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Culture & Religion

Shakespeare, Our Contemporary

How does the greatest poet of the English language speak to our most pressing contemporary issues? A distinguished panel finds in Shakespeare some striking analogies to our expectations of Obama as a leader, the turmoil in the Middle East, and America’s love of revenge. 

James Shapiro, Carol Gilligan and guest editor Kenji Yoshino–a professor of English, a psychologist, and a law professor, respectively, discuss how plays like Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth and Titus Andronicus speak to our contemporary ideas of love, leadership and revenge.  

Kenji Yoshino: So which Shakespeare play do you think most illuminates contemporary issue and our culture? 

Carol Gilligan:  My vote is Antony and Cleopatra. Here are two people who stand at the pinnacle of empires and so what does Antony say,   “Let Rome in Tiber melt. Here is my place.”  And at the end what does she say? “Take off my crown. Take off my robe. I’m no more but even a woman.”  The sense of really transcending the whole world of empire and everything it represents—Rome, Egypt—as two humans and their love for one another.  I think that’s such a profound message for the world today. 

Kenji Yoshino:  Is anyone doing that or is that purely aspirational at the level of ruler?  

Carol Gilligan: It’s obviously a very shifting situation, but what’s going on in the Middle East right now is in a place where no one thought this could happen and suddenly there is a humanity that’s rising up in the middle of it.  It’s saying let’s transcend this and be human beings who want freedom, who want love.  

Jim Shapiro:  I think about how, especially Antony, deals with the disappointment others have in him.  This is kind of an Obama type problem.  Philo and Demetrius come out at the beginning: “This dotage of our general o’erflows the measure.” We need him to lead us in the way that he’s always led us by those Roman values or whatever party line it is, and he realizes he is not going to do that anymore and he has to deal with their disappointment in him and I think that’s really hard today.  We live in a world in which we don’t want to disappoint our followers or our students or our political supporters and you also have to do that if you’re going to be true. 

Carol Gilligan:  Well he tragedies are bracketed by two—by Romeo and Juliet, which ends tragically and Antony and Cleopatra which transcends and you see that tragedies they’re all men, Hamlet, Othello, Leer, Macbeth who are basically good men, sensitive men, who get caught up in the demands of the world on them and you see what happens, so I think that then to come to Antony I think it’s so current. It’s so contemporary

Kenji Yoshino:  For me it’s actually Titus that explains so much about our world.  I feel like Titus is about what happens when the revenge cycles spin out of control. Revenge tragedies represent something that happens when the state is very weak and so the Elizabethans had a very weak state where there wasn’t a standing army.  There wasn’t an effective police force and so when something happened that was horrible like someone kills a member of your family, you had to choose whether to rely on a very weak state that was basically going to do nothing or to take justice into your own hands. It strikes me that we’re at the international level where the Elizabethans were at the national level because we’re stepping onto an international theater in the way that you described and there isn’t a centralized authority that’s going to step in and quash the revenge cycle. So if terrorists fly planes into our buildings what are we going to do, go hat in hand to the UN?  No, we’re not going to do that.  We’re going to engage in vigilante justice, right, but we all know how those stories end.  

Jim Shapiro:  That’s the key thing.  We love revenge.  I mean Americans love revenge because it feels natural and right and especially when Gerard says “It’s mimetic.” But it’s also always belated and inadequate and that’s what people who want revenge, whether it’s for the Twin Towers or anything else never quite get.  You can never, ever compensate for the loss, but that’s forgotten in the deep satisfaction we all feel when people in Shakespeare’s plays take revenge. 

Carol Gilligan:  But don’t you think it’s because you want to act and in fact, the thing about loss is you’re so helpless?  

Jim Shapiro:  So Hamlet has to act and he finally acts and we’re happy he does.  Maybe he is not happy he does.  He does act.  He does take revenge, but it’s as unsatisfying as any revenge ever taken. 

Kenji Yoshino: So we’ve just finished talking about Shakespeare, our contemporary and lessons that some of the plays can teach us about both love and revenge in contemporary cscooteny. Thanks to both of the panelists for your insights. To see more of this Shakespeare series please visit BigThink at


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