The Institute and Public Theater Hold Star-Studded Shakespearean Debates

June 12, 2013

Matt Damon

Jesse L. Martin

Vanessa Redgrave

Is there something wrong with a society in which everything is for sale? In his most recent best-seller, “What Money Can’t Buy,” renowned political theorist and Harvard Professor Michael Sandel examined today’s market society and identified several moments for pause. When money regulates access to everything from political influence to adequate healthcare, what are the moral virtues and social fabrics that keep us grounded, if any? How can we prevent market values from taking over our culture, relationships, and communities where they don’t belong? 

To address these questions and more, on June 17, 2013, the Aspen Institute Arts Program co-presents a public forum with New York City’s Public Theater titled “What Are We Worth? Shakespeare, Money and Morals.” The one-time event will feature Shakespeare texts delivered by an array of renowned actors—including Matt Damon, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Alda, Jesse L. Martin, Christine Baranski, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Raúl Esparza, Hamish Linklater, Lilly Rabe, and Gloria Reuben—followed by a town hall-style debate led by Sandel.

“Theater is ripe with fascinating opportunities to confront ethical dilemmas,” says Damian Woetzel, director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program and Harman-Eisner Artist-in-Residence Program. “And the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s texts is the perfect foundation for Michael Sandel’s genius for provoking public debate.”

This is the second time Woetzel has joined forces with Sandel; in January 2010, the Guggenheim Works & Process series hosted both for a session on “The Art of Teaching: Participation and Perception”, examining the parallels between art-making, performance and the values of a participatory democracy. The seeds were planted for it when Woetzel led an audience-participation exercise as part of a Harvard event commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—which deems that everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of their community. Then, Woetzel had the audience of faculty, alums, and students perform a passage from the opening of George Balanchine’s iconic ballet Serenade.

For this latest event, Sandel will call on members of the audience to debate the vexing markets and morals questions of our time alongside the stellar cast of actors, which also includes Shakespeare in the Park mainstays like Hamish Linklater, currently performing in the series’ A Comedy of Errors. Through the lens of Shakespeare texts, such as The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, King John, The Tempest, and more, Central Park’s Delacorte Theater will be transformed into Sandel’s legendary town-hall—not unlike his Harvard course “Justice,” which every year fills the university’s historic Sanders Theater with 1,500 students, and is broadcast to hundreds of thousands more in classrooms as far as Japan.

Had I plantation of this isle, my lord, — And were the king on’t, what would I do?….Letters should not be known; riches, poverty, and use of service, none…All things in common nature should produce…

I would with such perfection govern, sir, To excel the golden age.

Gonzalo, from The Tempest, Act II, Scene I