Shakespeare vs. Milton?
I did something I very seldom do -- and if you have two hours, eleven minutes, and fifty-eight seconds to spare, so can you -- I watched a video. I rarely watch videos due to the time involved, particularly long videos, but this one came recommended by the Milton List and was presented by Intelligence Squared. It featured a 'debate,' Shakespeare vs Milton: The Kings of English Literature, chaired on June 22nd by Erica Wagner (depicted above), between Professor James Shapiro (Columbia University) and Professor Nigel Smith (Princeton University), extolling Shakespeare and Milton, respectively (but shouldn't that be The King of English Literature?).
Two actresses and one actor -- Pippa Nixon, Harriet Walter, and Sam West, each renowned on the stage -- performed scenes from Shakespeare and Milton. To show Shakespeare's superiority, Professor Shapiro had Ms. Walter and Mr. West play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the same scene twice, once with Lady Macbeth portrayed as masculine in her aggressiveness and once with her portrayed as feminine in her seductiveness, the point being that Shakespeare allows for multiple interpretations.
But why should multiple interpretations imply superiority? Milton can be variously interpreted. Indeed, he is so daily among scholars! I expected Professor Smith to have a single scene from Paradise Lost performed more than once, each time differently interpreted. Perhaps Satan's soliloquy occasioned by the radiant beams of sunlight? Once with greater defiance, once with considerable remorse? That could have been a coup!
Professor Shapiro probably 'won' the debate. Shakespeare did get the most votes from the audience. But I think Professor Smith could be the 'winner' in a rematch by showing that Shakespeare's strengths are also found in Milton.