Lecture Series 1: Ancient vs. Modern Regimes – Course Description

Shakespeare’s profound understanding of human nature was grounded in his profound understanding of politics. He would not have been able to portray such a wide variety of human types if he had not been aware of the wide variety of political conditions in which people have lived over the centuries and of how these different regimes work to shape character. For example, Shakespeare understands how living in a monarchy differs from living in a republic—not just in terms of the political choices people make but also in terms of their fundamental outlook on life.

In this course, we study the variety of political settings of Shakespeare’s plays and relate his political insights to his insights into human nature. We focus on Shakespeare’s understanding of the ancient Roman regime, and its alternatives in what for him was the modern Christian world. The power and endurance of Rome’s political institutions have deeply impressed people over the centuries, and understanding how and why they functioned so well has been a perennial question for political thinkers. Some of the most important modern political philosophers have developed their ideas in the form of meditations on Roman history. Issues such as the nature of a republic and its mixed regime, the dynamics of empire, the relation between domestic and foreign policy, the role of religion in politics, and the limits of politics—all have been explored by looking at the experience of Rome.

Shakespeare did as much as any writer to shape our image of ancient Rome, and he did a remarkable job of accurately reflecting the changing nature of Rome and its institutions. We will discuss his principal plays devoted to Rome, not in the order in which they were written, but in historical order, from the early days of the Republic in Coriolanus through the crisis of the Republic in Julius Caesar to the emergence of the imperial system in Antony and Cleopatra. We will focus on Shakespeare’s sense of the changing Roman regime, especially the epochal break between the Republic and the Empire. In Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth we will study the ways in which Roman traditions survived into the modern world, and how the altered terms of a Christian cosmos affect political life for Shakespeare’s heroes and, in particular, create a new basis for tragedy. In The Merchant of Venice and Othello, we will study the revival of republicanism in the modern world, in the new form of the commercial republic.