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By Ewan Fernie, University of Birmingham, The Shakespeare Institute.


Ewan Fernie with the exquisite model of Shakespeare’s Birthplace which was presented in 1851, by ordinary English men and women, to the Hungarian revolutionary, Lajos Kossuth; courtesy of the National Széchényi Library, Budapest; photo by Peter Rákossy.


I had the privilege the other week of launching my new book, Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter (Cambridge University Press) as part of an exciting new series of ‘Research Conversations’ hosted by Paul Edmondson at the Shakespeare Centre.  I was delighted to be back at the Centre, and to be in conversation with the distinguished Kiernan Ryan, author of (most recently) Shakespeare’s Universality: Here’s Fine Revolution (Arden). 

Kiernan kicked off our conversation by asking what had prompted the book and I replied that, in spite of a recent critical prejudice against character as a topic worthy of political consideration, I had started to see a link between political freedom and the vitality of Shakespeare’s characters. ‘Give me life,’ says Falstaff, and Shakespeare’s polyphonous drama, I proposed, maximises life for as many people as possible.

Shakespeare for Freedom reconnects with an important tradition of Shakespeare criticism from the 1980s when writers like Kiernan contended that reading Shakespeare could make a real political difference.  Freedom has been a bit off limits for a while, highjacked by the Right as neo-liberalism, or worse.  But the passion for freedom was one of the great drivers of Western modernity, and I want to bring it back.

To that end, one of the things my book does is to show how surprisingly involved Shakespeare has been in the fight for freedom, in England, Europe, and beyond.  Given our location, Kiernan asked me first about David Garrick’s 1769 Stratford Jubilee, which I said had been more political than is often realised.  Garrick wore a rainbow ribbon to symbolise that Shakespeare was for all creeds and parties.  He took Shakespeare, quite literally, to the streets.  The songs sung at his Jubilee were adapted almost immediately for the great political cause of the day: John Wilkes’ campaign for political emancipation.  James Boswell turned up dressed as a Corsican chief in solidarity with the international liberation movement.

Kiernan also asked me about Thomas Cooper, the Chartist campaigner for political reform who called himself the ‘Shaksperean General’, ran the ‘Shaksperean Association of Leicester Chartists’, and fulfilled one of the great ambitions of his life by kneeling on Shakespeare’s grave.  And we talked about the presentation in 1851 of an exquisite model of the Birthplace to the exiled Hungarian revolutionary, Lajos Kossuth, by ordinary and large-minded English men and women. I admitted I’d been rather astonished to learn about these things, having previously believed that political Shakespeare had begun around the time of the publication of the celebrated book of that title in 1985.

But Shakespeare for Freedom isn’t just about historyIt also offers a distinctive and richly Shakespearean model of freedom—and an argument that Shakespearean drama constitutes an enduring call to freedom that has once again become urgently relevant in our time.

Kiernan pressed me on the ambiguous nature of freedom as I present it in the book.  We talked about the tantalising invocation of a comprehensively liberated ‘Freetown’ in Romeo and Juliet, a dispensation in which the impoverished apothecary in the play would be as fulfilled as its tragic lovers. But we also talked about the dark blow for human freedom which Macbeth strikes when he kills King Duncan.  Of course we have to legislate against such crimes, but freedom has always, since the Garden of Eden, involved the freedom to enter evil.  That is its guarantee, and that is its curse, and we can’t have one without the other.

I conclude my book by arguing that Shakespeare’s is an art which encourages us to remain always, indefatigably open to the mobile, indeterminable possibilities engendered by the ongoing interaction of human selves. Such, I propose, is his politics of freedom. It is a politics that is necessarily vested in the individual freedom which Shakespeare as a great artist exemplifies; and which, as the creator of supremely lively dramatic characters, he dramatises: but it is equally a politics that is insistently tested by such individual freedom, and at times wrecked by it, as in Macbeth. Freedom, in Shakespeare, remains an irreducibly provisional thing, dangerous as well as promising.

But then if we want to live in a really free world, that’s what we’ve got to keep fighting for.


 The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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Ewan Fernie is Chair and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. His books include critical and creative works and he is General Editor (with Simon Palfrey) of the provocative Shakespeare Now! series.

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