlds? And do you see them as two worlds?
SG: In some sense I do. At the beginning of my career, I wanted to make everyone in the room understand that I was a very clever fellow, and I tried to do that by sounding as complicated as I could. But then I realised that the things that I most wanted to say were things I could say in a more straightforward and direct way. So I began to do that. When I wrote the first book that was in effect a crossover book, one that reached a broader readership, I remember that my editor said to me that she noticed a lot of sentences like: ‘We don’t know when Shakespeare first came to London.’ ‘We don’t know this or we don’t know…’ And she said, ‘Who is this “we”? Maybe you could get rid of the “we”?’
And I began to think, yes, I was sort of protecting myself, giving myself a kind of carapace by calling myself not ‘I’ but ‘we’ as if I had the whole Academy behind me. Once you decide to get rid of that, it is actually rather complicated because you can’t say, ‘I don’t know when Shakespeare first came to London’ – you’d sound like a jerk. So you have to improve your style. You don’t change whatever intelligence you have, that you hope you bring to the table, but you change the way you write.
And I did try to do that. I felt that the Humanities in general were losing their place in the world by becoming more and more obscure, more and more difficult to reach if you’re not in the immediate circle of academics. The funny thing, Stuart, is that I thought that I was writing myself out of the Academy by doing this, and to a certain extent I got various kicks in the pants from people, but actually I found that more academics have read the things I’ve written for a broader public than have read the things I wrote for the Academy. So I’m happy with the way things worked out.
SK: It has worked out incredibly well. The resulting books have a beautiful clarity and crispness to them. They’re very tightly written, and very much story-based, which I find quite compelling. They don’t have any of that academic scaffolding of ‘Having said that let me say this…’. It’s all very clean and crisp. It reminds me a little bit, in a strange way, of Douglas Adams. A very different kind of author, but excellent and a very crisp storyteller.
It also reminds me of some of the great Modernist writers, which brings me to a question about Virginia Woolf. Woolf said that Shakespeare was a mirror, and that people who went to Shakespeare would find themselves in the texts. I’m not in any way suggesting that you personally are a tyrant, but in what sense is the book a mirror to the world at the moment? What led you to write the book?
SG: As you suggest, Stuart, it is amazing and even hard to understand how Shakespeare managed to create this mirror effect. That is to say, it really has been the case for four hundred years now that people have looked at Shakespeare and they’ve seen themselves. And that is true now as well. Of course, you see differences, too. But first and foremost it’s as if you’re opening a letter and the letter is written to you, and it has your name on it.
But you think, it couldn’t possibly have your name on it. He has been dead for a long time. But it does have your name on it. And that effect, and I think it actually in some sense is the deepest effect of Shakespeare, is that the texts themselves have evolved. They’ve evolved to meet the moments that we live in. And I think that was, in a curious way, part of Shakespeare’s business model. I think he understood that it was better to write that way rather than to write in a kind of tight and controlled way, where only your immediate audience would understand what you were up to.
SK: How important was the Trump election for your decision to write the book?
SG: Well it was in the immediate circumstances of course tremendously important. Not even so much the election, Stuart, as the run-up to the election. I have a farm in the countryside in Vermont, where I spend my summers, and when I was driving back from Vermont to Cambridge, Massachusetts, I noticed three things.
One is that there were many Trump signs, which was surprising because New England is generally not a Republican area. Secondly, that there were many Bernie Sanders signs. And thirdly, when Burnie Sanders withdrew from the race, they weren’t being replaced by Hilary signs. And I thought, whoa, this is alarming. The New York Times and other newspapers were saying the election was basically over, long before it took place, and that of course Hilary was going to win. People around me weren’t taking Trump seriously – they thought he was a grotesque clown – but I just was looking around and it didn’t make sense.
I began to get alarmed and so I wrote something about the fact that in Shakespeare’s Richard III, when Shakespeare was imaging how a grotesquely unsuitable ruler comes to power, Shakespeare thought he could come to power by being elected. That’s a very odd thought on Shakespeare’s part because, after all, that wasn’t the way you got a king or a queen in that period. But that’s what he thought. So I wrote something about this for The New York Times opinion page, and I sent it to them in July, long before the election. And I got a letter back saying that it was an interesting piece, thank you very much, but we’ve written more than enough about the election, we regard the election as basically decided. It’s a done deal. But if you want to send it to us again closer to the election, we’ll consider publishing it.
So I waited, and then a few weeks before the election I sent it to them again and they did publish it and it went viral. At the time I wasn’t thinking that I could persuade people who were going to vote for Trump to vote for Hilary Clinton, but I was going to persuade people not to waste their vote or to stay home or to say the election’s over, do what the Brits did when they thought that no one was going to vote for Brexit, and just not bother with the damn thing. And in fact I was trying to get people not to vote for the Green Party in America. The number of Green Party votes in fact was enough to tilt the election.
Of course, I didn’t succeed. I failed miserably in having the effect that I wanted to have. But it was, at the very least, a cathartic experience for me. So the immediate answer is that the Trump election was important. But I want to say that that wasn’t the whole or the most important answer for me, and can I say a little bit more Stuart?
SK: Yes, please.
SG: Back in 1987, so a long time ago, I was invited to give the keynote at the Shakespeare Tage, the ‘Shakespeare Days’, in Weimar, which was in East Germany, the Communist part. I went and it was an unforgettable experience.
First of all, they put me up in the famous eighteenth century Hotel Elephant. When I went to the desk to check-in, the desk clerk said that because I was the keynote speaker they were going to give me the best room in the hotel. It was Hitler’s favourite room, they said. There was a balcony and the crowd would gather under the balcony and chant, ‘Lieber Führer, komm heraus aus dem Elefantenhaus’, which means ‘Dear Fuhrer, come on out, out of the Elephant House’. It was a kind of Mel Brooks ‘How-cute-you-are-you-little-Fuhrer’ joke.
I said that I’d rather not stay in that room, and the clerk expressed surprise. There were many aspects of this visit that were unsettling, but the most remarkable moment came when there was a student production of Hamlet. The student production was no better than student productions usually are, but it was good and it understood that Hamlet is a play about students studying abroad. Hamlet is in Weinberg, Horatio is in Weinberg, Laertes is in Paris, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are his friends, all studying abroad. They’re all coming back to Denmark for the funeral or for the marriage. And there’s a scene in the play in which Laertes asks permission from the king, from the tyrant or the murderer as we know, to go back to Paris because the marriage is taking place. And the king asks Laertes does he have his father’s permission, and his father Polonius says, ‘Yes, he has my permission’, and then in this production the actor who was playing the king went to a desk, he opened a drawer, he took out an East German passport, he stamped it, and he gave it to Laertes to go to Paris.
The entire audience gasped! I looked around, in the darkness, and no one was expressing anything. Even though I heard the loud gasp, everyone had very neutral faces and I realised, of course, not just that this was a political gesture, but that it was a moment at which people were being shot for trying to cross the border to go to France. It was a student production and it was tremendously charged.
I also realised that that’s what Shakespeare’s has been since 1600. That’s how it works. Its always worked that way, it has always had a kind of political relationship. It has always been thinking about tyranny and freedom, and I was just seeing the version here and now of what the plays are about and how Shakespeare wrote the plays. That was at least as much behind why I wanted to write this book as the election of the miserable Donald Trump.
SK: One of the metaphors and analogies you use in the book is the idea that Shakespeare was writing at a time when there was very limited personal freedom. Essentially it was a police state, and there was someone whom you refer to as the ‘Dear Leader’, namely the Queen, and there was an apparatus of censorship and of surveillance. You’ve used the analogy that, today, it would be like Shakespeare writing his plays in Iran or Saudi Arabia or in another oppressive state. Can you talk a bit more about that mode of writing in very difficult conditions? And writing as a way to challenge tyrants?
SG: You have to imagine Shakespeare writing in a society that was in a perpetual state of siege. There is a nationwide fear of terrorism. There weren’t many things in the way of rights to begin with, in fact very little conception of rights, but there’s a suspension of most of the things that you would count on to protect you in a difficult situation. You couldn’t speak openly in a tavern, you certainly couldn’t speak openly in any public space in which you might be overheard without risking getting your ear nailed to the pillory or getting your hand chopped off or getting your head chopped off.
So it was extremely dangerous and it’s a time very much equivalent to the journalist who goes into the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul and is cut up into little pieces. That certainly happened in the sixteenth century. And the paradox, and this is the great Shakespeare paradox, is that in this world of extreme oppression, Shakespeare can have characters stand up on stage and say, ‘A dog’s obeyed in office’, or ‘It is a heretic who makes the fire not she which burns in it’.
If you said those things in a different context, if you said them in the tavern, you would actually not walk out of the tavern safely. But Shakespeare had two or three thousand people before him in the audience and he could say those things. Why? Because they’re said in a play. They’re said by King Lear. They’re said by Paulina in The Winter’s Tale. That’s a weird phenomenon. Everyone learns to read between the lines and hear things – as I found in the audience in Weimar in 1987 – hear things and see things that you wouldn’t ordinarily have thought to pick up on.
SK: One of the strange phenomena of the Trump period was how he surrounded himself with lackies and footsoldiers, some of them quite loyal, and some of them pursuing their own interests as well. Either in Shakespeare or in politics, can you talk about the phenomenon of the lackey and the footsoldier?
SG: The lackey and the footsoldiers sound like they’re at the very bottom of society. And there are plenty of those willing executioners who do the bidding of the Richard the third’s of the world, and Shakespeare understood them and represented them, but there’s something misleading about putting it in terms of lackies and footsoldiers because often they’re aristocrats in Shakespeare. They’re people who, like Buckingham and Hastings and the like, and the point about that that is interesting, Stuart, is that if you think about the tyrants of our world, Putin or Erdogan or Bolsonaro or Orbán or Duterte or, maybe stretching the point, Donald Trump, the lackies in question are the elites.
There are always people around willing to do the dirty work, cut off people’s heads, clean up after someone’s been tortured. But the point is, how do these people get to power? And it’s actually the elites who are the principal lackies and footsoldiers, at least as Shakespeare understood it. It’s people with titles. It’s people with fancy positions. It’s people with wealth who think they’re going to profit from this or stay ahead of the great wave of excrement that they’re unleashing on the world.
SK: I’ve previously spoken about Shakespeare studies being in a golden era. There’s lively interest in Shakespeare. There have been important discoveries – including Milton’s own copy of the First Folio – and new claims such as about Sir Thomas North as a Shakespeare source. There has been a flowering of scholarship in areas such as Shakespeare and race, and Shakespeare and gender. There’s a bunch of new books coming out including Shakespeare and hip-hop and, possibly, Boris Johnson’s new Shakespeare book. Why is Shakespeare still so relevant?
SG: Shakespeare understood something, maybe in the most profound way of any writer since the ancient world, since the world of Homer and Sophocles, he understood that art has the capacity to stay alive by evolving. He understood in a curious way the principle of evolution. And the principle of evolution is that you don’t fix the meanings of things. You make it possible, as it is possible in biology after all, to mutate, to change, to adapt to the circumstances. To grow a longer beak if you need to pick out the seeds from a flower. The plays do that.
Shakespeare was a genius, not in the way we think in Romantic poetry of genius, of pure invention, but a genius of adaptation, a genius of figuring out. With virtually everything he wrote, he figured out how to use what was already floating about. And how to seize upon it. How to transform it. How to trust randomness. How to trust surprise. How to use the constraints within which he operated as an artist. How to grasp the place of chance and not simply of intelligent design.
He couldn’t have anticipated academics and writers like me. If he’d read everything and thought of everything, there’s no way he could have done that. But he created structures that evolve, that adapt to changing circumstances. And his genius is in allowing for mutation. And that’s why he’s still alive. That’s why we care about him. About an artist who was able to create modifications from common origins. The origins were not his own. He moves things about. And he had the kind of weird understanding that things like uppity women, gay men, Jews, blacks, would be interesting to think about in his own time and then they turn out to be interesting things to think about for the next 400 years.
SK: You’re touching on some interesting themes there around the nature of Shakespeare’s authorial achievement and how he adapted prior works. That was a large part, as you say, of his genius. Not too far away from those questions are these questions around Shakespearian authorship. I feel like I should touch on that, partly because this part of the world is a bit of a hotbed of Shakespearian heresy and the authorship question. What makes that such a hot topic? And what do you think is behind some of that ‘parallel world’ conversation around Shakespearian authorship? Why is it so fraught? What’s at stake?
SG: I understand you’re interviewing me, but I want to reverse the question and ask you to answer that question because you’ve written brilliantly about it. Much more intensively than I have. I think that the question arose, as you’d know, in the mid-nineteenth century. There was no previous history of that. No one in the seventeenth century saying someone else wrote the plays. No one in the eighteenth century saying someone else wrote the plays. Above all, there’s no trace in Shakespeare’s own time of hinting that there’s some mystery about the authorship of the plays.
There are a number of different motives, as far as I can see, some of them respectable and some of them, to my way of thinking, foolish. I count as the foolish motives the idea that someone of Shakespeare’s class couldn’t have written the plays. ‘He would have had to be of a much higher class to have been able to represent elite figures.’ This is a kind of failure to understand the way the human imagination works. You don’t have to be an aeroplane to write about flying. There’s lots of ways you can write. You don’t have to go to university. That’s another of what I think of as a foolish motive. Shakespeare didn’t go to university. I think that going to university in Shakespeare’s case would not have done him a great deal of service. It might have made him more interested in theological questions, as we can see happened to Christopher Marlowe. But otherwise, I think, it wouldn’t have helped him.
So I discount that kind of argument, the argument that says it has to be someone who is the Earl of Oxford or someone from a super fancy family who would have been able to write these plays.
But there are strange and anomalous features. It’s very peculiar, as I don’t have to say to you, that we don’t have a lot of books with Shakespeare’s name inscribed on the title page, ‘This book belongs to Shakespeare’. We don’t have these. We don’t have documents in Shakespeare’s hand, or – with the possible exception of Sir Thomas More – plays that were written in his hand. And we have some peculiar anomalies such as the attempted charge by the tax office, where they would have taxed him for the number of books that he owned – and he evidently didn’t own books in his rooms in London.
How come? Well, my answer is that he didn’t like to pay taxes and was able to hide them. But I understand that that’s peculiar. And then, from my perspective, behind that, deeply behind that, is a profound question which I do respect. How did anyone write these plays? How was it possible? And one feels that about others. I feel that about Mozart or about Beethoven. How was it possible to do this? And you might as well at that point throw up your hands and say, ‘Well, it couldn’t have been this person. It had to have been some other mystery’. And you create a kind of mystery effect. A mystery you’ll never solve. But it produces the feeling of ineffability. That there’s a mystery behind this.
SK: Part of the answer, I think, is what you touched on before, which is different concepts of authorship and the idea, which was really an eighteenth and nineteenth century idea, of the author as the creator from nothing, quietly writing away, driven by inspiration – a bit like how Virginia Woolf wrote her novels in the twentieth century. That concept of authorship really isn’t relevant to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is it?
SG: It’s not relevant at all. It’s certainly not relevant to Shakespeare’s practice.
SK: He was taking from other texts.
SG: He robs everybody! Anyone who came near him he robs. He much preferred robbing people to making it up himself.
SK: Stephen, what’s next? What books are you working on now?
SG: The main thing is I’m writing a book I’m tentatively calling ‘Dark Renaissance’. In some sense it springs from things we’ve been talking about, Stuart, in this hour. The kind of world that Shakespeare lived in. This book is not about Shakespeare but about Christopher Marlowe. But it’s about the world of the sixteenth century.
If you were an Italian who came, as people did, people like Florio or Bruno, came to England in the late sixteenth century, and looking around you’d think you were in a cultural wasteland, in a weirdly dead society. And it partly was the effect of the crisis of the mid-sixteenth century which killed off a tremendous amount of cultural life from the early sixteenth century. The struggle between Catholics and Protestants was enormously destructive. So when you get into the 1570s you enter a wasteland basically. You’re not in the world of writers like Wyatt and Surrey, or Thomas More from the early sixteenth century. There’s nobody. You ask yourself, who’s there in the middle of the sixteenth century? Who’s writing? And the answer is virtually nobody. Everyone is scared. No one can write anything.
So how did it happen that we think of this period as one of the great periods of imaginative creativity in the English language tradition? And I don’t have a single answer but part of that answer, a part I want to explore, is the crazy figure of Christopher Marlowe. The Marlowe who basically invents theatrical blank verse for the stage. Who violates every convention. Who figures out how to write plays that, like The Godfather, simultaneously appeal to the elite and to the ordinary, ‘unwashed’ crowd. Who breaks through and pays for it with his life. He’s stabbed to death at 29.
SK: I’m really glad that you touched on John Florio. I’m a fan of Florio, for a whole bunch of different reasons. One, because I think he was a very important peer of Shakespeare and I’m quite sympathetic to the idea that he may have had some sort of editorial role in the plays. But Florio, like a few people, was a serial wordsmith, crafting new terms and new words, including bringing terms from Italian and adapting them into English. I understand that you’ve done some work on new phrases and words that appear in Shakespeare for the first time. Can you talk to me a bit about that? About Shakespeare as a crafter of words?
SG: Shakespeare was word obsessed. Clearly, he must have been a bit like James Joyce. It must have been in his blood. It’s hard to think that you could actually get there without having it just in your system from the beginning. So this is clearly someone who is obsessed with language, obsessed with puns. As you probably know, in the eighteenth century Samuel Johnson was a great admirer of Shakespeare, but he said that the pun was the fatal Cleopatra for Shakespeare, for which he was willing to give up the world. I think it was well lost!
But it’s true, it’s as if he was someone who can’t help himself from hearing words bump up against each other and playing with each other. And so one thing to say, to qualify or complicate what we both, I think, agree on, is that Shakespeare is not remarkable for invention but for use, for recycling, for remaking what was coming his way. He does something bizarre with the English language. He has a gigantic vocabulary. Unimaginably large. And it’s a vocabulary that is also filled with words that haven’t been used, at least in print, before. We were talking about this in preparation for this conversation, Stuart, that if you look to see the number of words that are, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, used for the first time in Shakespeare, you get flooded with a crazy number of words.
Even in single plays like Hamlet, which has dozens and dozens of words used in print for the first time. And then the question is, how could the audience have understood what was being said? Why didn’t it sound like gobbledegook? And part of the answer is that Shakespeare tends to be very clever about defining what he’s doing. When he uses a word like ‘assassinate’, which is used for the first time in Macbeth – or if he uses a word like ‘incarnadine’, he tends to define it immediately. So that’s part of his technique. But part of the technique is also he just combines words that haven’t been combined before. We talked about ‘unpregnant’. ‘Unpregnant of my cause’ says Hamlet. Unpregnant? That’s the first time that has ever been used. There aren’t that very many people who walk around unpregnant! But Shakespeare had that idea of being able to combine the ‘un’ and the ‘pregnant’. And there’s tons of examples like that.
SK: A question from the floor: what are your thoughts on the idea of Shakespeare as the equivalent of today’s The Simpsons? As in, being able to talk to a broad audience about what other people can’t say?
SG: I love that question, and I love The Simpsons. And I do think Shakespeare shares with The Simpsons a tremendous love of recycling. Recycling junk. And The Simpsons is brilliant at that kind of clever, sardonic, disturbing recycling of wasted materials. I adore The Simpsons but I think Shakespeare finds a way of breaking out of the satirical and ironic mode of The Simpsons and finding the deeper places to go. Not that The Simpsons doesn’t have its moments of depth. It does.
SK: Another question from the floor. Is there a play or an episode or a character from Shakespeare that reflects Joe Biden’s struggle to achieve the presidency?
SG: I think that we might have thought, before the election in any case, that Joe Biden was a kind of straightforward and understandable figure, and so just off the top of my head, one could start thinking about the relationship between Othello and Iago; of what it means to try to take down someone who seems straightforward, honest, decent, maybe too open – ‘Who has too open a nature’ says Iago. ‘I can use,’ Iago says, ‘that free and open nature.’ But it turns out Joe Biden is a lot cleverer than any of us gave him credit for being and a lot more ambitious politically, so I’m not sure that we can find that parallel so successfully.
SK: You are seen as a pioneer, and even a founder, of the field of New Historicism. Can you talk to us a little bit about that field and that area of practice and where it sits in the Academy today?
SG: I mean New Historicism is now old hat, so I don’t want to represent it as the latest thing, like coming out wearing my clothes from the 1980s. But I, like many of the people of my generation, was taught to do literary analysis as New Criticism. That is to say, to take a work that was usually a lyric poem by, say, Donne, then strip it of any context; not think about what was going on in 1600 – nothing about that at all – just try to analyse the inner workings of the poem.
It came partly from I. A. Richards in the UK, and partly from people like Cleanth Brooks in America, and it was liberating. I liked learning to do things that way. But one always bites the hand that feeds one. So at a certain point I wanted to bite that hand something fierce. I wanted to say, ‘Where’s the context?’ ‘What’s the history here?’ ‘Let’s open the windows, I’m suffocating staying just with the text as an isolated verbal icon without thinking what the culture was that produced it. Without thinking anthropologically or sociologically or politically.’
I was part of a group of people who said, ‘Let’s open the windows. Let’s see what was going on at the moment these things were being written’. Not because we can go back there. Not because we can just think our way back into the past as if we were living in Elizabethan England, but so we can relate what was going on in Elizabethan England to what we are now. That we can put together our very different circumstances with the circumstances then. My grandparents didn’t speak English. I don’t live in a world in which I can trace myself back to someone who lived in Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1590s. And I don’t want to pretend that that’s the case. I don’t want to be an imaginary Englishman, creating a kind of fraudulent history. I want to understand the relationship of my history, in my world, to that very different history and to try to make the wires touch. And that was what New Historicism tried to do.
SK: Your work on Shakespeare is a really good example of how you’ve thought about how texts are read differently, and how they function differently, at different times. Another example from your work is at the latter part of the Middle Ages. You tell a story in The Swerve of Papal secretaries starting to go round Europe, to the old monasteries and the dusty storerooms, and finding classical texts that had been there for 500 or 1,000 years, starting to fall into neglect, and the Papal scholars and Humanists recovered those texts, as part of the beginning of the Renaissance.
Can you tell a bit of that story? Of how those texts, coming essentially from a late Classical and a Roman context into a late Mediaeval and an early modern context, they functioned quite differently and quite powerfully.
SG: The first thing to say is ‘Thank God for the monks!’ The monks in their scriptoria were assigned to copy texts, and if they copied them at the right moment, if the circumstances happened to be fortuitous, then an ancient text might have survived that otherwise would disappear. Because everything decays, the way you and I decay, and we disappear. So, unless we’re replicated that’s the end of it, that’s the end of the story. So that’s what happened after the decline of the Roman Empire, after they shut the schools, after they destroyed the libraries, after the whole system broke down, there were these monasteries which, for various reasons, decided to copy not only Christian texts but to copy Pagan texts from antiquity. They had a kind of prestige value, but they weren’t necessarily discussed or read. They were read by the scribe who was copying them but they weren’t part of a discourse.
And then, starting in the fourteenth century – a little bit earlier, too – people began slowly in Italy to become interested in what they were, in what was being said in these texts by long dead Pagan authors. And the small group of people who were interested in finding this out started travelling about and seeing if they could recover any of the lost Pagan texts. And the one that I wrote about was when a Papal secretary named Poggio Bracciolini, who was out of work because his Pope had got de-Popified, he had some time on his hands and he was one of these Humanist scholars, and he found, in a monastic library a copy of a poem called On The Nature Of Things by a Roman poet named Lucretius, who lived around 50 BCE.
And that astonishing, magnificent, long philosophical poem gave the world back a robust version of the idea that the world consists of atoms and emptiness and nothing else. No mysterious forces, no intelligent design, no God pulling the strings. Just randomness over an infinite period of time, with atoms colliding and connecting to each other. And, of course, when that came back, with a tiny number of exceptions, people said, ‘This is insane. It makes no sense what so ever’.
But it was beautiful, it was written in absolutely beautiful Latin. So that was a kind of miraculous accident, because instead of being destroyed as wicked, vicious, intolerable, or simply thrown away as incomprehensible, it was treasured not because of its ideas but because it was beautiful in its language, in its poetry. And in that sense the poetic beauty enabled this idea, which turns out now to be the idea on which virtually everything in our modern world is built, it enabled that to get passed back into the world. That we don’t have to think of the world as being created by a God who punishes and rewards us. Lucretius thought that there might be gods, but that they were just up there enjoying themselves and not interested in whether your football team won or didn’t win and so forth. He thought that whole notion that the gods would be interested in what humans did was absurd. What humans did was part of what the world does – how trees are, how diseases happen, how sex happens, how anything happens. It’s just random mutations, the collisions of atoms. And out of that comes basically the world that we live in now.
SK: What can we see in Shakespeare that will help us understand and reflect on another tyranny of today, namely the internet?
SG: In one sense the answer is very little. Shakespeare couldn’t have understood the way in which algorithms work, for example, to create special communities that only hear certain arguments over and over and over again. But I think the answer might be several fold. First of all, Shakespeare is working in a new medium and the idea of a new medium that changes the picture of everything is one that he could have understood and did understand. That being able to control the new medium, to control it for good and not for evil, is an issue that I think he thought about a lot.
In that sense, the public theatre, which was brand new in Shakespeare’s time – was a new medium, and one that reached thousands of people in a way that nothing had done in that form since the decline of the Roman Empire. I mean, these are remarkable new media. And you can see Shakespeare thinking about the dangers of the new medium, in figures like Iago, Richard III, or Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. You can see him brooding about how this medium, which organises the emotions of thousands of people, can be used for the seizure of power. And he also thought deeply about how that power could be resisted.
SK: When are we going to see you physically in Australia?
SG: I would be happy to get on the next plane and come. I love Australia. As you know, Stuart, I’ve been a couple of times with enormous delight. And I have to say that over the last four years I’ve had several moments of thinking, ‘Why don’t I move to Australia?’
SK: Well, you’re a Bostonian, and Melbourne has a real Boston vibe, and Bendigo is the best of Melbourne, I can safely say here. So we know where you’re going to have to come.
If you could all join me in thanking Stephen, that would be fantastic.