Reading Room Archives

On Revisions and Revenge: The Films of Quentin Tarantino

Tales of bloody vengeance are among the oldest of all stories. Look no further than Orestes, Hamlet, or any number of Norse Sagas. Laws against vengeance and blood feuds exist as far back as the earliest recorded law, the Code of Hammurabi. The thirst for revenge is a very old trait, ingrained into human nature from a bygone time. And we just can’t seem to get enough of it, or to tell enough stories about it. American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is obsessed with it.

The Adventures of Marco Polo: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room

With the official start of summer this week, the world seems to be gearing up for travel. The OLL staff has been everywhere from Arizona to Glasgow to Jerusalem, with a lot more travel coming up through the summer month. 

The Phaeacians and the Cyclopes

In Book VIII of Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus begins relating the story of his adventurous journey from Troy to the Phaeacian court. During his account, which spans Books VIII-XII, Odysseus famously tells of his dealings with the lawless cyclops Polyphemus.

Voltaire: The First Internationally Celebrated Writer?

With the publication of La Henriade, his epic poem glorifying King Henri IV for issuing the Edict of Nantes, which commanded toleration of Protestants (Huguenots), Voltaire was an open public enemy of intolerance and establishment of religions. With his mistress, the marquise, he probed philosophical aspects of religion, including the metaphysical status of the soul and the existence of God.

The Birth of English (and Roman) Tragedy: Camilla, Diana, and The Aeneid

A few weeks ago we were all witnesses to history when we watched the longest heir-to-the-throne-in-waiting in British history finally ascend the throne in his seventy-fourth year of life. But it wasn’t only King Charles III who made history. So did his wife, Queen Camilla, who at age 75 became the oldest queen consort in British history as well. 

Dragons, Hoards, and Theft: Beowulf and The Hobbit

Among the many works that influenced and shaped J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth, none is more evident than Beowulf. This 10th Century Anglo-Saxon poem speaks of mighty kings, demonic beasts, and dragon-slaying heroes. One such hero is Beowulf. The tale of his encounter with a dragon shares many characteristics with Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the adventure that Bilbo, Thorin, and Company have with Smaug the dragon. 

Tocqueville, Washington, and the Moderation of the American Revolution

We often hear of the modest, orderly American Revolution vis-à-vis the French. The American one was a “revolution of sober expectations,” Martin Diamond said.  To make his case, Diamond cited Tocqueville, who explained that the “Revolution in the United States was produced by a mature and thoughtful taste for liberty, and not by a vague and undefined instinct for independence. It was not based upon passions for disorder; on the contrary, it proceeded with love of order and of legality” (I.1.5).

Voltaire: The French Enlightenment Is Born

To name Voltaire is to characterize the entire eighteenth century.Victor Hugo

“This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine”: Prospero and Caliban in The Tempest

In the final act of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the sorcerer Prospero who is also the usurped (but now restored) Duke of Milan, works to settle his affairs before he returns to Milan. He and his daughter Miranda have lived on a mysterious and largely uninhabited island for the past twelve years after being put out to sea by his enemies on a dilapidated boat in which he and Miranda were expected to die. [1]

Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

It's Adam Smith's 300th birthday this month! Here are a few ways to celebrate!

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18

William Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet begins with one of the strongest one-two punches in lyric poetry. The first line asks the question, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” 

The Enlightenment as Method: Rebirth, Science, Humanism, Reformation

On the long runway to take-off of the Enlightenment—and the modern world as we know it—were the intellectual movements of humanism, including the scientific revolution (late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), the Renaissance (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries), and the Protestant Reformation (sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries). Over roughly three centuries, human minds discovered experimental science and the lost Atlantis of classical culture and overturned the centuries-long monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church. 

Misguided Perception and Self-Righteous Judgment in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

Like so many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Much Ado About Nothing comes perilously close to becoming a tragedy before being rescued by the mitigating graces of providential serendipity and human forgiveness. A series of entirely preventable errors initially bring Much Ado to the brink of tragedy. 

No Such Thing as a Free Salad Chez Shakespeare

Though William Shakespeare may have wished it otherwise, there was no such thing as a free lunch or, in Jack Cade’s terms, a “sallet” in the bard’s garden. Conversations of self-interest and social distribution pervade Henry VI, part II (2H6). Jack Cade, leader of the historically-rooted Cade's Rebellion, offers the play’s fullest rumination on “who gets what” and why. Though Cade may take his quest for a socialist utopia too far, Shakespeare presents Cade and his followers rather sympathetically. 

John Playfair: The Scottish Enlightenment’s Sherlock Holmes of Geological Science

Amid all the revolutions of the globe, the economy of Nature has been uniform . . . and her laws are the only things that have resisted the general movement. The rivers and the rocks, the seas and the continents, have been changed in all their parts; but the laws which direct those changes, and the rules to which they are subject, have remained invariably the same.John Playfair

Perverse Machinations, Providential Results: Autolycus in Shakespeaere’s The Winter’s Tale

Shakespeare’s romance The Winter’s Tale depicts the consequences of unfounded mistrust and accusation, the healing results of charity and forgiveness, and the overarching notion that the world is governed by a benevolent Providence that transcends human machinations. 

Ilia Chavchavadze – the Father of Georgian Liberalism on Private Property

While in Europe the famous English philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote his eminent On Liberty (1859) and perfected the teachings of utilitarian liberalism, in the East, namely in Georgia, which at that time was a part of the Tsarist Russian Empire, the great Georgian political and public figure Ilia Chavchavadze laid the foundations for Georgian liberalism. At the same time, Chavchavadze was a writer, poet, publicist, and a leader of national liberation movement. European affairs and values occupied a large place in his publicistics. In Georgia, in this periphery of the Russian Empire, he was the first to mention the concept of private property. 

Love and Change: Antony and Cleopatra

Shakespeare’s telling of the tale of Antony and Cleopatra is at once a story of erotic love and political transformation. Shakespeare understands erotic love as a disruptive force that compels and, just as often, reacts to change.  In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare couples the passionate relationship of the lovers with the revolutionary change in Rome to tell the story of transformation in the Western world, from a pagan society in which politics and the heroic model of military achievement dominate the very public way of life, to one vast Roman empire in which Christianity is incipient and self-governing political life is crumbling under the weight of a centralizing administrative order. 

OLL's May Birthday: Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803-April 27, 1882)

May’s OLL Birthday essay is dedicated to the American essayist and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Through his life of lecturing and writing, Emerson was a tireless supporter of the dignity and freedom of every individual.

The Duke’s Deceit in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

In Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio of Vienna, disguised as a friar, succeeds in his aim to convince Mariana, the jilted fiancée of his self-righteous and hypocritical deputy Angelo, to trick Angelo into having sexual intercourse with her in a darkened room even as he thinks he is with the beautiful Franciscan novice Isabella.

Essays of Elia: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room

Finals week is upon us, and students everywhere are reviewing notes, writing papers, sitting exams, and hoping to remember enough of what they've read to succeed. Pierre Goodrich's copy of Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia opens a window into Goodrich's own student days and to the early years of the founder of Liberty Fund.

Kingship, Legitimacy, and War in Henry V

Henry V (1599), Shakespeare’s last Elizabethan history play, is framed by two regime changes. It opens at the accession of Henry V, a man reformed who has left behind his wild ways and degenerate companions such as Falstaff. It closes with the Chorus foreshadowing the shambolic reign of his son, Henry VI, when France will be lost and England herself will be ravaged by civil war. Far from a patriotic chronicle of Henry V’s glorious conquests, the play depicts an astute new ruler shoring up his shaky legitimacy by pursuing a foreign war. 

The First Walpurgis Night

Concert music from before the twentieth century that sympathetically treats pagan religions suffering from Christian persecution is rare. Felix Mendelssohn’s cantata based on Goethe’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht (the first Walpurgis Night) may be the only important example. As a Christianized Jew who often faced prejudice, Mendelssohn must have found a special appeal in the subject matter.

The Leaders We Need, or the Leaders We Deserve?: Notions of the “Demos” in Coriolanus

When I am teaching about the problem of legitimate political authority, I always start with the First Book of Samuel, from the Hebrew Bible. The story is a debate over the nature of law, obligation, and leadership.  Israel was at the time “ruled” by the Law, provided by Moses and interpreted by judges.  But “the people” had decided they wanted a king.