After the palaver of wall-to-wall Shakespeare during the past five years – the London Olympic Games opening ceremony in 2012, 2014’s celebration of the playwright’s 450th birthday, the 2016 overdose of Shakespeariana to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death – Ewan Fernie worries that “there is a real and frankly reasonable danger of everybody without a vested interest in the playwright simply getting sick of him”. There’s selfless virtue in those pointed words, “vested interest”, since Fernie would be sawing off the branch on which he is (and I am) sitting. While the cultural ubiquity of Shakespeare silently reinforces the liberal humanist assumption that these plays have survived because of their inherent or transcendent value, Fernie bravely, like the boy wondering out loud about the emperor’s new clothes, dares to ask, “What good is Shakespeare?”
As every barrister knows, never ask a question to which you don’t know the answer and fortunately, here, it is not long in coming: “Shakespeare means freedom.” It is the job of the rest of the book to unpack and justify this axiom (the italics are Fernie’s in both cases) and its nine chapters demonstrate the variety of ways the dangerously baggy term – freedom – can be decoded. Within the story of Romeo and Juliet, for example, Fernie shows how the idea of “free love is at the same time a serious explanation of the possibilities of social and political freedom”. But this freedom is not available to all. Mercutio’s imaginative emancipation is curtailed by “the fully felt and known physical world we all live in – in all its grainy shittiness”. Mercutio, Fernie suggests, “is not a happy masturbator” and the heteronormative pressures of the play’s Verona truncate his freedoms even as they mythologise those of the eponymous couple.
Fernie’s scope is magisterial and panoramic; freedom is assessed in relation to David Garrick’s Jubilee of 1769, the 19th-century Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth, the Leicester Chartist Thomas Cooper, the philosophy of Hegel, the suffragettes, and the Shakespearean influence on Goethe, Freud, John Moriarty and Ted Hughes. Tolstoy’s hostility is shown to be a reaction to Shakespeare’s excessive, almost casual freedom: “To the Russian novelist, Shakespeare’s imagination is fundamentally irresponsible, promiscuous, concupiscent.”
The essence of freedom, embodied by verse drama, is not a position of stasis but one of becoming: “Shakespearean character is always made in interaction, as well as before an audience.”
Put most powerfully, “Shakespeare expresses the unavoidable and unending power of contingency”. As this implies, dynamic freedom is not always a blessing. The rival performances as Macbeth in 1854 of the American actor Edwin Forrest and the English Shakespearean William Charles Macready resulted in the Astor Place Riot that led to the deaths of more than 20 people. The riot as well as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in 1865 “show, in the most shocking terms, just how wrong Shakespearean freedom could go”.
The parting shot of this compelling book maintains this fraught ambiguity: the plays “are politically unstable, always in process. What we do or do not make of them, in contemporary life and politics, is our responsibility.”
Peter J. Smith is reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University.
Shakespeare For Freedom: Why the Plays Matter
By Ewan Fernie
Cambridge University Press 300pp, £35.00
Published 31 March 2017