Why Shakespeare’s Plays Matter: Shakespeare For Freedom by Ewan Fernie
Shakespeare For Freedom is a book – yet another – proclaiming to say why Shakespeare matters, why his plays still matter today. In this case, the lens through which Shakespeare’s relevance is viewed is ‘freedom’, a concept which Fernie opens up to mean personal freedom and freedom of identity. Though the title sounds like a kind of political call, Fernie’s book looks at freedom as more of an affirmation of life than a political or societal concept. Different chapters look at historical examples of the connection between Shakespeare’s works and freedom, examine Romeo and Juliet in light of freedom, and construct critical and historical narratives about Shakespeare, freedom, and identity.
Fernie’s introduction makes the salient point that after numerous cultural celebrations of Shakespeare in the past five years – with the Olympic opening ceremony and different anniversaries – it is important to restate why he matters, particularly to non-academics. He positions the book as coming after Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare in this regard, though Fernie’s book has less of an approachable feel, with a chapter on Hegel’s writing and a general assumption that anyone reading is already sold on Shakespeare mattering a lot. Despite this, Fernie raises interesting points about freedom, including the distinction between freedom to be who you are and freedom to be different, which he then uses to interrogate Romeo and Juliet through the title characters and through Mercutio. His argument that Ganymede in As You Like It should be mourned as a ‘death’ that is a loss of freedom shows this focus on identity and opens up fascinating potential.
Most of the questions raised in Shakespeare For Freedom seem to be answered with ‘freedom’, it being the reason to read Shakespeare and the reason to continue doing Shakespearean criticism. Thankfully a later chapter provides an opposing point, highlighting examples including Lincoln’s assassination and Tolstoy’s attack on Shakespeare to show that freedom and Shakespeare are not always straightforward. This leads well into the concluding point that we should learn freedom from Shakespeare, not a simple kind of freedom but an ambiguous one.
Fernie emphasises politics and personal identity at different points, suggesting that this Shakespearean idea of freedom is varied and therefore easily adaptable to different situations, as his variety of examples show. Ultimately, these examples are not groundbreaking, but Shakespeare For Freedom provides a varied look at historical events and critical arguments that shape this concept of freedom. Ferne certainly makes the case for Shakespeare’s plays as inviting everyone to look at their own personal and political freedom, though it may feel like a naive concept at times.