Ideas

MacBrexit

Artists, says James Shapiro, can tell us more about the meaning of the news than CNN or CBC. Shakespeare's Macbeth is a moral tale for every one of us, and also for great nations. In conversation with Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro draws a line from Shakespeare's time to our own, from Birnam Wood to Brexit.
Ian Lake as Macbeth in a 2016 Stratford Festival production. ( Don Dixon/Stratford Festival )

Artists, says James Shapiro, can tell us more about the meaning of the news than CNN or CBC. Shakespeare's Macbeth is a moral tale for every one of us, and also for great nations. In conversation with Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro draws a line from Shakespeare's time to our own, from Birnam Wood to Brexit.


"What's done cannot be undone," says Lady Macbeth. She's talking about the murder of Duncan, but is there regret in her voice? We don't know, but she coined a phrase for the ages: Great Britain's EU commissioner said just that on Saturday, when he resigned following the Brexit vote. Artists, like Shakespeare, have the words to express complicated human emotions, but they also have the foresight to show us the patterns of human action.


Here's a tale: a mighty warrior has all his heart could desire -- land, riches, respect, the love of a beautiful woman. But he and his wife are hungry for something more; they overreach, they break the written and unwritten rules of social harmony, and disaster falls -- on them, and on the state. 


Human nature doesn't change much over time. Shakespeare used tales of the 11th century Scottish king as a way to comment on 17th century English politics, and we find Shakespeare's play useful again in trying to understand our own times. 


James Shapiro has written a number of hugely successful books about Shakespeare. 1599, tells the story of that year in British history, and the four remarkable plays that Shakepeare wrote -- Henry VJulius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet.  Another book, The Year of Lear, is all about 1606, the year Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.  His book, Contested Will, is all about the authorship debate, and you might not be surprised to learn that James Shapiro handily argues that it was the man from Stratford, and not the Earl of Oxford or anyone else who wrote those wonderful plays and poems.


Guests in this episode: 

  • Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director, Stratford Festival
     
  • James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University who specialises in Shakespeare and the Early Modern period. 

  
** This episode is one a series recorded at the Stratford Festival. The series is produced by Philip Coulter

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