• I recently published a book about Shakespeare’s impact on the material world….but Shakespeare’s influence on politics was the hardest part of the book to write. What were Shakespeare’s politics?
  • Shakespeare serves many political masters but none of them faithfully, and ambivalence about the relationship between power and art riddle his plays. After Marc Anthony’s stirring funeral oration in Julius Caesar, the enraged crowd stumbles on Cinna the poet, whom they confuse with one of the conspirators, also named Cinna.
  • The crowd doesn’t just kill Cinna. They rip him apart. Which is remarkable for two reasons. Ripping a poet apart is not only exceedingly violent but also nearly impossible to stage. Not only is the crowd mad in its rampaging violence; it is consciously mad, aware that it is slaughtering an innocent for no good reason.
  • In Julius Caesar, art is a casualty of power, but in Hamlet, it’s the opposite: Art redeems history. The play-within-the-play is how the prince figures out whether to kill his uncle. A work of theater proves the justness of the assassination: “The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”
  • So, Shakespeare gives us a double vision. Power rips art to pieces. And art reveals the hidden crimes of the powerful.
  • If, as George Orwell claimed, the future is a boot stamping on a human face over and over, Shakespeare has put human faces on display over and over in response. He insists above all on the fascination of his characters, on their indestructible personhood.

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