The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0279 Friday, 6 April 2007
From: David Bishop <
Date: Friday, 6 Apr 2007 01:10:03 -0400
Subject: 18.0267 "Shakespeare and the Uses of Power"
Comment: Re: SHK 18.0267 "Shakespeare and the Uses of Power"
The following was sent to the New York Review in response to Stephen
Greenblatt's "Shakespeare and the Uses of Power" (4/12/07). Whether or
not they print it, I am gratefully taking advantage of Hardy's good
offices to put it on the record. I would note that David Basch has
already touched on a couple of points made here.
Stephen Greenblatt's way of making Shakespeare relevant to our times,
though done with considerable art, leaves, I think, a partly misleading
impression of Shakespeare-and of our times.
Bill Clinton's idea that Macbeth's ambition lacks "an ethically adequate
object" apparently means that his ambition is wholly selfish, with no
ethical component, no desire to use his power for a higher good.
Greenblatt fails "to discover in Shakespeare an 'ethically adequate
object' for human ambition." He sees Shakespeare as saying that all
politicians are selfish, or corrupt: they serve only themselves and
their favorite special interests. Greenblatt, with his rather extensive
skepticism, finds it hard to conceive of an admirable form of political
ambition. For him, "ethically adequate" means "ethically pure," and
since perfect purity does not exist, in the ambitious, "ambition" and
"selfishness" are effectively synonymous.
But Greenblatt goes a step beyond this simple, absolute distinction. He
claims there is no such thing as ethical purity. "A conception of the
moral self as characterless," or responsible to a single, common moral
truth, was for Shakespeare "an undoing or denial of his life's work."
The moral life of Shakespeare's characters, as of human beings, is
"intimately bound up with the particular and distinct community in which
the character participates." Yet, it seems to me, we continue to
struggle, like many of Shakespeare's characters, toward what is "nobler
in the mind." Greenblatt's absolutism denies the tension between
"character" and "characterlessness" which we cannot avoid. And because
we can't avoid it, he contradicts himself.
From Greenblatt's point of view it's hard to tell the difference
between a ruler and a tyrant. He sees Shakespeare as ready to approve of
overthrowing a "legitimate" ruler, like Cornwall, who engages in
"torture" in the name of national security. But Cornwall has already
sacrificed his moral legitimacy with his tyrannical treatment of Lear.
The blinding of Gloucester is not torture, in the sense of being done to
extract information. It's an eruption of tyrannical rage. When rulers
become tyrants, then, and only then, does Shakespeare approve of
overthrowing them. In the course of human, and fictional, events their
overthrow has become necessary.
When Cornwall's "nameless servant" kills his "legitimate" (though by now
clearly tyrannical) master, Greenblatt recognizes that "the audience is
manifestly invited to endorse this radical act: the murder of a ruler by
a serving man who stands up for human decency." What is "human decency"
here but a "characterless" good, which overrides the servant's
obligations of loyalty to his master and allegiance to his sovereign?
Some characters respond to "the human obligation to help," and, far from
undoing or denying Shakespeare's life's work, "These small gestures are
the core of the play's moral vision." But the key, for Greenblatt, is
that small, and only small, is beautiful: "Larger ethical ambitions,
such as those that motivate Cordelia's refusal to flatter her bullying
father, only lead to disastrous consequences." How ethics goes wrong by
growing large, and mingling with ambition, is a question Greenblatt
leaves unexplored. He appears simply to agree with his version of
Shakespeare that "Those in power may loudly declare their compassion for
the sufferings of the poor, but inevitably the declarations are mere
hypocrisy." Political ambition, in particular, is always selfish, or at
least partisan. Vested interests rule. Maybe it's by denying this "fact"
of human nature that larger ethical ambitions court disaster.
It's true that Shakespeare distrusted political ambition, since the
inheritor of an ideal, well-ordered monarchy would be known from birth
and so have no need for ambition. The ruler's greatness would be
expressed not by ambition but by duty: the duty to maintain a steady
state, like a well-tended garden. In a democracy you cannot become a
candidate for higher office without some personal ambition, which,
Greenblatt implies, poisons your ethics. He sees no way that serving the
people might also serve personal ambition-though what better route could
there be to public adulation? A veiled suggestion here might be,
Professors: good; politicians: bad. But it's far from unknown that
selfish ambition, injustice and tyranny can rear their heads even in the
ivied shade of an English department.
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