Stephen Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. He is the General Editor of The Norton Shakespeare and the author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. (February 2017)
Here is the problem: Shakespeare’s King Lear was first printed in 1608 in one of the paperback-size, inexpensive editions known as Quartos and then again in 1623 in the First Folio, the large, handsome, posthumously published collection of his plays, edited by two of his friends and fellow actors. The …
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.
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 …
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 He used the word in the special sense, no longer current, of “at-one-ment,” a bringing together in shared dialogue of those who have been for too long opposed and apart.
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.
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.
Stephen Greenblatt writes of Joss Whedon’s take, “We are rather on familiar ground, and, as if to conjure up the ordinary accoutrements of modern American upper-middle-class life, the camera dwells lovingly on the kitchen counter.”