The Art & Craft of Shakespeare by Robin Phillips


The Art & Craft
of Shakespeare

An Interview with Peter Leithart
by Robin Phillips

Over the years Peter Leithart and I have enjoyed discussing various things, from closed communion to postmodern literary theory. With this year being the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, our discussions turned naturally to the work and legacy of the Elizabethan bard. The interview below represents the majority of our discussions.

• • •

Robin Phillips (RP): Many people perceive Shakespeare as a relic of a bygone age. After all, he lived in a time before there were smartphones, internet, even TV. Is Shakespeare even relevant for the type of society we now inhabit?

Peter Leithart (PL): The most obvious riposte comes from the performance history of Shakespeare's plays. They've been adapted for all sorts of situations. Just in the last few years we've seen film adaptations that prove the point: Ian McKellen plays Richard III in pseudo-Nazi uniform; Julie Taymor's Titus Andronicus mixes ancient Roman and Fascist themes; and judging from the weapons and uniforms, Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus might be fighting in Afghanistan or Kosovo. You can transfer Romeo and Juliet to L.A., turn the warring families into gangs and the swords into guns, and the star-crossed lovers seem like kids down the street.

I think that flexibility is partly due to the fact that Shakespeare wrote plays, and wrote them with few scene-setting stage directions. Austen's world is clearly not ours, nor is Dickens's; that leaps off the page. With Shakespeare, we have drama without much in the way of scenery, and even though the characters talk funny, they are recognizable human characters.

And of course there's the old truism that Shakespeare's plays deal with the perennial dramas of human life—war, love, betrayal, ambition, gossip, trickery, death, hope, reunion, mystery and magic. It's a truism, but it's also true.

RP: We know very little about the historical Shakespeare, which means that his plays and poems are really all we have to go on when trying to discern his vision of the world. But do his works even convey a certain vision of the world?

PL: I believe they do. He was (I believe) a Christian playwright in a Christian society, and judging from the plays, it seems he held to the Christian convictions that were widely shared in his world. I don't think we can talk about Shakespeare's "philosophy." I imagine it wasn't as self-conscious as that. Still, though I don't want to reduce him to a pundit, I'm convinced that he self-consciously raised and dramatized certain live theological and political issues. A number of recent studies have emphasized how the Elizabethan stage functioned as a kind of alternative pulpit.

He was also like Cassius, "a keen observer of men." He understood power, had a sense of the complexities of motivation and psychology, grasped and enjoyed the erotic repartee between men and women. One critic has explained the mystery of Hamlet's character by suggesting that Shakespeare meant to make him unfathomable: "What a piece of work is man!" indeed. I think this is what accounts for the centuries of attention to Shakespeare as a "thinker." He was a poet and playwright, a craftsman who wanted to entertain and instruct. But he had such a sure sense of human experience that his work inevitably raises philosophical and theological questions that he may never have thought of in philosophical terms.

RP: What would be an example of some of these questions?

What people are saying about Touchstone:

Robin Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020). He has a Master's in history from King's College, London, and is currently working on a Master's in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is Blog & Media Managing Editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at

• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!

personal subscriptions

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

RENEW your print/online

Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

RENEW your online subscription

gift subscriptions

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!

RENEW your gift subscription

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.

more on Literature from the online archives

24.1—January/February 2011

Secular Grendel

Ruminations on the Monstrous Envy of the Soul-Devouring State by Anthony Esolen

35.6—Nov/Dec 2022

To Is or Not To Is

on E-Prime by J. Douglas Johnson

32.2—March/April 2019

The Problem of Pity

Misguided Mercy & Dante's Infernal Purgation by Joshua Hren

more from the online archives

8.4—Fall 1995

The Demise of Biblical Preaching

Distortions of the Gospel and its Recovery by Donald G. Bloesch

14.6—July/August 2001

What Women Need

Three Bad Ideas for Women & What to Do About Them by Frederica Mathewes-Green

27.6—Nov/Dec 2014

Tales of Forbidden Stereotypes

Real-Life Men & Women & the Tragic Loss of Human Comedy by Anthony Esolen

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone