Shakespeare's Freedom

January 6, 2011

The flyleaf blurb describes Stephen Greenblatt as author of "the groundbreaking Renaissance Self-Fashioning". It was in this book, published in 1980, that Greenblatt's desire "to speak with the dead" ended in despondent failure since, he argued, autonomous selves were not sufficiently vigorous to defy those early modern state apparatuses - church, court, gender and so on - that constrained them and effectively put them to silence: "there were, so far as I could tell, no moments of pure, unfettered subjectivity".

Yet to judge by the curiously circular subtitle of Greenblatt's momentous 2004 biography, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stratford's famous son was the exception that proved the rule: Shakespeare has, just recently, stepped out of the shadows.

While, during the 1980s and 1990s, US new historicism was genuflecting submissively to 17th-century absolutism, English cultural materialism was debunking the Bard's privileged uniqueness in order to democratise what it regarded as the keystone of elitist culture. Marxist and feminist readings cast the playwright as a toffee-nosed patriarch whose canonical authority served to prop up the inequities of Elizabethan, Jacobean and, ultimately, Thatcherite Britain.

But the sudden plague of Shakespearean biographies by Germaine Greer, James Shapiro, Stanley Wells, among others, not forgetting Greenblatt, as well as recent books with titles such as The Authentic Shakespeare: and Other Problems of the Early Modern Stage (by Stephen Orgel, 2002), have resuscitated the putatively dead author and restored him to the pedestal he occupied in the 1940s and 1950s.

Shakespeare's Freedom is the oxymoronic product of new historicism's quietist understanding of the omnipotence of the early modern state and this newfound (or newfangled?) adulation of Shakespeare's exceptional singularity. Greenblatt's Shakespeare is fascinating - as beautiful, ethereal and insubstantial as a unicorn: "In the sphere of his sovereign genius the authority of the playwright and poet seems absolutely free and unconstrained"; "Shakespeare was fascinated by the dream of autonomy".

Neither of these assertions amounts to much more than a projection of Greenblatt's own romantic imagination, which struggles against the tyranny of his own new historicist pronouncements as stubborn and intransigent as Shakespeare is peculiar and peerless: "There is no position outside...history" or "Shakespeare doubted that it was possible even for the most fiercely determined human being to live as if he were the author of himself." If Shakespeare is the irresistible force, Renaissance governance (domestic, public and political) is the immovable object.

These five essays started life as lectures, which accounts for their easy fluency and contemporary references as well as occasional wobbles. For instance, apropos the blinding of Gloucester, Greenblatt writes pungently, "Shakespeare's audience was far less squeamish about the torture of traitors than we are - or than we Americans were until recently." But two pages later, he contends: "The plucking out of the Earl of Gloucester's eyes seems to have appalled even hardened Jacobean spectators" - the contradiction doubtless less noticeable aurally than in print.

Highlights of the book include a comparison of Shylock's hatred with that of Iago, the former's limited by a wish to survive whereas Iago's is suicidal. The various substitutions that take place in Measure for Measure - Angelo's government for Vincentio's, the body of Mariana for Isabella's, the head of Ragusine for Claudio's - are linked neatly to those of the theatre itself "which depends on a low-born actor convincingly miming a prince".

Most intriguing is the idea that early modern beauty is "blank perfection": proportionality, completeness, uniformity. The beauty of Shakespeare's heroines, by contrast, springs from "a quality of individuation that shatters the ideal of featurelessness". Shakespeare's freedom in its most aesthetic, rarefied form is singular, exceptional, non-conformist.

Shakespeare's Freedom

By Stephen Greenblatt. University of Chicago Press. 152pp, £15.50. ISBN 9780226306667. Published 30 November 2010

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