Voices

What can Shakespeare teach us about freedom?

By Ewan Fernie

12 April 2016 - 08:15

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.

Such are the 18th-century origins of associating Shakespeare with freedom. In 19th-century England, Shakespeare played an important part in Chartism, the mass political movement that campaigned to give the working class the vote. The movement’s paper, Northern Star, ran a column titled Chartism from Shakespeare from 25 April (just after Shakespeare’s birthday) 1840. There was the Shakespearean Association of Leicester Chartists, which held their meetings in the 'Shakespearean Room' and compiled and sang from their own 'Shakespearean Chartist Hymn Book'. Their leader, Thomas Cooper, called himself the 'Shakespearean General'. Shakespeare put flesh on the bones of Chartist demands: the vote for all men, a secret ballot, no property qualification for members of parliament, etc. By invoking Shakespeare's supremely lively characters, the movement was able to look beyond its list of political conditions into the realised, fulfilled, and more developed common life they were intended to facilitate. Shakespearean drama presented something like a living image of democracy to the Chartists.

It’s true that their charter stopped short of demanding votes for women, but in due course, the Suffragettes recruited Shakespeare too, and in 1909, they stormed into Stratford. Outside the office of the NUWSS (National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies), they hung a yellow and black 'to be or not to be' banner, referring of course to women's suffrage. And the annual Shakespeare parade that year – a legacy of Garrick's Jubilee, and one which continues to this day – was commandeered as a rally for votes for women. Two years later, in 1911, the great actress Ellen Terry explicitly argued in London that Shakespeare was 'one of the pioneers of women’s emancipation' and that 'Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind, Volumnia have more in common with our modern revolutionaries than the fragile ornaments of the early Victorian period'. Shakespeare's franchise of lively characters extended to women and this gave grounds for protesting against a political system that had yet to catch up.

Shakespeare is responsible for an important cue for freedom movements beyond England, as well. In 1853, in the London Tavern, the Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth was honoured with an extraordinarily beautiful model of Shakespeare’s birthplace housing a copy of his complete works. This exquisite object was a tribute from his ordinary admirers in England, the funds for which had been raised by a 'penny subscription' (where supporters of the campaign each subscribed a penny to raise funds). In his acceptance speech, Kossuth recalled to a packed house how he had learned his eloquent English in a Hungarian prison 'from the page of Shakespeare'. And he insisted he had learnt 'something more besides'. 'I learnt politics', he explained, going on as follows: 'What else are politics than philosophy applied to the social condition of men? and what is philosophy but knowledge of nature and of the human heart? and who ever penetrated deeper into the recesses of those mysteries than Shakespeare did?' Here, a real-life revolutionary hero asserts a direct link between Shakespeare’s genius for characterisation and his own progressive politics. For Kossuth and others like him, Shakespeare's intensely realised characters are calling us all to a better, freer life, and that is why Shakespeare matters.

Ewan Fernie is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon with the University of Birmingham. He is the author of Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter, published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. He is also the co-author (with Simon Palfrey) of Macbeth, Macbeth, published in April this year.

On 16 April, the British Council in Serbia will host the conference, Why Shakespeare Matters - from Bardolatry to Belgrade, led by Ewan Fernie.

Find out about the British Council's Shakespeare Lives programme of events and activities celebrating Shakespeare’s work on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016.

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