Shakespeare and the Fall of the Roman Republic: A Reply to Paul A. Cantor

  • Patrick Gray Durham University


In the previous issue of Skenè, Paul Cantor, an eminent senior Shakespeare scholar, author of Shakespeare’s Rome: Republic and Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) and Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy: The Twilight of Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), provides a substantial review of my recent monograph Shakespeare and the Fall of the Roman Republic: Selfhood, Stoicism, and Civil War (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019). In this essay, I respond to his wide-ranging criticism. I have explained some of my misgivings about Cantor’s work elsewhere, including not only the monograph in question, but also a review of Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy in The Classical Review, with particular attention to our disagreement about Shakespeare’s sense of historical causation. What does Shakespeare believe drives changes to political institutions? Matter or ideas? ‘Conditions of production’? Or religious faith? Turning here, by contrast, to different concerns, I begin by summarizing the philosophical and literary-theoretical argument of my monograph, which Cantor dismisses without further explanation as “abstruse” and “impenetrable”. In contrast to a familiar but false dichotomy between ‘humanism’ and ‘antihumanism’, Shakespeare offers an appealing compromise vision of selfhood. In keeping with the recent religious turn within Shakespeare studies, as well as the revival of presentism in both history and literary criticism, I respond to Cantor’s charge that I am blinded by “Christian dogmatism” and defend my conclusion that Shakespeare’s Rome resembles present-day “liberal democracies”. Throughout the Roman plays, allusions to the Gospels and to biblical drama introduce dramatic irony. As Peter Lake (2015, 111) suggests, Shakespeare “reanimates and stages” a “neo-Roman” ideology which is “almost entirely secular”, then “tests it to breaking point by subjecting it, not merely to a secular historical and political critique, but also to a religious, indeed, a Christian critique”.

Keywords: Julius Caesar; Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; liberalism; antihumanism; religious turn; republicanism

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