Matthew J. Ryan Center Hosts Discussion on Shakespeare and Politics with Esteemed Scholars

Sarah Wisniewski, Staff Writer

On Wednesday, Jan. 22, Villanova University was honored to welcome Isaac Butler, Paul Cantor, Ph.D. and Nichole Miller, Ph.D. to speak to students and the public about the connection of William Shakespeare and politics. The event was at the Matthew J. Ryan Center, which dedicates itself to educating students or anyone else looking to learn.

Each guest had an extensive background on Shakespeare, which was essential to the success of the event. Isaac Butler is the host and writer of the podcast, “Lend Me Your Ears: Shakespeare and Politics,” which is streamed through He is well known for his work in performance and has experience at theaters, including Town Hall, Woolly Mammoth, The Guthrie and La Jolla Playhouse. Butler is also the cocreator of “Real Enemies,” an evening-long meditation of American psyche conspiracy theories which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. 

Paul Cantor Ph.D. is a Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and also has teaching experience at Harvard University in both the English and Government departments. He served on the National Council on the Humanities between 1992 and 1997. Publications of his work include the “Hamlet” volume in the Cambridge Landmarks of World Literature series and two books on Shakespeare’s Roman plays. A variety of his lectures on Shakespeare can be easily assessible online. Canter also has a wide range of published work on pop culture such as “Gillian Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization” and “The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV.” 

Nichole Miller, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English at Temple University, and her research is focused around 16th-17th century British literature, mainly Shakespeare. Her teaching is also engaged with philosophy and gender studies. “Violence and Grace: Exceptional Life Between Shakespeare and Modernity” was Miller’s first book and was published by Northwestern University Press in 2014. Currently, she is working on her new book, tentatively titled “Touching Absence: Love, Death, and Time.” 

Cantor began the conversation of Shakespeare and politics by recognizing the difference between Shakespeare’s time and our current society. He shared with the audience the need to be careful in comparing Shakespeare’s plays directly to current situations.

Cantor then continuedto say that Shakespeare’s writing supports the idea of finding elite leaders through means of politics. The professor mentioned Shakespeare’s liking of Republican forms of government and his dislike for monarchs. Cantor explained this was due to Shakespeare’s desire for intelligent leaders and his rejection of succession. 

“Shakespeare was worried about those born into the crown and rather liked those who had to struggle for power,” Cantor said.

Isaac Butler then joined the discussion to explain how his role as a director allowed him to better interpret Shakespeare and his acknowledgements of politics. “I find it difficult to talk about Shakespeare and politics in concrete terms, as I find that I can’t escape thinking like theater maker,” Butler said. The director and writer mentioned the ability to decipher the language of Shakespeare’s play in order to comprehend the action. Butler’s focus was the action of the plays and that through movement, the censorship Shakespeare experienced could become irrelevant. 

Butler’s overall message was that political ideas are complex and complicated, especially due to Shakespeare’s writing being prior to the Enlightenment. He believes that visualizing the dialogue could simplify the process of interpretation. 

Finally, Miller spoke about her concept of “politics of presence.” The focus of the concept is to expand accessibility and activity in politics. Miller, through an informal survey of the room, made the point that not many people have seen a performance of Shakespeare’s play.  She brought forward the argument that due to the cost of theater, there is a limited audience. Through “politics of presence,” Miller believes education can help uncover the historical context of Shakespeare’s plays that is often overlooked when individuals are unable to view the plays in action.

Miller used the concepts of presence and historical understanding to push for increased political action of everyone. She believes that through understanding Shakespeare’s writing, we can choose to be politically active and make positive impacts.

“Presence in the world means love of the world. Shakespeare’s influence on politics today can be to love the world and love one another,” Miller said.