The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0279  Friday, 6 April 2007

From: 		David Bishop <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
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.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

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.

S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the 
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the 
editor assumes no responsibility for them.

Subscribe to Our Feeds


Make a Gift to SHAKSPER

Consider making a gift to support SHAKSPER.