- Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter by Ewan Fernie
Ewan Fernie is one of the most original and adventurous Shakespeare scholars at work today, as anyone familiar with his The Demonic: Literature and Experience [End Page 303] (2012) or his novel (coauthored with Simon Palfrey) Macbeth, Macbeth (2016) already knows. in Shakespeare for Freedom, Fernie assembles a wide-ranging set of reflections for the sake of illuminating his ambitious central claim: "Shakespeare means freedom. that is why the plays matter, and not just aesthetically but also in terms of the impact they historically have had" (1).
Fernie frames his book as a response to a specific question: "What good is Shakespeare?" (1). that is, for what good reason should we "read, perform and celebrate" (47) Shakespeare's works? rightly dissatisfied with any justification that rests on mere cultural prejudice, Fernie seeks to rescue "bardolatry" from any "conservative tendency" (48) by suggesting that the attention paid to Shakespeare is justified by the way Shakespeare's work "means freedom" (47).
Let me first say why i am convinced that the kind of question Fernie is posing—and thus the overall horizon of inquiry in which his central thesis that Shakespeare means freedom places us—is the right one. Even if we agree that an educated person—or a good citizen—should be acquainted with the works of Shakespeare, we no longer devote attention to his plays simply because our society requires some people to be "Shakespeare" experts—the way the study of Latin, Greek, and the Bible were once thought essential to an authoritative transmission of our culture.1 and to Fernie's great credit, given his institutional position at the Shakespeare institute in Stratford-upon-avon, he firmly bites this bullet: Shakespeare's significance cannot be reduced to the transmission of the English language or British culture, and hence we must practice "creativity in criticism" (50)—or, one might prefer to say, collective and sustained hermeneutic engagement—when it comes to Shakespeare.
From this perspective—which takes Fernie from the 2012 London olympics to David Garrick's Jubilee of 1769, from the hungarian revolutionary Lajos kossuth to the suffragettes to Shakespeare's reception in Goethe, Freud, John Moriarty, and ted hughes—it is a good thing that we have almost no agreement on how best to study or perform Shakespeare's works. after all, once no longer restricted to the task of transmitting cultural authority, the humanities study meaning and value as such. We should ask with Fernie what Shakespeare plays mean as well as how they mean—by way of also asking what values we hold and for what reasons. attention to Shakespeare is thus, as Fernie convincingly shows, repaid by a deeper understanding of questions that science or received moral wisdom cannot decide: What is the value of freedom? or of leading a life in ways that require the defense of basic entitlements (such as property rights)? When is violence to be politically legitimated? in Fernie's view, to engage Shakespeare is to unavoidably encounter these kinds of questions and thus to be offered a kind of education into the meaning and practical implication of the preeminent moral and political value of the modern era: freedom. to avoid confusion, then, Fernie is not merely suggesting that Shakespeare is valuable for the way his work "reflects" or "represents" the social reality of freedom. [End Page 304] Fernie is instead convinced that Shakespeare's drama furnishes an understanding of the social-historical changes that typify freedom's drama in the modern world: revolution, apartheid, emancipatory politics, sexual liberation. Moreover, he avers that the reception of Shakespeare (there are fascinating discussions of this, from John Wilkes Booth to Leo tolstoy and nelson Mandela) "has inspired, as we have seen, real-world struggles for material change" (274). Shakespeare should be celebrated and studied "less as heritage to be preserved at all costs than as a stimulus to new life" (274). the thought that Shakespeare not only represents but also generates and helps explain epochal historical...