For two days, I was enthralled by Stephen Greenblatt’s latest offering, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, a fresh reading of both Shakespeare’s works and the shared political situations of the Elizabethan age and of modern-day America, and, dare I say, of India. Consider the important questions Greenblatt asks before he begins his arguments: “Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?”

Greenblatt is as enthralling to speak to as to read, for he listens patiently to every question and answers with the eagerness of a teacher and the clarity of a thinker. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, the John Cogan University Professor of Humanities at Harvard spoke to about the importance of university spaces and studying literature, of New Historicism – a reading method he has developed – and of the everlasting vigour of Shakespeare’s lines.

Why should we study literature? We are often told humanities students are not productive for the development of the nation. What do you say, as a student and as a professor of literature?
I think that, first of all, you identify a significant issue of our time. At my own university, Harvard, and all over in the US, and everywhere in fact, there has been a precipitous decline in the interest in studying literature. It’s to me – partly because of how I’ve spent my life – an extremely unnerving and upsetting phenomenon.

I’d say two things. First of all, at the simple and local level, one of the things that’s most striking – and I was on the panel this morning with Vishal Bharadwaj who worked on Shakespeare in his films – if you try to think of most longform contemporary art, take television serials like Breaking Bad, it is overwhelmingly clear that these are done not by people who’ve rejected literature but on the contrary by people who’ve plunged very deeply into it. So it’s a disastrous misunderstanding and misapprehension for those people who want to be creative and artistic to think that the way to be creative is to jettison the study of literature. This is at the level of simply someone who wants to have a career in relation to creative artistry.

At a broader level, I have the same things to say as anyone in my world would say, which is that literature is and has been – at least since Homer – one of the principal ways in which human beings have expressed what is most important to them. To cut oneself off from that heritage is to condemn oneself to the most profound form of narcissism and ignorance.

Your session on Shakespeare and your book Tyrant too speak about this. One of the reviews praised the book as “a more informed source on the day’s events than the whole of our national news media”. Tell us about the origins of this book, and your method of writing it. Did you begin by seeing patterns? Was this idea always with you?
The origins of the book are far away. What I am about to say is not in relation to what has happened in the last two or five or ten years; but for years and years I have been thinking about the peculiar way in which Shakespeare creates an oblique path to think about contemporary global world. In this book, I speak of tyrants and politics.

When in 1987 I was in Weimar in East Germany at an event organised by the East German Shakespeare Association, I remember watching a student production of Hamlet, in which at a certain point – and the production was very sensitive to the fact that most of the characters were students studying abroad – at a certain moment, Laertes asks for permission to go back to Paris! The actor playing Claudius first asks if he had his father’s permission. Polonius says yes. And then Claudius walks to a huge desk, takes out an East German passport, and stamps it with a visa to leave.

The entire audience gasped. I looked around but everyone by then had very blank faces, because no one was admitting to have had any reaction or noise. At that time they were shooting people who were trying to get out of East Germany to Paris. You couldn’t talk about it but I knew everyone had responded. That is how Shakespeare always has been. And the politics of the 1980s has been on the scene for four hundred years now. This was my project.

I also have a question about the method of the book. Is it a step ahead from New Historicist readings, especially because it is talking about texts in terms of their relevance to present times. Or have I misunderstood New Historicism? I’m sure I have.
Well, the “New” in the “New Historicism” was precisely a way of saying: You can’t only think of texts in their historical context, or rather, you can only do it if you also think of it in its current context. That’s the “New” part of it.

If you look at, for example, my book that initiated this sort of study, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, and the chapter on Christopher Marlowe, it begins with a long passage from an English sailor who goes to Sierra Leone. They break into a village and they look around and say that the village is remarkably clean, well-orderly, beautiful, blah-blah-blah, and in the end he says, “our men burned the village down”.

For me, at that time, the story was not only interesting in relation to Marlowe and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine; any reader in the 1980s, or late ’70s, would recall the American soldier lighting the thatched roof of the hooch in Vietnam, the images that went viral on American television. And that is to say New Historicism has always done this association with the present. Now, Tyrant is more explicitly in one direction than in the others. There’s relatively little about the late 16th and 17th centuries and a lot more of an attempt to imply the present.

I want to ask you about history too. History is invoked by the state for its own ends. And then we study history and realise how complex it is. How should we study history? Also, perhaps, tell us about the advantages a reader would have when studying literature along with history.
For the first question, well, the most recent history book I read was William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy. And the point about – I mean The Anarchy is full of extravagant and extraordinary Game of Thrones like narratives about the 17th century and 18th century in India – but the profound motivation there is to think of multinational global corporations in relation to the world.

To study history is equivalent to the New Historicist project for me, where you get both don’t pretend that you’re merely interested in the antiquarian appreciation of the past but you coordinate the present with it.

And for the second question: I was head for a while of an old programme at Harvard named “History and Literature” that precisely tries to bring them both together. I agree that it’s not the only way of doing it, but we need to, partly because for most of the historical past, you have very little access to the inner past of people, but literature is a machine to penetrate the inner lives of people, particularly after Hamlet. Shakespeare invented the idea that you can actually get inside the characters even in their external performances of themselves. And so it’s irresistible really.

Let’s go into your history. Did you always know you would study literature? Or in other words, when did you know, how did you decide?
I enjoyed reading. And that I enjoyed my classes and I enjoyed literature in high school has a big part to play in taking up literature. But I was going to a lawyer. When I graduated from university, I applied to law school and was admitted. But I also got the Fulbright grant to study at Cambridge.

And so I thought I’d spend a little more time there just for fun, I’d get the grant, and I’d be enjoying literature, of course. I was going back and forth, but when in Istanbul on vacation, I held two letters, one from Cambridge, one from Law School, and for no reason I could explain I tore up the letter from law school and threw it to the water.

We are grateful for that inexplicable moment. Not only are you in academia because of it, but you’re also one of the few academicians who is read outside academia. You weave storytelling into your criticism. How did this happen?
I’ve always felt that it was a mistake on the part of academics to abandon the very thing that drew them to study these works in the first place. We profoundly love Proust or Joyce for not abandoning narratives even when in both cases they’re not merely narrative writers. But we as scholars abandon the thing that holds these explorations together. This seemed to me a terrible idea.

When I wrote my dissertation, and I’m talking about 1967 or whatever, I remember writing the first sentence of my dissertation, and it was: “Sir Henry Yelwerton was no friend of Sir Walter Raleigh.” And I remember going out and showing this to a friend who was baffled. And I said, “What’s great about this” – great, well – “what’s exciting about this to me is that you can’t tell whether you’re reading a short story, a novel, an academic account…” This goes back to more than 50 years ago. I’ve always had that instinct about writing.

Would it help if more academicians wrote with everyone in mind? At the very least, the powerful could stop saying we don’t matter. And more people could…
People have to write the way they want to write; there’s no single solution to all this. But it’s true that it’s important for us, collectively, culturally, and precisely in this moment when there is a decline of engagement with humanities, to actually try to address our work to the broader public.

Let’s get back to Shakespeare. When did he capture your imagination? Which play, if you could pin down one?
I can actually. To a time. I was captured by Shakespeare because I had a wonderful teacher in high school. I read As You Like It and thought it was terrible. I had a brilliant teacher who taught King Lear in high school. And I remember the teacher saying at a certain point “I have read it and I don’t understand it.” I had never seen a teacher say they don’t understand something; they always pretended they understood everything. It was a moment in which I thought: that’s interesting; here’s something that we don’t fully understand.

I want to get to your university experience before I ask you about universities themselves. What is it to study literature. We’re told, I was told at least, that I should study something else and not literature, for I could always read books before going to bed. What’s different in the university?
This is not a very helpful answer, I’m afraid – it is necessary, one should read before going to bed…

Yeah, of course, yeah, that’s not…
Yes, I was only encouraging that too. Well, the picture, for me, is not only the professional study of literature, but the teaching and the writing and the community. The relationships to students and the life that you lead. And it’s a pleasure – I love it – it’s my unbelievable good fortune to be spending my life with people in their late-teens and twenties interested in what I’m interested in.

That’s a very special quality. That you can’t have in reading books before going to bed. And as a student, you get the other side. A moment very exciting in my life at Berkley, California, and Paris, I had a circle of people that included remarkable thinkers about literature: Michel Foucault, Michel DeCerteau; they were very good friends and everything was exploding with excitement and interest.

I want to end with a general question about universities. Universities are censured here, but not the science and technology universities; they’re productive. But the universities of humanities and social sciences, they’re apparently unproductive, among other things. With such narratives around, how do we defend our learning spaces? Why are…
You know this is absurd, I mean, not absurd on your part, but “productive” means what here? Most of what we do now is being replaced by machines and robots and…tell me, okay this may be less in India because people are still working and making things here more than in the completely industrialised countries.

So the notion for me is something like the opposite. Unless you think the person who’s moving shares from one thing to another in the stock market is being productive, which seems to be an absurd idea – well, they’ll make a lot of money, but that’s not a model of productivity I would be interested in. What we do seems to me has as good a claim on human activity as anything else.