ANTHONY BROOKS, host:
Eliot Spitzer, of course, isn't the first man to be bitten by the very snake he tried to bite. In fact, this is a theme that shows up in a lot of great literature. And to help us understand what we might learn about human nature from that literature, we're turning to Catherine Gallagher, a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. And she joins us now from the university.
Thanks for being with us, professor.
Professor CATHERINE GALLAGHER (University of California, Berkeley): You're welcome.
BROOKS: So as attorney general, Eliot Spitzer broke up and prosecuted prostitution rings, as governor he signed a bill into law to crack down on customers of prostitutes, and we know now that it was his anticorruption crusade on Wall Street that led to some of the very banking procedures that caught him. All of which brings to mind the phrase hoist with his own petard. That comes straight from Shakespeare, doesn't it?
Prof. GALLAGHER: Yes, it does. It actually comes from "Hamlet."
BROOKS: Professor, remind us, just very quickly, what is a petard?
Prof. GALLAGHER: A petard is actually a bomb. So to be hoist with your own petard is actually to be blown up into the air with your bomb.
BROOKS: And tell us the story - remind us of the - this about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, right?
Prof. GALLAGHER: Well, it is, as a matter of fact. But I think that that hoist with his own petard has come loose, actually, from it's immediate context and has become the phrase that best sums up what's often called poetic justice.
Prof. GALLAGHER: And that is some neat symmetry between what one is guilty of and what the instrument of the punishment will be. And so it's one of the things that you do find often in great literature, partly because great literature is interested in the psychology behind it, but also just because it likes that sort of formal symmetry.
BROOKS: Hmm. Another Shakespearean example is "Measure for Measure," where townspeople are getting prosecuted for having sex, correct?
Prof. GALLAGHER: That's right, yes, for fornication. Not just prosecuted, but actually condemned to death. Angelo, who has been left in charge of the city by the duke who's gone away, is actually prosecuting to the full limit of the law some people who have had sex out of marriage. But then he himself tries to blackmail the sister of one of those condemned men into having sex with him, and again, is blown up by his own device.
BROOKS: In the Spitzer case, and what you're referring to, calls to mind a related idea, and it's this one; it's the idea that people who are zealously committed to stamping out a certain kind of crime or sin seem to have a fatal attraction to that very sin.
Prof. GALLAGHER: Yes.
BROOKS: Does that idea show up in literature?
Prof. GALLAGHER: Well, it shows up all the time in literature, and it shows up whenever there are sort of Puritan forces in the society that are trying to reform things, change things. It's often supposed that such people must have some kind of personal interest in this themselves; that is, that they are either trying to prosecute something because they want to root it out of themselves, or they're trying to prosecute something because, in fact, it will help them personally. So very often the Puritan is seen as the primary kind of hypocrite.
BROOKS: It seems too, the great American story "The Scarlet Letter" comes to mind. Can you talk about that?
Prof. GALLAGHER: Well, "The Scarlet Letter," of course, is in some ways not the comic side of this, but is the tragic side. It's the story of the man, usually, who is paired with the sinner that he's supposed to be the opposite of. But it turns out that he's paired in a secret sexual way, as well as just a pair in the sense that he's an opposite. So in "The Scarlet Letter" you get the sainted minister, Dimmesdale, who has actually sinned with the woman Hester Prynne, who is then condemned to wear the scarlet letter. And the climax of the story is the moment when Dimmesdale actually rips off his own shirt and shows that there's a scarlet letter seared into the skin of his body. We don't really see this. The narrator kind of looks away and we don't actually get to see the wound itself. But he actually dies of this wound which he's been suppressing for the seven years during which Hester Prynne has had to bear this as the sign of being an outcast. It's the American belief that in fact people very often use scapegoats for the sins that they themselves have committed.
BROOKS: Hmm, fascinating.
Prof. GALLAGHER: What's interesting about Dimmesdale is that he makes this public confession and he is absolutely abject in pointing out that he himself is a sinner and that Hester Prynne, the woman who has been cast out as an adulterous is actually a saint compared to him, because of his hypocrisy.
BROOKS: Well, Catherine Gallagher, thanks so much for joining us today.
Prof. GALLAGHER: You're welcome.
BROOKS: That's Catherine Gallagher, professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.