‘Steeped in the Colours of [Ewan Fernie’s] Trade’

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It is not often that my heart races during a lecture on Shakespeare. In as much as I love listening to academics drone on (and believe me, I have heard more than any human being in his or her right mind ever should), hearing about textual variants between Q1 and F of Hamlet , while intellectually stimulating, tends not to raise my blood pressure or make my palms sweaty. I was never a glutton for punishment.

Nevertheless, Ewan Fernie changed all of that this past Wednesday when he delivered a paper entitled ‘Demonic Macbeth‘ — the latest installment of the SBT Lunchtime Lecture series. Over 100 captivated audience members listened to an empassioned account of what the text tells us with regard to the darkest aspects of Macbeth. A seemless close-reading wherein I had trouble distinguishing Fernie from Shakespeare (and Middleton!), the lecture changed the way in which I usually interpret the play. Ewan Fernie seemed to hover in the front of the room while he led us through the labyrinth of poetry that is Macbeth. As I glanced around the Wolfson Hall, I might have thought the attendees were staring at Henry Fuseli’s 1783 Weird Sisters (pictured above) rather than the face of the newest addition to the academic staff of the Shakespeare Institute. Few productions of Macbeth have done to me what Fernie’s lecture did on Wednesday.

Ewan did not need to take anything as a premise, he needed no contextualisation, he cared little about previous critics’ interpretation of a play surrounded by a rich history of critical interpretation. Rather, his paper simply looked at what the text tells us, and offered a refreshing perspective. Where do we see the demonic presence in the play? Which characters seem to embody, or at least recognise a spiritual presence in the world of the play? How does the incessant thematic opposition of rest and labour pertain to demonic possession? Whose is the voice that haunts Macbeth by crying “‘Sleep no more’ to all the house / Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more — Macbeth shall sleep no more”? Perhaps it is this lack of sleep, this perpetual state of labour that is Macbeth’s greatest fear after all.

Ewan focused intensely on a speech of Macbeth that receives little critical attention, a speech that begins, “Who can be wise, amazed, temp’rate, and furious, / Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man,” a speech that goes on to glorify, sensationalise, and sexualise the murder of Duncan (2.3.110-111). Macbeth’s hypothetical question was one that Ewan Fernie clearly thought about as he prepared this lecture. For indeed, it was he, perhaps due to poetic justice, that exhibited all of these qualities on Wednesday — his reading was at once loyal to his own interpretation and free from an indoctrinating quality. He, himself, seemed to be amazed by the poetry of the play, but approached it with profound wisdom. And though his delivery was furious, Fernie tempered rash judgment with lucid textual reasoning.

After the lecture, Professor Fernie was kind enough to answer one of my questions about the series of books in which he co-generally edits — Shakespeare NOW! Hear what he had to say below.


  • Philippa Kelly

    I wish I had heard that lecture. I loved the suggestion that Ewan was imminent within his text: ‘, “Who can be wise, amazed, temp’rate, and furious, / Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man..’ I have heard him lecture in New Zealand – it was brilliant.

  • Colette

    Fascinating article – makes me want to know more. Is there a transcript available of Professor Fernie’s lecture?

  • Sylvia Morris

    What an interesting video from Ewan Fernie. I’m looking forward to reading about academics’ subjective responses to Shakespeare in the book Shakespeare and I.

  • http://ajleon.me ajleon

    Great post, Matt. 🙂

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