This is the first lecture in an annual series co-sponsored by three Arts & Humanities Research Institute Centres: the London Shakespeare Centre (LSC), the Centre for Late Antique & Medieval Studies (CLAMS) and the Centre for Early Modern Studies (CEMS). The series has been established in memory of Sir Israel Gollancz: King's professor, medievalist, early modernist, founding member of the British Academy and leading light in the Shakespeare Tercentenary of 1916.
This talk will focus on Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to confer the effect of life upon his characters, even on those who appear only briefly or in subordinate roles. The pigeon-bearing clown in Titus Andronicus, young Flute the bellows-mender (“I have a beard coming”) in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the drunken criminal Barnadine in Measure for Measure, the monstrous Caliban in The Tempest, along with dozens of others, possess a presence, a compelling immediacy, far in excess of the strict necessity of the plots in which they appear. In some instances, Shakespeare’s plots almost collapse under the force of this vehement, insistent life. The greatest example is the villainous Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. And Shylock, Professor Greenblatt will argue, offers us insight into the Humanities’ special contribution to the challenge of living together with those whom we may distrust and dislike.
Stephen Greenblatt is John Cogan Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, and author of many influential books including Will in the World, Hamlet in Purgatory, Shakespearean Negotiations and Renaissance Self-Fashioning. He is general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and The Norton Shakespeare.