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A Conversation With Garry Wills

Posted on Aug 22, 2014

Photo by Yale University Press

By Allen Barra

To see long excerpts from “Making Make-Believe Real” at Google Books, click here.

Garry Wills, emeritus professor of history at Northwestern University and Pulitzer Prize winner for “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America,” is, in addition to being a historian and journalist, a lover and scholar of Shakespeare. “Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time” is his 46th book, and his fourth that deals with some aspect of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan era.

“Making Make-Believe Real” casts a new light on Shakespeare’s characters of Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Richard III, Othello, Henry V, Petruchio and Kate, and others in a study of political stagecraft during the reign of Elizabeth I, a time of political and cultural change when “the power of make-believe to make power real was not just a theory but an essential truth.” 

He spoke to us from his office at Northwestern. 

Allen Barra: Let me start out by reading to you a quote about Shakespeare by one of your and my favorite writers: “The sane man who is sane enough to see that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is sane enough not to worry whether he did or not.”

Garry Wills: That was G.K. Chesterton. I guess worrying about it is better than denying it. You can make people spend a lot of energy debating the question. I think that was GKC’s way of saying that no matter who wrote it, it was Shakespeare.

AB: Early in “Making Make-Believe Real,” you hit us with an intriguing thought: “It may not be entirely fanciful to look at the whole Elizabethan endeavor as the work of an experimental troupe.” Could you expand on that a bit?

GW: Elizabeth was a woman, after all, crowned when the Bible said women should not rule. She was disowned by her father, Henry VIII, as the bastard child of another man. As a girl, she had been imprisoned in the Tower of London. And that was just the beginning of her troubles.

Protestants didn’t regard Elizabeth as being protestant enough, she wasn’t Catholic enough for conservatives, and she wasn’t married, which displeased those who wanted an heir to succeed her. She wasn’t war-like enough for those who wanted war with Spain.

She had to experiment with ways of creating the illusion of power. Some things worked and some things didn’t—she experimented. What’s astonishing is that she put on such an immensely impressive show, partly because she was able to make rich people finance everything—naval exploits, processions, tournaments, plays. She put minimal expenditure into all of those things, and she and her supporters and the rich people themselves knew they had to mount a show for their own advance but also for the advance of the Reformation and the Catholic Church they were overthrowing. Very much like experimental theater, I think.

AB: How Catholic was Shakespeare and, for that matter, how Catholic was Elizabeth?

GW: In my book I refer to the Shakespeare scholar Clifford Geertz, who thought that Elizabeth’s rule maintained a sacredness even after Catholic rituals had been abandoned. I believe those were the only vestiges of Catholicism that Elizabeth was really interested in.

I don’t think Shakespeare was very Catholic, though his father was. In “Macbeth,” Shakespeare manipulated his audience’s fears of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. [A handful of plotters came very close to blowing up the king and his heir, the prince, as well as all members of the court and parliament.] You have to understand that to Shakespeare’s audiences, this carried the same kind of shock and dread that Americans felt after Pearl Harbor or the assassination of Kennedy. And not just the common people: Great poets such as John Donne and John Milton took the Gunpowder Plot quite seriously.

The denunciation of the Gunpowder Plot focused heavily on Jesuits, who were believed to have taught Catholics how to give misleading answers when questioned about their faith. It would not be out of line to liken the fear of Catholicism in Shakespeare’s time to the fear of Communism in, say, the 1950s.

Charges of magic and witchcraft had been leveled at the Jesuits for years because of their use of healing relics, icons and exorcisms, and Shakespeare knew of the attacks on Jesuits as dealers in witchcraft. So political witchcraft was a lively topic in 1606. Shakespeare’s witches aren’t just emanations of Macbeth’s inner state: They were vivid symbols of something his audience feared. They understood that, as the Bible says, “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,” and that the witches prompt Macbeth to regicide—which everyone knew the Jesuits were guilty of.

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