Stephen Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve: The Story That Created Us and Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, which was published this year. (December 2018)
“I think hell’s a fable,” the famous professor proclaimed—a surprising declaration not only because it was made in the late sixteenth century, when very few people would have dared to say such a thing, but also because he was at that moment in conversation with a devil to whom he was offering to sell his soul. The professor in question was Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s great Elizabethan tragedy. Bored with his mastery of philosophy, medicine, and law, Faustus longs for forbidden knowledge. “Where are you damned?” he asks Mephastophilis, the devil whom he has conjured up. “In hell,” comes the prompt reply, but Faustus remains skeptical: “How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” The devil’s answer is quietly devastating: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.”
The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art
by Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney
Achievements in the arts, unlike those, say, in geology or astronomy or molecular biology, do not chart an upward arc of progress. The value of literature, music, and painting is undiminished by time, by distance from our current world-view, or by place in a sequence of evolving technical mastery. Of …
by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
The phenomenon of Jewish humor is so central to modern life and so familiar in American popular culture from Groucho Marx to Woody Allen that it is easy to overlook the sea of sorrow on which it is built. That sorrow was not only an expression of the long history of exile following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, but also an artifact of the Christian communities among whom the dispersed and defenseless Jews found themselves. That is, Jews were supposed to be miserable.
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 …
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.”