Professor Ewan Fernie of the Shakespeare Institute explains how Shakespeare can help us understand who we are and what we might become.
What good is Shakespeare? Four hundred years after his death, and given the sheer volume of what’s been said about him since, it’s easy to neglect the fundamental question of why we bother with him at all. As part of the Cultural Olympiad of 2012, we had the World Shakespeare Festival. Then, we had the 450th birthday celebrations of 2014. And now, it's 2016, and the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death is upon us. Of course, it's all been a veritable feast of Shakespeare, but there is a real and frankly reasonable danger of Shakespeare fatigue, of everybody without a vested interest in the playwright simply getting sick of him. And there’s no reason why that sickness shouldn't prove terminal, why Shakespeare shouldn't finally begin to die off in human culture. If Shakespeare matters – and I mean still matters – then in 2016 especially, we need an accessible and powerful reason why.
So why does Shakespeare matter? I want to suggest, in this article, that he matters because he can teach us to be free, by which I mean that he can inspire us to live fuller, more expressive lives, both as individuals and as a society. Shakespeare can do this because his characters give us vital, unforgettable examples of that freedom. Whether we meet them on the page or on the stage, on celluloid or on YouTube – and whether we encounter them in the original English or in translation – Hamlet and Juliet, Macbeth and Cleopatra, Falstaff and Rosalind, as well as countless other of Shakespeare’s memorable creations demonstrate a freedom to be themselves that can help us to change our own lives for the better.
Take Rosalind. At the beginning of As You Like It, she is clearly a good girl, an obedient daughter. But Rosalind also finds that being a good girl limits her freedom to be herself. That's why, when she’s forced to leave home, she goes with such 'swashing', emancipated glee 'to liberty, and not to banishment'. In the new and liberated life she finds in the delightful Forest of Arden, Rosalind gains untold freedoms. As she puts it herself, 'I can do strange things'. And she does none stranger than assuming the boyish alter ego of Ganymede, thereby laying claim to a whole new self, and one that sets her free even from her cultural and biological identity as a woman. 'Heavenly Rosalind' teaches us that the desire for freedom cannot be contained, however we may try to wall it in. 'Make the doors upon a woman’s wit, and it will out at the casement; shut that, and 'twill out at the keyhole; stop that, 'twill fly with smoke out at the chimney' (4.1.8). In the lives we define for ourselves, we need to make space for, and indeed make the most of, such explosive creativity.
Star actors, from the 18th century's David Garrick to our own time's David Tennant, know well that we underestimate the appeal of Shakespeare's marvellously free and expressive characters at our peril. A top performance of one of the great Shakespearean roles remains the most reliable way of filling up the theatres. What is less well known is that some of the most canny and charismatic freedom fighters in our history have also recognised and made their own, more political use of Shakespearean freedom.
The association of Shakespeare and freedom started in Stratford-upon-Avon. There, in 1769, at the first ever big Shakespeare celebration, David Garrick insisted that Shakespeare calls for a politics of freedom. He encouraged festival-goers to wear a rainbow-coloured 'Shakespeare ribbon', which proclaimed that the plays really were for all creeds and parties. But perhaps more surprising is the fact that Garrick's Shakespeare Jubilee didn't involve putting on any Shakespeare plays at all – unthinkable in 2016! Instead there were light shows, dances, fireworks, a horse race, an oratorio, and Garrick’s own brand-new Ode to Shakespeare. Instead of celebrating Shakespeare as heritage to be preserved, Garrick celebrated him as a stimulus to new life. The Scottish writer James Boswell responded by coming to Stratford in full Corsican costume in solidarity with the international liberation movement and with viva la libertà (long live freedom) embroidered in gold letters on the brim of his hat.