In 1975, an American professor of literature at Berkeley University had some time in between his own lectures, so he decided to practice his French by going to a lecture that a new professor from Paris was holding. As he curiously stepped into a more or less empty classroom, in which a visiting professor had just started his lecture on Zola, he couldn’t have suspected how fascinated by his thoughts he would become. The lecture room was, after all, filled with only half a dozen students. He became friends with this Frenchman nobody seemed to have interest in. He couldn’t have suspected how they would influence each other’s theoretical work. But looking back, it seems easy to guess that this would become a big moment in the life of theory, since the thrilled listener was Stephen Greenblatt, and the French lecturer was Michel Foucault.

Stephen Greenblatt probably wouldn’t mind me telling you this anecdote. And he probably wouldn’t mind me adding that it is this kind of life moment that is intimately linked to an artist’s, a thinker’s work, since putting history back into literary theory is what he is famous for. While still a student, Greenblatt felt unease towards New Criticism, then still a dominant theoretical model in American universities. He thought researching works of art had to be linked to the network of institutions, practices, and beliefs that constituted culture, and he called this the New Historicism. He proposed that academia give a place to the historical, and with that also the personal, the intimate. His work Will in the World, a Shakespeare biography that was on the New York Times Best Seller List for nine weeks, does exactly that: explains Shakespeare’s language, motif and character choices through what happened to him in life, people he encountered, women he loved and parental mistakes he felt damaged by.

I talked to Professor Stephen Greenblatt, now at Harvard, the supreme Shakespearean, literary historian, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, when he was in Ljubljana, giving a lecture that marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Shakespeare was a proto-EU citizen, putting Denmark, Italy, France and other European countries in his plays, so our interview started off with the European Union’s dark clouds.

Nadina Štefančič (NS): Is Brexit implied somewhere in Shakespeare's plays?

Stephen Greenblatt (SG): Shakespeare is like the Bible. You can find quotations that justify almost anything.

NS: What would he think of Brexit?

SG: I have no clue. There are moments in which characters see England as an island isolated and protected from the rest of the world, so in that sense the English have always had a sense of a way in which they are an island cut of from the main. John of Gaunt, in his famous speech, describes the English Channel as the “moat defensive,” a kind of wall around England. That said, the answer must be the opposite: the English language is a fascinating weird language precisely because of the Norman invasion and the fact that instead of simply displacing Anglo-Saxon with French, they doubled up, tripled up, got multiple words for things. An interesting feature of Shakespeare is the unbelievable linguistic richness, which builds upon English as a result of multiple languages, invasions, migrations and so on.

NS: What does that mean?

SG: English never had an official academy to decide what words are truly English, to draw the boundaries of the language. For the French, the invasion of a word from English is poisoning the purity of French.

NS: Where was English in Shakespeare’s time?

SG: It was a provincial language. French, Italian and Spanish were much more important.

NS: So it was a brave decision to write in English in that time?

SG: Well, it was a decision in which you wouldn't have wanted to put a great deal of money as a bet that these plays would have an international life. If you traveled in the continent in the 1590s, 1610s, you couldn't expect people would be speaking English. It was like speaking Slovenian.

NS: Is Shakespeare responsible for English being where it is now?

SG: Hugely, but not uniquely. So are the English and American empires, the capitalist empires that carried the language into the international world.

NS: Why couldn’t Pedro Calderón de la Barca or Lope de Vega give Spanish language that kind of push?

SG: Well, Spanish is, along with English and Chinese, one of the great international languages. The question is why German or Italian didn't make it as an international languages – Italians, for example, were the ones with much more cultural prestige than English.

NS: Why then did Shakespeare become a cultural institution and De Vega didn't?

SG: I don't think your setup is fair. I could have likewise said: why not Racine? Why not Cornell? The comparison figure with Shakespeare is Cervantes. And he is an international figure. Anywhere in the world, they've translated Don Quixote. Shakespeare was the supreme master of his form, namely the theater. And the creator, the inventor, the font, the power within the novel is Cervantes. It's a question of the relationship, in addition to the quality question, and in addition to power. Quality and the power of the empire. There's also a question of the artist to the particular form within which he or she is working. Shakespeare is to theater what Cervantes is to the novel.

NS: So Shakespeare and Cervantes have the same influence?

SG: It's much harder to read Don Quixote than it is to watch Hamlet now, but Cervantes would have to be like what Homer is to the epic. We could talk a lot how international politics work, but I find the explanation that Shakespeare's international success is the consequence of a kind of collaborative international network of power not a super interesting argument. Not that it's not true, partly it is, but I’m more interested in a way certain figures have a presence in our world. I recently read a book, Zone by Mathias Énard. Its points of crucial references are Homeric, it’s basically the Iliad. The Greeks aren’t powerful enough to support Homer, but Homer has a presence in our world because of the long history of reception of the Odyssey, and because of the magnificence of those works. The Austrians don’t have an enormous international power behind Mozart. I'm sentimental enough to want to think it's not only about armies and professors, it's also about the incredible power of these achievements.

NS: Are his plays a collection of every conflict and every cliché we can find in film / theater / literature today?

SG: I wouldn't say cliché. He was very sensitive to what would be good to play with in the long term – uppity women, women who don't stay in their place, same sex desire, relationships between whites and blacks, Christians and Jews. You wouldn't have necessarily thought those would be big subjects in 1590s, but he understood that they would have good and long shelf-life.

NS: A lot of his plays are based on other plays.

SG: Yes, there's quite a bit of evidence that his company might have said: “Shakespeare, we want a play. There's a very good play about King Lear that the Admiral's men are doing – would you write a play about King Lear?” I think he went and did it.

NS: How did he feel about writing roles for female characters, knowing that men are going to play them?

SG: I think they loved it. I think he specifically enjoyed the ambiguity of the cross-dressing. He makes lots of jokes about it, he's interested in sexual ambiguity, enjoys it a lot and takes advantage of it.

NS: In Lady Macbeth, for example, the line between what is considered feminine and unfeminine is very blurred.

SG: One of the things that excites and upsets Macbeth is that she's radically unfeminine, he's unnerved by the fact he can’t quite figure her out, get her in focus. Is she actually an object of desire and seduction, or a model for terrifying power? Have you seen Kill Bill? In Uma Thurman’s character there’s a similar way in which she has a very curiously complicated relationship to what it means to be a woman.

NS: What goes on in his plays comes from what was going on at that time. Was Shakespeare just born into a Shakespearian moment and noticed it?

SG: Sort of like Kafka. Born into a Kafka moment, noticing all the things that make it a Kafka moment.

NS: He didn't have to make anything up. The term observational playwriting comes to mind.

SG: I think it's true. I think there is a kind of observational aesthetics. One of the very few records we have of something that happened in his life is that the government gave him and the rest of his company the company cloth, so they could serve a table, when there was a Spanish ambassadorial visit. I always think about that moment. They didn't know that Shakespeare was standing in the room, watching what was going on in their meeting. The question always arises how could someone who was the son of a provincial glover know anything about how upper classes behave? The answer is: you look, you watch, you are quiet. And he was very good at watching what was going on.

NS: Also with the language he uses – he had to be a good listener?

SG: Shakespeare wasn’t just a good listener, but was born into a culture that had developed rhetoric to an extravagantly high level. Same as our technology developed to a high level. I am always amazed how good my youngest child is at manipulating visual signs, how effortlessly he can do computer things I can’t. It’s because of the technology that he was born into. Our culture has developed in as visual, and theirs as rhetorical. In Shakespeare’s time, you had to listen to sermons and speeches for hours, you were expected to be able to process fantastically complex rhetorical signals.

NS: He was the best at grabbing that moment…

SG: It’s absolutely true, but it's also a case that he's really unbelievably good at it. It's noticed right away, or very quickly, that he is very good at it. People begin to put his name quite early on his plays and the ones he didn't write, because clearly people wanted to buy them.

NS: He was Hollywood?

SG: But it's interesting that, today, we don't care who writes the scripts. It's because the medium doesn't call attention that way, doesn't sell itself that way. Even though I think Breaking Bad, for example, is one of the great works of our time, I couldn't tell you the name of the author, but I could tell you the name of the main actor.

NS: But we know who paid for it: AMC or HBO or SHOWTIME.

SG: Plenty people in the Shakespeare’s time knew that it was happening at the Globe or Lord Chamberlain's Men, but fairly early on they were willing to buy something that was by Shakespeare.

NS: What kind of films would he be making, if he lived today? Superhero films?

SG: He was interested in making money, but that's not the only way to make money. The two contemporary major works of art are television series, The Wire and Breaking Bad. I like to think he would be making things like that. They were writing superhero things at the time, they were very popular and were making money, but only scholars read them today. He wrote stuff that appealed to a broader audience, but also to a rather elite audience - like The Godfather.