July 8 – July 21, 2018

Literature and Politics

Washington, DC
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Part of our 7-week Political Studies Program. Apply for this course or our full summer program. $1,000 stipend, plus course materials and housing.

This two-week course explores the contributions of literature and rhetoric to the study of politics.

The first week, led by Professors Benjamin and Jenna Storey, will examine Plato’s meditation on eros in the Symposium and the natural connections between love, ambition, and fidelity to the polity. What is the relation of the love of beauty, sexual pleasure, and education to virtue?  How does eros relate to moral excellence, and to moral failure?  Is political ambition an extension or betrayal of the love for another human being?  What exactly do we desire from erotic partnership—do lovers seek to complete themselves by merging with their “other halves,” or is love ultimately a longing for immortality that no other human being could satisfy?  Peopled by political figures implicated in both the greatness and the collapse of Athens, the Symposium invites its readers to investigate the complexity of properly ordering our loves, an endeavor necessary both to fulfilling private lives and to a strong and decent public order.

The second week, led by Professor Paul Cantor, will study Shakespeare’s Roman plays to explore the interaction between man and city, each taken to its dramatic height. From classical antiquity down to the eighteenth century and such thinkers as Montesquieu and the American Founding Fathers, Rome has been one of the perennial themes of political theory. Shakespeare’s Roman plays (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony & Cleopatra) are his contribution to the longstanding debate about Rome, and also occupy a very important place in his comprehensive understanding of the human condition. The plays are evidence of the crucial importance of politics in Shakespeare’s view of human nature, as well as of his sense of the limits of politics.


Time and Location
This two-week course will take place in Washington, DC. It is a full-time commitment for Monday–Friday, with required sessions in the morning, afternoon, and some evenings.




Week I: Plato's Symposium

Week II: Shakespeare's Rome

Recommended Reading:

Shakespeare and Politics, The Great Thinkers


Discussion Questions:

1. How does Shakespeare characterize the two parties in Republican Rome, the patricians and the plebeians? The two parties are opposed in their interests, but how do they manage to communicate and to some extent work together?

2. What in Coriolanus’s character causes him to fail in his bid to become consul?

3. What is the understanding of immortality in republican Rome, and how does it affect the character of the Romans?

4. How are the women in Coriolanus portrayed? In particular, what is Volumnia’s role in the play? What is the relation of the family to the city of Rome?

5. How would you compare the Volsces with the Romans? Why is Coriolanus able to achieve rule among them, when he was not able to do so among the Romans? How would you compare Aufidius with Coriolanus?

6. Why does Coriolanus eventually abandon his effort to conquer Rome?

7. What do the Romans learn from the story of Coriolanus? What do the patricians in particular learn? What do the plebeians in particular learn? How will these lessons affect the future of Rome as a republic?


Discussion Questions:

1. Compare the opening scene of Julius Caesar with that of Coriolanus. What does this comparison tell us about the changes that have occurred in the republican regime? How do the plebeians of Julius Caesar differ from those of Coriolanus? How has the role of the tribunes changed?

2. In Shakespeare’s portrayal, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Julius Caesar? How has he gotten to the point where he is on the verge of achieving one-man rule in Rome?

3. Why does the conspiracy form against Julius Caesar? Who are its leaders, and what does each contribute to the enterprise?

4. Why does the conspiracy fail? What are some of the conspirators’ specific mistakes, and why do they make them? Could the Republic have been saved?

5. What is Antony’s role in the play? Can you compare him to any character in Coriolanus? Why does he succeed in defeating the conspirators? What implications does his reaction to Caesar’s death have for his future in Antony and Cleopatra?

6. How would you compare Brutus’s funeral oration with Antony’s?

7. How has the status of women changed since the days of Coriolanus?

8. How has religion in Rome changed since the days of Coriolanus? What does the presence of soothsayers in the play suggest?

9. Cassius is a professed Epicurean; Brutus is a professed Stoic; Cicero is the only “name” philosopher to appear in any of Shakespeare’s plays. What does the presence of philosophy in the Rome of Julius Caesar suggest?

10. What is the attitude toward suicide in the closing scenes of the play? Has the Roman attitude toward military victory changed?


Discussion Questions:

1. How have the political circumstances changed now that the Roman Empire is coming into being? How do these changes affect the lives of the characters in the play?

2. What do you make of Pompey’s rhetoric and actions in Act II, Scenes 6 and 7? How and why have the terms of politics altered for him?

3. In Act III, Scene 1, we see Ventidius, a Roman commander on the frontier of the empire. What does this scene reveal about how politics has changed in Imperial Rome? What are the implications of this scene for the future of Rome?

4. How has the status of women changed in the Empire?

5. How has religion changed in the Empire?

6. How has Rome become Egyptianized in Antony and Cleopatra? What does this development tell us about Imperial Rome?

7. Antony expresses a wish to live “a private man in Athens” (Act III, Scene 12). If all that matters to him and Cleopatra is their private love affair, why don’t they simply abdicate and disappear into the teeming masses of the Empire?

8. What is Enobarbus’s dilemma, and how is it representative of the changed conditions of the Empire?

9. How has the notion of nobility changed in the world of Antony and Cleopatra?

10. For the first time in the Roman plays, we hear talk of an afterlife in Antony and Cleopatra. What is the significance of this development?

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