In Other Words Shake­speare for Free­dom: Why the Plays Mat­ter

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - by Ewan Fernie

Julius Cae­sar died again last month in Cen­tral Park, but this time his death had a more omi­nous ring than usual, and not be­cause the slain leader was de­picted with or­ange skin and a yel­low wig and a red neck­tie that drooped be­low his bulging belt. The chill in the sum­mer air around the Dela­corte The­ater, where the Pub­lic The­ater’s pre­sen­ta­tion fea­tured a Cae­sar eas­ily rec­og­niz­able as Don­ald Trump, came from the out­raged re­ac­tion of the right, whipped into a right­eous frenzy by the con­ser­va­tive me­dia. “NYC Play Ap­pears to De­pict As­sas­si­na­tion of Trump,” a Fox head­line gasped, and cor­po­rate spon­sors fled the pro­duc­tion like Bru­tus and Cas­sius slink­ing out of Rome with an an­gry mob at their heels. But one searches in vain for a sim­i­lar re­ac­tion when, dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion five years ear­lier, a tall black Cae­sar in mod­ern dress was stabbed to death on the stage of Min­ne­ap­o­lis’ Guthrie The­ater.

Shake­speare has sur­vived down the cen­turies in part be­cause his plays have a rel­e­vance to the real world that is re­born with the dis­cov­er­ies of each new gen­er­a­tion. They were po­lit­i­cal in his day, and they re­main so in ours. Queen Eliz­a­beth I is said to have rec­og­nized her­self in one of her pre­de­ces­sors whose down­fall and death was dra­ma­tized by Shake­speare, re­mark­ing, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” The Trumpian Cae­sar in Cen­tral Park takes his place in a long line of re­flec­tions of real-life lead­ers and despots in Shake­speare pro­duc­tions.

Into this con­tro­versy wades Ewan Fernie of the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham’s Shake­speare In­sti­tute in Strat­ford-upon-Avon, with a timely new study, Shake­speare for Free­dom: Why the Plays Mat­ter. On his first page, Fernie lays out the heart of his ser­mon: “This book ar­gues that Shake­speare means free­dom.” And therein, as they say, lies the rub. It’s a catch-all phrase, more of a bumper sticker than a the­sis, and Fernie spends the rest of his space jug­gling def­i­ni­tions and ap­pli­ca­tions of the word “free­dom” and la­bor­ing to make sense of it.

He casts a wide net, start­ing with the odd ap­pro­pri­a­tion at the open­ing of the 2012 Lon­don Olympic Games of a speech from trum­peted by a frock-coated and be­whiskered Ken­neth Branagh as the great Vic­to­rian engi­neer Isam­bard King­dom Brunel: “Be not afeard; this isle is full of noises,/ Sounds, and sweet airs, that give de­light and hurt not.” How, the au­thor won­ders, did the words of Cal­iban, “one of the most po­lit­i­cally dis­en­fran­chised and dis­pos­sessed char­ac­ters in all of Shake­speare’s plays,” find their way into this glob­ally tele­vised dis­play of Bri­tish pride? “I should say,” he adds, “that it’s not un­usual, in mod­ern times, for Cal­iban to stand for some­thing be­yond the purview of the play.” And there, per­haps, we find one of the as­pects of the Shake­spearean free­dom on which this book’s case is built — the free­dom his words of­fer for an in­ter­pre­ta­tion to suit our needs.

Over nine chap­ters, Fernie pays homage to Shake­speare’s cre­ations and to the real-life fig­ures who drew in­spi­ra­tion from the Bard in their as­pi­ra­tions and strug­gles for free­dom. He talks about the “Robben Is­land Bible,” the vol­ume of Shake­speare’s plays cir­cu­lated in that no­to­ri­ous South African de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity, with the sig­na­tures of the po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers af­fixed next to pas­sages with par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance to each. Nel­son Man­dela’s name, signed in 1977, when death seemed far more likely than re­lease, ap­pears by a pas­sage from

“Cow­ards die many times be­fore their deaths,/The valiant never taste of death but once.”

On the neg­a­tive side of the ledger, he in­tro­duces the Shake­spearean ac­tor and pres­i­den­tial as­sas­sin John Wilkes Booth, the com­pet­ing per­for­mances of in 1849 New York that in­cited a mob to the deadly As­tor Place Riots, and the ver­dict of Leo Tol­stoy, who “de­nounced Shake­speare’s shame­less world­li­ness and self­ind­ul­gence as a wicked in­flu­ence in hu­man cul­ture.”

From the plays them­selves, the lead­ing cham­pion of Fernie’s Shakesperean free­dom is the re­doubtable Sir John Fal­staff. “The very fat­ness of the fat knight,” he sub­mits, “ex­presses his con­di­tion of su­per­abun­dant lib­erty.” But the pro­fes­sor finds sup­port for his case in plays like wherein he lo­cates one of his most pas­sion­ate ex­am­ples in the Prince’s ad­mo­ni­tion to the war­ring Mon­tagues and Ca­pulets: “… come you this af­ter­noon,/To know our far­ther plea­sure in this case,/To old Free­town, our com­mon judge­ment place.” Free­town, the Prince’s court of judg­ment, be­comes a touch­stone to which Fernie re­turns again and again as a sym­bol of Shake­speare’s com­mit­ment to free­dom.

From time to time, he re­ex­am­ines and reaf­firms his cen­tral the­sis. “But if Shake­speare re­ally means free­dom, what is the in­trin­sic link be­tween free­dom and the plays? I sug­gest the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween Shake­speare and free­dom is based on a fun­da­men­tal con­nec­tion be­tween per­sonal lib­erty and what is widely ac­knowl­edged as his great­est achieve­ment as an artist — his creation of dra­matic char­ac­ters more spir­ited and alive than any who have been cre­ated be­fore or since.”

The prose can be a bit densely schol­arly, but Fernie catches him­self at it from time to time and gamely light­ens up. He ends with a call to con­science: “I sug­gest that Shake­speare’s plays are a dra­matic poem of free­dom, and not just for their he­roes, but for us all. What we do or do not make of them, in con­tem­po­rary life and pol­i­tics, is our re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

— Jonathan Richards

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.