In 1998, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the literature professor, Stephen Greenblatt, attended a function at the White House. Clinton gave a speech in which he mentioned studying Macbeth at school.
Afterwards, Greenblatt lined up to shake Clinton’s hand, and because it was the period in which rumours about Monica Lewinsky were starting, he decided to have some fun. As he stuck out his hand, he asked Clinton the following question:
“Mr President, don’t you think that Macbeth is a great play about an immensely ambitious man who feels compelled to do things he knows are politically and morally disastrous?”
What happened next floored Greenblatt:
Clinton looked at me for a moment, still holding my hand, and said, “I think Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.”
Greenblatt was astonished “by the aptness, as well as the quickness, of this comment” and after asking Clinton if he remembered any of the lines from the play, listened in frank awe as the President recited one of Macbeth’s great soliloquies “with the rest of the guests still patiently waiting to shake his hand.”
Greenblatt left the White House that night, “with the thought that Bill Clinton had missed his true vocation, which was, of course, to be an English professor.”
This has been my most treasured anecdote ever since I read it in Greenblatt’s review of “Shakespeare and the Uses of Power,” published in The New York Review of Books in April 2007. It’s the opening passage of the review and constitutes only a tenth of its whole, and yet it is the high point. Nothing that follows even comes close to Greenblatt’s astonishment, and the thrill I got as a reader at this stupendous phrase issuing forth from the mouth of a President. For the phrase is stupendous.
So stupendous that, as I discovered this week when googling it, Greenblatt has been haunted by the incident, and has been trying to tame it ever since. To date, it’s resisted all his efforts.
In 2005, for example, Greenblatt described the same incident in an article for The Age, my local newspaper. And this time the incident has a coda. He describes how some years later when watching television, he heard Clinton use the phrase again, slightly modified. It came when Clinton was praising the late King Hussein of Jordan as a man “whose immense ambition had an ethically adequate object.”
This time, Greenblatt is disillusioned to discover the “marvellous phrase … was no more than multi-purpose rhetoric.” And incorrect to boot. For “no one with immense ambition has an ethically adequate object.” Greenblatt concludes, “Clinton had chosen the right vocation after all!”
What’s interesting is that this re-telling of the incident, including the coda, comes two years before the review in The New York Book Review of 2007. By the time of the later review, the coda has been dropped, along with the disillusionment, and Greenblatt’s bedazzlement has been restored.
Later still, in 2007, Greenblatt again re-tells the incident, this time in an article for Harvard Magazine entitled, fittingly, “Writing as Performance.” This time it’s the later version again, the non-ambiguous version. Or rather, the version with just the right amount of ambiguity.
The article is a strange one. It reads like a general defence of Greenblatt’s practice of using personal anecdotes to discuss literary or philosophical questions. By the time he inserts the Clinton incident the point has already been made, so including it seems gratuitous. The article left me wondering if someone had criticised Greenblatt for using the Clinton incident in the earlier review and that now he’s added puzzlement over his compulsion to re-tell the story to his puzzlement over the original incident.
What do I deduce from all this? I deduce the original incident with Clinton has haunted Greenblatt for two reasons.
- He was bested by Clinton, and on Greenblatt’s turf: literature. The besting was not, however, an entirely agonistic one, because it also served to validate Greenblatt’s own life choices in becoming “an English professor.”
- When Clinton uttered the “marvellous” phrase it must have seemed to Greenblatt as if Shakespeare himself had suddenly materialised before him, a Shakespeare transmogrified into a red-faced, white-haired American with a weakness for women.
As for my own fascination with the magic phrase, I deduce I’m a language voluptuary and I’d vote for anyone who was capable of having such a thought and forming such a phrase.
To read Greenblatt’s review, “Shakespeare and the Uses of Power” in The New York Review of Books, April 2007, click here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/20073
Postscript: This post was selected in competition for publication in the first Australian anthology of blog writing, Miscellaneous Voices: Australian Blog Writing, Edited by Karen Andrews, Miscellaneous Press, 2010