In Other Words Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter
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