Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern. He is the author, most recently, of The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis. (March 2016)

Shakespeare: War Is King

The crowning of Henry VI (Steven Sutcliffe) in Barbara Gaines’s Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Henry VI, Part 1, May, 2016

Barbara Gaines, the founding director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, in a sequence she has called “Tug of War,” has grouped six of Shakespeare’s so-called “history plays” into two sequences, the first being performed this spring, the second in the autumn. Gaines portrays a war culture that affects everyone and everything. She does not pretend she is presenting Shakespeare’s own views, but rather looks back on the plays as cultural products to be weighed in our terms.

My Koran Problem

A Muslim woman asking for protection from black magic inside the shrine of Abba Ruwais, a Copt saint, Cairo, Egypt, 1997
In the summer of 2015, I was asked by the directors of a university political science program to lecture about Americans’ attitudes toward Islam. I asked at the beginning how many in the audience (of about eighty students and faculty) had read the Koran. Four hands went up. Later, at …

The Next Justice? It’s Not Up to Us

No sooner was Antonin Scalia dead than Republicans said that his seat should not be filled before the election of a new president. If the framers wanted to let the people “have a say” and “weigh in,” they would have made the appointment or confirmation of the justices come from the one directly democratic part of the system. What could be more absurd than for cultists of an originalist like Justice Scalia to call for a popular referendum on Supreme Court justices?

The Triumph of the Hard Right

Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump at the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, December 2015
Everybody told everybody early in this year’s presidential campaign (during what was called Trump Summer) that we had never seen anything so sinisterly or hilariously (take your choice) new. But Trump Summer was supposed to mellow into Sane Autumn, and it failed to—and early winter was no saner. People paid to worry in public tumbled over one another in asking what had gone wrong with our politics.

Boston: Truth and Complicity

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Keaton as Walter 'Robby' Robinson and Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes in Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, 2015

The script of Spotlight, written by the film’s director Tom McCarthy and the academic- and-showbiz marvel Josh Singer, is amazing in its mastery of complex material about predatory priests in Boston. It soon develops that even The Boston Globe itself is part of the cover-up story.

Reading Augustine’s Mind

Fra Angelico: The Conversion of Saint Augustine, circa 1430s
Robin Lane Fox, a British classical scholar, was the historical adviser for Oliver Stone’s godawful movie Alexander. He asked to be, and was, repaid by riding bareback in the movie, in the front line of Alexander’s cavalry. He is an adventurous fellow. Now he tells us he can reveal the hitherto-unknown deep meanings of Augustine’s Confessions.

Splendors of the Dead


The extraordinary exhibition “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” shows the extent to which the immensely privileged eased themselves into the afterlife with much of the booty that had cushioned their time on earth. It seems they aimed at taking along enough symbols of power and wealth to get whatever passes for honor in the underworld.

The ‘Mind as a Beautiful Miracle’

Marilynne Robinson, Iowa City, 2005
Marilynne Robinson, best known as a novelist (especially for her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead of 2004), is also a scholar. She received her doctorate from the University of Washington in 1977, with a dissertation on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part Two. She now admits, wryly, that she would not gladly read that …

When Priests Marry

Father Alberto Cutié, who left the Catholic Church and married in 2009, with his wife, stepson, and infant daughter, Biscayne Park, Florida, 2011
Last year in a Pew poll, most American Catholics (72 percent) said they want their priests to be married. I don’t know how many saying this realize that there are already married priests in the Roman Catholic Church. Probably not many—and this is no accident, as the priest-sociologist D. Paul …

A Frisky ‘Figaro’

Luca Pisaroni as Count Almaviva and Christiane Karg as Susanna in Barbara Gaines's production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2015

In the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s season-opening production of The Marriage of Figaro, director Barbara Gaines lets us know early on that this is going to be a lusty romp. As the overture is playing, a scream is heard from a woman in “naughty maid” costume running down the aisle, pursued by the Count in a long red robe that makes him look like Sargent’s portrait of the womanizing Doctor Pozzi now on display at the Metropolitan Museum.

The Buckley Myth

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal on ABC, November 5, 1968

Today’s renewed interest in William F. Buckley, Jr. presents him as having an outsize impact on his time. With biographies in the works, a recent documentary about his televised clashes with Gore Vidal, Best of Enemies, and new book, Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties, the interest may, in fact, be fueled by overstatement. Buckley did not make history. He made good copy.

Holy Ignorance

Republican candidate Rick Santorum, a critic of Pope Francis's climate
encyclical, in Marshalltown, Iowa, May 17, 2015

When a Republican politician, asked about climate change, says, “I’m not a scientist,” most of us hear just a cowardly way of dodging the question; but the politician’s supporters hear a brave defiance of an alien force. They summon a courage not to know. Even when Pope Francis’s new encyclical on climate change introduces a concern for the poor into the environmental discussion, conservative Catholics will think him nice but naive, and suspect the Devil fooled him.

Why the Pope Chose Francis

Giotto di Bondone: Saint Francis Preaching to the Birds, circa 1295-1300

In 1219, Saint Francis traveled to Egypt to carry the words of Jesus to the Sultan al-Kami, a nephew of the great Saladin. While others were trying to make converts with the sword, he communicated the words of Jesus by dialogue. The sultan heard him out, and though he was not converted, he sent him safely back through the lines. Pope Francis, too, communicates with Muslims, and is trying to prevent a modern holy war. When he was elected, Pope Francis chose a name no other pope has used, for a very good reason.

Michelle Obama Breaks the Rules

First Lady Michelle Obama before her commencement speech at Tuskegee University, May 9, 2015

In her May 9 commencement address at Tuskegee University, the historically black institution, Michelle Obama actually said (what I bet the students already suspected) that she is black. How dare she? In her own quiet way Ms. Obama was breaking all of the four rules of racial discourse the right wing now wants to enforce.

Hampered Brilliance

Barney Frank, who looks like Barney Rubble and talks like a speeded-up Will Rogers, was keeping something from us—not just, for a long time, his sex life, but his hidden formation as a professor.

Don’t Run, Elizabeth!

Senator Elizabeth Warren at the Good Jobs Green Jobs National Conference, Washington, DC, April 13, 2015

Believers in the good and true have for some time been urging Elizabeth Warren to run for president. They don’t, most of them, expect her to win—just to hold Hillary Clinton’s feet to the fire. But Warren is already doing that, by her stellar work on the concrete issues that have long animated her—jobs, wages, bank excesses, mortgages, student loans.

Who’s Afraid of Pope Francis?

Pope Francis in Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City, 2014

Is Pope Francis truly scary? One might think so from the reaction of some guardians of orthodoxy. If the pope were not a plausible voice for the poor, his opponents would not be running so scared. Their fear is a testimony to him.

The Pope Is a Christian!

A homeless man after a haircut provided by the Vatican, Vatican City, February 16, 2015

Some Catholic bloggers have suggested that the pope is not truly Catholic. They are right to be in a panic. They are not used to having a pope who is a Christian.

How Lincoln Played the Press

A print by Currier & Ives, 1860, in which Horace Greeley (center) and Abraham Lincoln try to conceal the ‘radical’ Republican Party platform from a man identified as ‘Young America’
In the nineteenth century, politicians cultivated their own party’s newspapers, both the owners and the editors, shared staff with them, released news to them early or exclusively to keep them loyal, rewarded them with state or federal appointments when they won. It was a dirty game by later standards, and no one played it better than Abraham Lincoln.

The Pope and the Pederasts

Pope Francis addressing journalists on the papal plane during a return flight to Italy from Brazil, July 28, 2013

Pope Francis has acted fast on his preferred issues—poverty and economic justice. He has been slower to apologize to victims of sex abuse by priests, authorize a panel to study the problem, and promise reforms. Is it because all these things are beside the point? Very likely, they are. Without addressing structural issues in the Vatican, meaningful action to restore trust in the priesthood and church authority cannot get far.

Obamacare: The Hate Can’t Be Cured

Enrique Chagoya: The Headache, a Print after George Cruikshank, 2010

I fear that the president declared a premature victory for the Affordable Care Act. He made the mistake of thinking that facts matter when a cult is involved. Obamacare is now, for many, haloed with hate. Retaining certitude about its essential evil is a matter of honor for one’s allies and loathing for one’s opponents.

Ruskin: The Great Artist Emerges

John Ruskin: Self-portrait, in Blue Neckcloth, 1873
Though John Ruskin is generally thought of as a great prose stylist, social reformer, and art critic, few consider him a great painter. But Conal Shields does. In the catalog to a stunning exhibition now in Ottawa and headed for Edinburgh—“John Ruskin: Artist and Observer”—Shields places him “among the greatest …

Can He Save the GOP from Itself?

The current Thing to Say about Republicans is that they are caught in a civil war—the Tea Party against the Establishment, “wacko birds” against “the adults,” fringe against mainstream. One of the most clamorous bearers of this message, on his TV show and in various other media, is Joe Scarborough.

Back Door Secession

US Speaker of the House John Boehner, Washington, D.C., October 8, 2013

Just as the Old South compelled the national party to shelter its extremism, today’s Tea Party leaders make Republicans toe their line. Most Republicans do not think laws invalid because the president is a foreign-born Muslim with a socialist agenda. But they do not renounce, or even criticize, their partners who think that. The rare Republican who dares criticize a Rush Limbaugh is quickly made to repent and apologize. John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.

Verdi vs. the Fanatics

Joan (Suzan Hanson) attacked by sect members in the Chicago Opera Theater's Joan of Arc

There is no denying that Verdi’s Joan of Arc tugs against some of a modern audience’s values. When, for instance, Giovanna is accused of witchcraft, she is unable to deny it because she has fallen in love with the Dauphin she is striving to make King. Why does she feel that a love for an unmarried Christian man, one not even sexually satisfied, must paralyze her with guilt? The Chicago Opera Theater director, David Schweizer, decided that the only way to be convincing about such an obsession with sexual purity is to make the opera show “the perpetual heart-rending consequences of religious fanaticism.”