Mythologizing Empire

For people of Shakespeare's time, the idea of "empire" was something new. As Britain’s power spread, the eternal questions remained: what makes a great empire successful, and what pitfalls need to be watched out for? No ancient empire offered more lessons than the Roman Empire — which had, of course, conquered Britain. In his plays set in the Roman Empire, Shakespeare explored themes of leadership, human frailty, political downfall, while at the same time mythologizing the birth of a new Rome in Britain.
Equestrial statue of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors. His death in AD 180 is commonly taken to mark the beginning of he end of the Roman Empire. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

For people of Shakespeare's time, the idea of "empire" was something new. As Britain's power spread, the eternal questions remained: what makes a great empire successful, and what pitfalls need to be watched out for? No ancient empire offered more lessons than the Roman Empire — which had, of course, conquered Britain. In his plays set in the Roman Empire, Shakespeare explored themes of leadership, human frailty, political downfall, while at the same time mythologizing the birth of a new Rome in Britain. A discussion from the Stratford Festival, featuring artistic director Antoni Cimolino, theatre critic Robert Cushman, and Royal Ontario Museum researcher Kate Cooper.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a famous poem about the statue of a once-mighty king found in the desert. On the plinth, an inscription commands "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works ye mighty and despair." But then the poet tells us: 

Nothing beside remains: round the decay 
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

You'd think we'd learn that all empires eventually collapse and disappear. The Roman, the Greek, the Inca, the Austro-Hungarian Empire — all great, and all gone.

Why is the idea of empire so deeply ingrained? It has to do with our propensity for tribalism — the idea that our family, our nation, our set of values is superior to our those of our neighbours, so they'll be better off living under our rules. That's the benign rationale for empire-building. The not-so benign one has to do with power, money, control, the zero-sum equation: the less he has, the more there is for me.

Kate Cooper is a researcher at the Royal Ontario Museum. 0:52

These days, of course, physical empires involving the conquest of land are out of fashion. Too expensive to police and maintain, and besides, we've discovered the possibilities of economic empires: when we can get people to make running shoes for $4 a day, who needs to conquer their country?

But being great, and being seen to be great, are both an important aspect of having an empire. In Shakespeare's time, the English thought of the Roman Empire as being great, because they had conquered so much of the known world. Small wonder that in our own time that China, Russia, the United States, all seek to extend their influence among smaller nations. The result: empires of today are less likely to fade away like those Shelley wrote about.

Guests in this episode:

  • Kate Cooper is a research associate at the Royal Ontario Museum, where she specialises in Greek and Roman culture.
  • Robert Cushman was theatre critic at The Observer (UK) for eleven years, and at The National Post in Canada for 19 years.
  • Antoni Cimolino is Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival.
  • David Prosser is Literary and Editorial Director of the Stratford Festival, and a former journalist. 



** This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.

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