Stephen Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. His essay in this issue is drawn from an afterword to a new edition of his book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, which will be published in April to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

 (April 2016)

How Shakespeare Lives Now

John Martin: Macbeth, circa 1820
We speak of Shakespeare’s works as if they were stable reflections of his original intentions, but they continue to circulate precisely because they are so amenable to metamorphosis. They have left his world, passed into ours, and become part of us. And when we in turn have vanished, they will continue to exist, tinged perhaps in small ways by our own lives and fates, and will become part of others whom he could not have foreseen and whom we can barely imagine.

The Jewish Poet of Love

Yehuda Amichai
First, a disclosure: though I grew up in a ritually observant Jewish household and went to religious school three times a week for six years, my command of Hebrew is close to nonexistent. True, if I happened to run into an Oriental potentate, I could probably flatter and cajole him …

Shakespeare in Tehran

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, the last stop on Stephen Greenblatt’s trip to Iran
For more than four centuries now he has served as a crucial link across the boundaries that divide cultures, ideologies, religions, nations, and all the other ways in which humans define and demarcate their identities. The differences, of course, remain—Shakespeare cannot simply erase them—and yet he offers the opportunity for what he called “atonement.” He used the word in the special sense, no longer current, of “at-one-ment,” a bringing together in shared dialogue of those who have been for too long opposed and apart.

The Naughty Pleasures of Boccaccio

A Flemish miniature from a French translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, circa 1430. The fourth day of the ­Decameron includes the story of Ghismunda, the daughter of  Prince Tancredi of Salerno. Ghismunda fell in love with Guiscardo, a virtuous but humble valet in Tancredi’s court, and the two began meeting secretly in her bedroom. When ­Tancredi found them together (here he is shown spying from the chimney), he had Guiscardo killed and his heart sent to Ghismunda in a golden chalice. Realizing what her father had done, she poured poison into the cup, drank the concoction, and died.
What was he supposed to do? His father, who held a position in an important Florentine banking firm, expected him, perfectly reasonably, to follow in his footsteps. But Giovanni Boccaccio, who was born in or near the Tuscan town of Certaldo in 1313, dreamed of being a poet. When he …

Wondrous, Fragile, Tedious Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall, in a scene from Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley
Like others of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries that I have seen, At Berkeley is slow, patient, and meditative, but it gradually builds toward a climax of sorts in a student protest sparked by state budget cuts to the university and attendant fee increases.

On the Edge of Slander

Amy Acker, right, as Beatrice in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing
In a curious way the central figure in the splendid new film of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon, is the house in which the events unfold. Not that the house—Whedon’s own—is particularly remarkable. It is a comfortable, sprawling Santa Monica McMansion, no doubt very expensive, with more than a touch of a suburb about it. But that is the point: we are not in faraway Sicily, where Shakespeare set the story, or in glorious, technicolor Tuscany, where Kenneth Branagh set his admirable film adaptation twenty years ago.

Glories of Classicism

Diego Velázquez: The Rokeby Venus, circa 1648–1651
Over a thousand pages in length, with some five hundred articles surveying the survival, transmission, and reception of the cultures of Greek and Roman antiquity, The Classical Tradition is a low-cost Wunderkammer, a vast cabinet of curiosities.

A Man of Principle

Ralph Fiennes as Caius Martius Coriolanus and Vanessa Redgrave as his mother, Volumnia, in Coriolanus
Some years ago, on a visit to one of the countries carved from the ruins of Yugoslavia, I asked a friend, a sensitive writer who had just agreed to take a government position, how he could endure serving the thug who headed the state. He looked at me. “Our murderers,” he said with a thin smile, “are better than their murderers.” Ralph Fiennes’s new film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus conjures up a Balkan world of jostling murderers, though it is not clear that one is better than another.

The Lonely Gods

Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund in Robert Lepage’s production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre
When James Levine’s tangled halo of white hair was picked up by the spotlight shining down over the orchestra pit at the May 9 performance of Die Walküre, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the audience roared with pleasure and relief. With good reason. Levine’s bad back and other …

Shakespeare & Shylock

Al Pacino as Shylock and Lily Rabe as Portia in the Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merchant of Venice, New York City, 2010
Shylock’s villainy is his own, but it is also deeply, essentially implicated in his Jewishness. Take away Iago’s rage at being passed over for promotion and you would still have Iago; take away Richard’s deformity, important though it is, and you would still have the twisted mind of the evil Duke of Gloucester. Both would, we can be certain, find other grounds, if the need arose, on which to base their murderous designs. But take away Shylock’s Jewishness, and he shrivels into nothingness.

Shakespeare in No Man’s Land

Eugène Delacroix: The Phantom on the Terrace, from a series of ‘Hamlet’ lithographs, 1843
—It is this hour of a day in mid June, Stephen said, begging with a swift glance their hearing. The flag is up on the playhouse by the bankside. The bear Sackerson growls in the pit near it, Paris garden. Canvasclimbers who sailed with Drake chew their sausages among the …

Rome: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Game

An American archaeologist friend here in Rome, where I’m spending my sabbatical, was working for a time in Salerno, in the south of Italy, and found himself annoyed by the thugs who lounged near the main square and approached him, when he intended to park there, offering, for a small fee, to “protect” the car from anyone who might wish to damage it. It was bad enough when he thought it was only he, a foreigner, who was treated to this shake-down, but, as he idly watched one day, my friend realized that the louts were equal-opportunity predators: they made the same offer to local businessmen, little old ladies, factory workers. And worse still, they went about their business within sight of the uniformed carabinieri who stood chatting with each other in front of the police station. My friend expressed his outrage to a Salernitano acquaintance: the nuisance was not an unfamiliar one in America, he complained, but it seemed unaccountable to have it take place under the gaze of the authorities. Look, the acquaintance said to him, with the resignation of a native, everyone has to make a living.

How It Must Have Been

Henry VIII; portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel focused on the rise to power of a figure exceedingly unlikely, on the face of things, to arouse any sympathy at all. To be sure, one could imagine worse: we are not being invited to enter the life …

Berlusconi: A Reversal of Direction

I grew up in Boston in the 1950s, so I immediately grasped the basic idea of Roman street signs: they are there not to inform you ahead of time where you might want to turn but rather to confirm where you have already turned, once the fateful decision has been made. And at least Romans reliably tell you the name of the street or highway to which you have now committed yourself.

A Great Dane Goes to the Dogs

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet and Eileen Herlie as his mother, Gertrude, in Hamlet, 1948
My brother and I were never permitted to have pets of any kind, apart from a small turtle that I was given once on a trip to Florida and that my parents unaccountably allowed me to bring back home to Massachusetts. And even this modest and inoffensive creature, sloshing about …

In the Night Kitchen

In the company of Banquo, King Duncan arrives in great good spirits at the castle of his principal thane Macbeth to whose dauntless military prowess he owes the survival of his reign. Duncan knows nothing of the “weird sisters” who have prophesied that Macbeth will be king and Banquo the …


“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne/Burned on the water.” So begins Shakespeare’s greatest evocation of erotic arousal, Enobarbus’ celebrated account in Antony and Cleopatra of the way the Egyptian queen’s appearance on the river Cydnus first “pursed up” the heart of the Roman general. For Niklaus Largier …

Shakespeare and the Uses of Power

In 1998, a friend of mine, Robert Pinsky, who at the time was serving as the poet laureate of the United States, invited me to a poetry evening at the Clinton White House, one of a series of black-tie events organized to mark the coming millennium. On this occasion the …

Who Killed Christopher Marlowe?

At the time of his death Marlowe was known not only as a notorious blasphemer but also as England’s greatest playwright. His spectacularly violent two-part epic Tamburlaine, about the rise of a Scythian shepherd to become king of half the world, had revolutionized the Elizabethan theater; his cynical comedy The …

The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet

Shakespeare was in the business, all of his life, of probing the passions of his characters and arousing the passions of his audiences. His skill in doing so is almost universally acknowledged to have been unrivaled, but the inner sources of this skill remain largely unknown. Scholarship has tirelessly reconstructed …

Me, Myself, and I

Two years ago, when I was chairing a large Harvard undergraduate program called History and Literature, I had what seemed to me at the time a bright idea. We had a regular forum in which we scheduled lectures by distinguished visiting scholars whose work boldly crossed disciplinary boundaries. I would …