Violence & Power

These were the themes of yesterday, with an afternoon screening of “The History of Violence” (unnerving, totally on its own terms, and significantly improved, as my fiancee said, just by its title), and an evening lecture at the Chazen Museum of Art by “Will in the World” author and Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt. Greenblatt’s lecture title was “Shakespeare and the Ethics of Authority,” and its shoving-off point was a brief 1995 conversation he had with President Clinton about “Macbeth,” a play the President had said he was made to learn at school. A nervous Greenblatt, in a handshake moment after a reception, blurted out to Clinton, “Don’t you think it’s a play about someone compelled to do the morally disastrous?"  – a question the President, in the early days of his Lewinsky mess, could have found insulting. Instead, a composed Clinton replied, "No, it’s a play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.” Greenblatt was stunned by what he thought was a very astute comment, then stunned again as Clinton rolled off a large chunk of soliloquy. It was a compelling start to a great lecture delivered with wit, passion, and authority. Strangely, Greenblatt never mentioned this second part of the story, as told by the Guardian in an article easily findable via Google. He might want to tweak his next delivery of this lecture, particularly as it’s got ethics in its title.