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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Second Chances, Shakespeare, and Freud

With Adam Phillips and Stephen Greenblatt

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 236

The desire for a second chance provides the engine for many of Shakespeare’s plays. In their new book, Second Chances: Shakespeare and Freud, Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt and psychologist Adam Phillips argue that this fascination with the second chance links Shakespeare with one of his biggest 20th century fans: Sigmund Freud. Shakespeare helped Freud think about second chances—why we desire them so deeply, and why, sometimes, we push them away. Host Barbara Bogaev talks with Greenblatt and Phillips about how reading Freud alongside Shakespeare can help illuminate both writers’ insights into human nature.

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Second Chances: Shakespeare and Freud is available from Yale University Press.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published May 21, 2024. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Rob Double at London Broadcast and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

Previous: Mary Zimmerman on Adapting Ovid and Directing Shakespeare



MICHAEL WITMORE: On today’s episode: One underlying desire unites nearly all of Shakespeare’s main characters—comic and tragic. It’s positively Freudian.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.

According to a new book by Shakespearean Stephen Greenblatt and psychologist Adam Phillips, the desire for a second chance provides the engine for many of Shakespeare’s plays.

In comedies like As You Like It and Twelfth Night, the characters get a chance to start again at the end of the play. In tragedies like Othello and King Lear, the heroes realize that they’re too late for a second chance. And romances like The Winter’s Tale dramatize the return of loved ones for a second chance after all hope seems lost.

In Second Chances, Greenblatt and Phillips argue that this fascination with the second chance links Shakespeare with one of his biggest 20th century fans: Sigmund Freud. Like Shakespeare’s characters, Freud’s patients yearn for a re-do—a central experience or trauma keeps them coming back.

Reading Freud alongside Shakespeare can help illuminate both writers’ insights into human nature. Freud read Shakespeare’s plays closely and cited them frequently in his own writings. Shakespeare helped Freud think about second chances; why we desire them so deeply and why, sometimes, we push them away.

Here are Stephen Greenblatt and Adam Phillips, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.

BARBARA BOGAEV: It does seem self-evident that the definition of a second chance is a redo. But, as I was reading your book, the term became kind of slippery. I kept thinking of the adage that you can’t step in the same stream twice. So, why don’t we start with defining our terms? I’ll throw that to you, Adam. What is a second chance?

ADAM PHILLIPS: Well, I think a second chance primarily implies, of course, that there was a first chance. A second chance is the attempt to redo something or rework something that was felt the first time either to have failed or not to have been brought fully to fruition.

I think that it’s interesting, as we say in the book, obviously, that we don’t get fourth and fifth chances. The idea, I think, is that you get a first chance at something. If you’re lucky and/or if you can organize it, you will be able to arrange to have a second chance as an opportunity to do it again.

BOGAEV: Yeah, that’s where it starts getting slippery for me because the second chance idea seems to embody a lot of hope in, like, “We’re going to get it right this time. And we’re going to… we’re not even thinking about third or fourth or fifth chances.” Stephen, do you explain it the same way as Adam does?

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: I usually think of second chances as occurring after something has gone wrong. After you’ve lost, after you are lost and they’re trying to find your way out. I think you are likely to be fated to make mistakes the second time around, but with luck, they’ll be a different set of mistakes. Not the identical ones that got you in trouble in the first place.

I think that Shakespeare thought a great deal about precisely not to define exactly what these second chances might be. But to think about what happens when things have gone wrong in a serious way and what you’d be able to do to try to put the pieces together in a new way.

BOGAEV: This is very personal for you. You write in the book, in the introduction to Second Chances, that you got the idea for it by reading Adam’s book on Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. Tell me about that. What struck you that led you to this idea to collaborate on a book about second chances and Shakespeare?

GREENBLATT: I began, partly just to think, thinking about the odd turns of events in my own life. I had the better part of more than 25 years in Berkeley, California, in which my friends called me Steve, in which I wrote a whole number of academic books about Shakespeare and other subjects, in which I had a family.

Then, for various reasons, all of that changed. There was a falling apart. I moved 3,000 miles away. For reasons that I couldn’t explain, people called me Stephen rather than Steve. I began to write rather different books on the same subject, but rather different in manner and form. I had a second family.


I began to think of what this is all about, and Adam’s book was very helpful, in part because I had, in earlier times, had thought about all the things you could think to do if you changed your life, but you might not wind up doing. I tried to reconcile myself particularly in difficult times to the fact that, “All right, this is the only life I have. It’ll never be any different.”

But then my life was different. I began to think about what Adam would say to that, when certain things actually do change. When you’re no longer living with fantasies of what might happen, but you’re actually trying to make it anew. And, my first thought was, “Let me talk to Adam about this.” And we went from there.

BOGAEV: You guys were already friends?

PHILLIPS: Yeah, we were friends. But, I was actually very struck because I had—not quite a revelation, but a very striking thing happened. Which was [that] Stephen talked about second chances, and I realized immediately that all of psychoanalysis is about second chances. It was as though lots of things fell into place.

From there, it seemed relatively straightforward, even though we didn’t know how we were going to do it exactly. But I could see quite quickly how, what a psychoanalytic version of this very resonant phrase would be.

GREENBLATT: You know, I can say something of the same. The more I thought about it, that, actually, I wouldn’t say necessarily all, but a great deal of Shakespeare is in fact about second chances. I was surprised. I’d thought about Shakespeare for many decades. It hadn’t occurred to me, but suddenly it all began to fall into place.

BOGAEV: It’s so interesting how this phrase, “second chance,” reverberated with both of you. Now, let’s talk about that and Shakespeare. Stephen, does Shakespeare really stand out among authors as particularly obsessed or preoccupied with the idea of the second chance?

GREENBLATT: He is, I think, actually quite surprisingly so. He’s not unique in this regard because it’s a deep human concern across not only Shakespeare’s time, but across centuries.


But if you think about his contemporary, Ben Jonson, for example. Jonson’s plays, marvelous plays like Bartholomew Fair or The Alchemist. Volpone. They’re not about second chances at all, or even about failed attempts to have second chances. That’s not the way in which they’re structured. That isn’t the dream that seems to be motivating them.

You get closer to Shakespeare’s preoccupation, I think, in Christopher Marlowe. That’s partly because Shakespeare actually had an eye on Marlowe, I think, in the early part of his career and thought a lot about what Marlowe was up to.

You can see in Marlowe’s greatest play, Dr. Faustus, there is this fascination with whether you could possibly get out of something, in any case, and have another chance. But that’s not the way—even that is not quite the way Shakespeare thought of the situation. I think but I—

BOGAEV: Well, I think—


BOGAEV: No, no. Finish your thought, sorry.

GREENBLATT: I think that early in his career, really, right, really almost from the beginning from a play like Comedy of Errors, he is thinking about what happens when you are lost and when you’re desperately trying to get something back that you’ve lost.

BOGAEV: I wanted to start with the definition of “second chances” because you’ve set the stage that they’re about… they presuppose a first chance, of course, and that our lives have a story.

Stephen, I think you’re anticipating my next question, which is, did early modern writers and people even think that lives have a narrative structure? Like, a “story of my life.” Because I thought that wasn’t really a concept yet. Or maybe it’s something that Shakespeare was pioneering with Hamlet and The Tempest and plays like that.

GREENBLATT: It’s certainly the case that not all early modern writers thought that every individual had the story of his life. I actually was quite struck by—it’s The Tempest, particularly that that phrase, “The story of my life,” keeps getting repeated, as if it were something that everyone would recognize. In fact, a character says, “I’d love to hear the story of your life.”

But, that’s not at all what I think all of Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have thought made a lot of sense. Partly because either they thought all lives have the same story, or because they thought there was no narrative at all in a life. As Shakespeare’s great contemporary, Montaigne, explicitly says, the idea that you actually have a story is ridiculous because your life is actually much more discontinuous and messy than that.

But I think Shakespeare very, very powerfully believed, felt that there was a narrative in a life.

BOGAEV: Oh, Adam, can you pick up this thread, please. Because as I understand it, the Freudian process is through re-description. You reclaim your life or your life story or a sense of a story, and you have a second chance of overcoming traumas. And, you say second chances are all wrapped up in remembering, in the act of memory.

PHILLIPS: Yes, I mean, people come to psychoanalysis office because something’s gone wrong, Stephen was referring to earlier, and Freud has a very interesting method, a lot of people know about now, which is, he says that if you want to actually tell the story of your life, you have to say whatever comes into your mind.

In other words, there’s a paradox here in free association. You say whatever comes into your mind, which is fragmentary and anti-narrative, non-narrative. It’s anything. Then, gradually, a narrative is constructed from the fragments.

So, it’s fundamental to, certainly, psychoanalytic therapy and theory, even though it is contentious, that the project is to produce a sufficiently coherent or satisfying narrative out of your life.

By the time we get to Freud, it is taken for granted that lives are like stories. But, of course, we’ve had, you know, hundreds of years of fiction, so to speak, and two hundred years of the novel. By which time, of course, the idea that you are a character in a fiction has become very, very powerful.

BOGAEV: Adam, as I was reading the book, I was also thinking about the cliché that you can change your circumstances, but you are the constant. You know, wherever you go, you always bring yourself with you. Or you’re whatever we call a self. I don’t… you know, I’m not talking about a fixed, integrated self. Just a set of habits and even neural grooves. So it seems necessary that to grab a second chance, you do have to be aware of the fact that it is a second chance, or at least grateful for the opportunity. Is this right?


PHILLIPS: Yes, I think it is right. I mean, what Freud discovers in discovering psychoanalysis is that people are endlessly redescribing their lives. Indeed, they come to psychoanalysis because they’ve got stuck in a story that makes them suffer too much. So that the aim of the analysis, if you like, is to open up the story. And to make it possible to rethink it, reconsider it, re-describe it.


So, the project is always the second chance of a remembering. If you think of the word “representation.” It’s a re-presentation. If you think of a dream. I dream a dream at night, and it’s my private experience. It has to be re-presented, i.e. it’s given a second chance when I share it with somebody. If I take it to my analyst, it might be interpreted, etc. But something has been done to it. So there’s a revision. You don’t stick with the literal same object. I think—


BOGAEV: Or restage it as Shakespeare is pointing out.


PHILLIPS: Exactly. And that’s the point. That, if you like, that’s what it’s there for: to be revised, to be re-described.

BOGAEV: Great. Okay. Let’s talk about this in the context of tragedy then. Stephen, is the essence of tragedy, then, the failure to recognize or grasp your second chance? Or is it the absence of a second chance? Why don’t we consider an example, Othello, say.

GREENBLATT: I mean, Shakespeare… I think that was one of the great revelations of writing the book for me was the realization that precisely the tragedies, Shakespeare’s tragedies, are again and again about the desperate longing for a second chance and then the failure to have one.

Overwhelmingly in King Lear. Incredibly powerfully, I think too, in Hamlet, “Oh, cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.” Again, terrifyingly in Macbeth. And, as you say in Othello.

Shakespeare’s structures it different each time. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be interested in the range of plays that he wrote. They’d all seem the same. So, they’re always different. But in the case of Othello, first of all, Othello thinks that he’s finally had this experience that he never thought he was going to have. This experience of love. This profound, as it were, first chance of love. And then, thanks to the demonic intervention of Iago, and thanks to his own inner torments, he loses it.

Then, Shakespeare dangles—actually, it’s quite cruel, sadistic, I think, in fact— Shakespeare dangles before us and the audience and before Othello the possibility that maybe it could happen. When there’s the moment at the end in which Desdemona weirdly seems to come alive again, as if she hasn’t been murdered, only to say, “Commend me to my kind Lord,” and to die again.

That’s, as I say, an extreme case in Shakespeare, tantalizing the character. Tantalizing you, the audience, with the possibility that there’ll be a second chance, and then ripping it away.

BOGAEV: Yes, I love how you point out that audiences way back when and maybe still, they—we just long for him to realize he’s wrong. And people shouted out warnings.

GREENBLATT: Yes, and Shakespeare actually knows that. I mean, he knows what he’s doing, as it were, not surprisingly. He actually has—after this torment that you have when you’re watching the play of having to bite your tongue—he has Emilia at the—when it’s too late—say, “Fool, you’re an idiot, don’t you understand?” That very thing that we have wanted to say to him, she finally does say. But it’s too late. Too late for him to have a second chance.

PHILLIPS: Stephen refers to Iago as the master saboteur of second chances. It’s a rather wonderful phrase in a way. The sort of inflection I would add to what Stephen was saying about Shakespearean tragedy, which was certainly, for me, pretty much a revelation writing the book, was the idea that it could also be true that the tragic hero is somebody who hates the idea of the second chance. Who attacks it, who can’t as well welcome it or even always see it.

Because what becomes absolutely crucial to the tragic hero is that he only has accomplices. He doesn’t have any critics. He’s incapable of the second thought that might lead to a second chance.

One of the things you might say that the tragic hero is showing us is the consequence of attacking or hating or sabotaging the possibility of the second chance.

GREENBLATT: Actually, I would say that—and this is part of the pleasure of the collaboration. Because I think I only fully grappled with this because of Adam and because of really what Adam has just mentioned, which is that the very characters who profess the longing to have a second chance are actually sabotaging the second chances themselves. Of course, there are villains, in the case of Iago, who are also helping. But there’s some very peculiar and disturbing current in which, at the very moment that the character is aching for renewal, he’s actually also destroying the possibility of renewal. Actively fighting against it, actively condemning himself to the suffering.

There’s that fabulous moment in The Winter’s Tale in which Leontes says, “Do you actually think I want to suffer this way?” The weird answer is, “Yes.” He thinks he doesn’t want to, but there’s some part of himself that wants to. That is embracing death, that is embracing failure, and is resisting the very thing that might have given him relief.

BOGAEV: Oh great, we’re getting to death wish. Adam, what is Freud’s explanation for self-destructive behavior and the refusal there or the inability to grasp a second chance?

PHILLIPS: Freud ended up believing that there was a fundamental conflict in everyone between what he called the life instincts and the death instincts. The life instincts, Eros, is the part of ourselves that wants more life, more relationship, more vitality, to be more enlivened.

But then there’s another part of the self that actually wants less life. That wants inertia. That wants not to feel anything at all. That actively attacks being enlivened or vitalized in any way.

And, obviously, these are fictions, but they’re very powerful fictions. And so, the idea, for example, that there is going to be a part of the self that really doesn’t want love, or life, or vitality, or interest, or any of the things we assume constitute a good life—So, we are actively the saboteurs of our own wellbeing.

Because Freud came up against this very straightforwardly, which is, people would come to see psychoanalysts saying they wanted to change, which they did. Then, actually, what would be discovered is, they also didn’t want to change at all. In fact, they wanted to recruit the analyst to consolidate their already existing position. They wanted to actually maintain their suffering.

One of the ways they did this was by finding ways of making suffering pleasurable. So, we want to change and we really don’t want to change, or we want to change by remaining the same.

The tragic hero in the course of the play changes very little. He becomes, as it were, more and more intensely and dogmatically himself.

BOGAEV: Well, I think any therapists who are listening to this now are probably saying, “Well, and my clients are just the same.” I mean, is this what you’re up against as well, Adam?

PHILLIPS: Yes, of course.

BOGAEV: I mean, you know, change is scary and you become wedded to your part of your story of yourself.

PHILLIPS: Yes, and the character you’ve invented is your self-cure for the difficulties you had in growing up.

BOGAEV: Right, and it worked for a time.

PHILLIPS: Oh, yes. Or, it works well enough. So the fear of the unknown is huge here, and the fear of freedom.

BOGAEV: The devil we don’t know as opposed to the devil we know.


BOGAEV: You know, we haven’t mentioned this word self-knowledge yet. It’s something that, Adam, you are… have written a lot about, thought a lot about, and are very often skeptical about. You see self-knowledge often as a stumbling block. Instead of thinking of ourselves as this mutable collection of stories that we tell ourselves, we cling to an idea of this integrated self and a solid core. Is the problem that that gets in the way of change?

PHILLIPS: I think it can do that. One can become addicted to a picture of oneself. It would seem to me misleading to be against self-knowledge. The risk is that self-knowledge preempts experience. So that I have too strong a sense of who I am as a character in my own, as it were, fiction.

I mean, I think the point here is that second chances don’t come with a guarantee. But what they do is they open up the potentiality or the possibility of an unknowable future. It may be terrible, it may be worse, but it has the potential. It has a degree of unknowability.

GREENBLATT: I mean, I think actually Shakespeare has it… if you think about Shakespeare’s version of these questions, he manages to play it both ways, in effect.

I mean that he has, in the case of a play like The Tempest, he stages in effect what it is for someone to realize that he’s made a series of terrible blunders and that he could correct them now. That’s a version, in effect, of a redoing of Lear.

Lear actually learns a whole lot about himself, but too late. He can’t do anything with the knowledge. “I’ve taken too little care of this,” he says. But it’s too late, he’s already made the fatal mistakes. But, in the case of Prospero, he’s actually learned something about himself, and he’s going to have a second chance.

But then there are a whole series of plays in Shakespeare in which not having a great deal of self-knowledge, in which just accepting uncertainty, turns out to be the great blessing.

BOGAEV: That’s a great introduction to talking about the comedies because you describe them as dramatizing the return of the first chance and that they’re full of characters that are just very resilient.

GREENBLATT: Yes, they’re resilient and not particularly thoughtful.

BOGAEV: No, not self-reflective at all.

GREENBLATT: They’re particularly not thoughtful. The early comedies are really about trying to get back and actually succeeding in getting back that first chance.

Precisely as Viola says in Twelfth Night, “I don’t know how this is going to work out. I haven’t a clue, everything is confused. All the pieces are strange. Everyone thinks I’m something that I’m not. I’m thinking other people—I don’t know how this is all going to sort out, but we’ll just have to see what happens.”

BOGAEV: Stephen, do you see in Shakespeare any sense that resilience can be cultivated or whether it’s an inborn personality trait? Or does Shakespeare have it both ways, as he has it both ways with almost everything?

GREENBLATT: I’d like to think it would be cultivated. I’m curious as to whether resilience can be cultivated. I think Shakespeare, at least in the comedies, does think, on the whole, that it’s a trait that you could wish for, but that it’s extremely difficult to cultivate.

I don’t think Shakespeare would have thought it had to do with your earliest childhood. He might have, but it’s something that you carry with you from very early on.

You know, you can… the interesting thing is that very few people in Shakespeare’s world—or for that matter, in the world before the 19th century, late 19th century—thought a great deal about very early childhood. But Shakespeare does actually, oddly enough, give you glimpses, usually in terms of what has gone catastrophically wrong.

You get the glimpse of Richard III and his mother. His mother disgusted by him as an infant, disgusted by his teeth, disgusted by his tetchiness. You get the glimpse of Coriolanus and his ghastly mother, Volumnia—

BOGAEV: Yeah. there’s a lot of mother blaming in Shakespeare.

PHILLIPS: A lot of mother blaming in the world.

BOGAEV: Yes. Well, I’m glad you said that, Stephen, because I’m going to jump back to tragedy.

And Adam, you write that, “It’s what a life looks like as a protracted tantrum.” Which is a really great description of, I think, both Richard and Lear, or certainly Lear’s opening scene.

PHILLIPS: Yes, I think so. I mean, I think that, you know…. I mean, I don’t know what Shakespeare believed, but in Shakespeare’s time, a lot of people would have believed in original sin.

Well, Freud believes in original frustration, that everything depends upon how you manage your frustration with your mother and your parents: your earliest frustrations. I think in a way this is at some level what we’re talking about when we’re talking about second chances. Can you get over your frustration such that you believe in the possibility of good things coming again?

BOGAEV: Well, this brings us back to what you were talking about, Stephen, in The Winter’s Tale. In the book, you describe it as dramatizing the phenomenon at the heart of Freud’s theory and what Adam was talking about; that people come to analysis wanting to change, but unconsciously, they’re just trying to stay the same and keep suffering. Where do you see that in The Winter’s Tale?

GREENBLATT: Leontes, in The Winter’s Tale—which is a version in effect of the Othello story, but without Iago, because there’s no outside instigator, no saboteur—Leontes destroys his own happiness, and insistently destroys his own happiness against everyone’s urging, and against all the actual circumstances of his life.

Shakespeare has a variety of very subtle and complex hints as to what is going on inside him. It is very much, as Shakespeare understands it, inside him. It’s something tormenting him.

BOGAEV: To remind everyone, he’s convinced his wife has cuckolded him. Has been unfaithful.

GREENBLATT: Exactly. His friend, his best friend with whom he’s had an extremely intimate relationship when he was very young, has been visiting—his male friend, Polixenes, has been visiting his kingdom and he’s been there for nine months.

His wife—Leontes’s wife, Hermione—lo and behold, is nine months pregnant and Leontes convinces himself that the baby is not his. That Polixenes has been sleeping with his wife.

Now in the source story that Shakespeare used, in that story, the Polixenes character actually gets into bed with the Hermione character—they’re all called the same names—So, they’re also innocent, but they’re very intimate. Way too intimate. So, you, you get a little possible motivation for the Leontes jealousy. But Shakespeare, characteristically, throws that out. So there is no external cause for this bursting forth of self-tormenting jealousy.

Then, once he gets that, Leontes keep saying, “I’m right. I’m right. I’m right,” against everyone’s saying to him that he’s wrong. The question is, how could you possibly—once you’re in the grip of that compulsive need to claim you’re right, even though it’s destroying you—how could you ever get out of that?

PHILLIPS: Yes, with the added point, you know, that why do people want to be in states of conviction? What does it do for people, if you like, to feel they’re completely right? Why is that satisfying?

BOGAEV: And, to answer your own question—I mean, obviously not—to open to themselves to doubt, is terrifying.

PHILLIPS: I think to open yourself to doubt is to open yourself to dependence on other people. That you need more than you can supply yourself. Whereas when I’m in a state of conviction, it’s as though I’m in a state of self-sufficiency.

GREENBLATT: In the later plays, especially in The Winter’s Tale—which we were talking about, that I think of as the paradigmatic, second-chance story of Shakespeare, what dangles before you is not that everything will be different, but that you’ll actually… in the case of The Winter’s Tale, the husband and wife will be the same.

It’s the Stanley Cavell, in that wonderful book on the Hollywood comedy of remarriage—It will be the same couple, but different. I think that connects to a kind of deep conviction on Shakespeare’s part. That I think he explores most powerfully in those wonderful early comedies, that the thing that you get that looks like a second chance is a version of your first family. The first thing.

It’s not… it can’t be the identical thing. Time has passed. You’re a different person, all kinds of things have happened to you. But it’s profoundly linked, even if it looks completely different. It’s profoundly linked to what you had in the first place. That’s the, as they say, slightly crazy story of Comedy of Errors or the crazy story of Twelfth Night, where you were actually getting back the very thing that you once had, but in a different form.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, and that is the foundation of psychoanalysis.

BOGAEV: Adam, I’m just going to move this forward a little bit to a question I had throughout the book, which is, you mentioned I think a couple of times, that Freudian analysis is essentially all about a second chance at recovering from trauma or recovering from your first chance or redeeming it—but not redeeming it. It’s not redemption. I’m interested in why you make that distinction and what the distinction really is?

PHILLIPS: Well, Freud is an anti-redemptive theory in the sense he doesn’t believe people can be saved, nor that in a sense there’s anything to be saved from. It’s a very different vocabulary, this. But what Freud is preoccupied by is how much, in this case, psychoanalysis can enable people to live with sufficient satisfaction? What that means for Freud is, be able to live their instinctual lives with enough gratification to sustain their desire to live.

Freud pits instinct against civilization. As if to say, “We want far more than we can possibly have. We’re stuck with an intense level of frustration in growing up in cultures.” The question is then, and what can we do with that? Well, people come to psychoanalysis to see if they can have a second chance at this project.

BOGAEV: Okay, now what—we’ve been talking about Shakespeare. We’ve been talking about Freud. There’s been some overlap and some, kind of, not overlap. I wonder what—Adam, you come to literature, because you write a lot about literature and also about Shakespeare—what you come to, say, Shakespeare for?

PHILLIPS: Well, it’s very hard to know that. Except that the experience—

BOGAEV: Besides pleasure.

PHILLIPS: Well, yes, and the fact that when I read and read Shakespeare, I feel extremely enlivened, engaged, fascinated, intrigued. It feels like, as it were, an involuntary pleasure, and I know there’s something there for me. I don’t know what it is, and it varies a lot. But the power of this language is extreme. It’s extraordinary. And you—I never recover from it and indeed never want to.

So, if I want to see—I mean it’s not incidental, obviously, to our book that Shakespeare was the writer that Freud quotes most often and clearly the writer he was most interested in.

Freud says on several occasions in a slightly disingenuous way, “Well, of course all these things I’ve discovered in psychoanalysis, the poets got there first.” Well, he’s right in the sense of psychoanalysis is the modern version of an ongoing cultural conversation about how to live and who to be. You know, who we are, who we think we are, who we want to be, and so on. Well, this is dramatized in the most extraordinary articulate way in Shakespeare, among others.

BOGAEV: And Stephen, I want you to answer that too. Have you found Shakespeare changing you in very obvious ways? And, can you articulate that?

GREENBLATT: Totally changing me. Shakespeare inhabits me as I inhabit Shakespeare. So, I experience a great deal—maybe more than I should—I experience a great deal of my life somehow through the mediation of Shakespeare.

I was in the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, near where I live. We went the other day because the lilacs are blooming and we took a walk through the Arboretum, and before we reached the wonderful hill where the lilacs are blooming, the odor reached me and I thought of the line—I believe it’s from Twelfth Night—about the air “stealing and giving odors.” It is the simplest of observations that actually the fragrance of flowers is carried on the air and it’s taken from the place of the flowers and brought to you. But it was Shakespeare who gave me that.

BOGAEV: I think that’s what both of you dance around in this book as well, the poetry itself, that it enhances whatever possibility or hope of beauty we can experience in this world.

GREENBLAT: It is essential, in effect, for the idea of the second chance, essential both to go back to where we started in this conversation about Adam’s book Missing Out, which was full of an account of why we indulge in fantasies of lives that we’re not living. But then, it’s also essential to the lives that we can live. The experience of the dreams of others. The powerful form in which Shakespeare and other great writers can conjure up lives. That we haven’t had that we might have that we can imagine as ours. Without this we would live in a radically reduced universe of possibility.


BOGAEV: It’s been so inspiring talking with both of you. Thank you so much for the books and for the time you’ve taken.

PHILLIPS: Thank you very much.

GREENBLATT: Thank you.


WITMORE: That was Stephen Greenblatt and Adam Phillips, interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Second Chances: Shakespeare and Freud is out now from Yale University Press.

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Rob Double at London Broadcast and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. Our building in Washington, D.C. has been under construction for the past four years. But we’re looking forward to fully reopening on June 21, 2024. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.