Shakespeare’s Freedom by Stephen Greenblatt. The University of Chicago Press, 2010. Read in September and October, 2013.
How does Stephen Greenblatt do it? One brilliant book after another. Shakespeare’s freedom, what a subject. What a book.
It’s just over 120 pages long but every page is an enlightenment. He starts by describing the world in which Shakespeare lived, “a culture whose official voices insisted on absolute divine freedom, unbounded divine love, faith alone, prevenient grace, eternal damnation, once-and-for-all salvation. And he heard, in the social and political theories that mirrored religious concepts, comparably extravagant claims for the authority of kings over their subjects, fathers over wives and children, the old over the young, the gentle over the baseborn. What is striking is that his work, alert to every human fantasy and longing, is allergic to the absolutist strain so prevalent in his world” (page 3, my emphasis.) Sorry for the long quote but isn’t it brilliant?
In play after play, then, Greenblatt shows how Shakespeare “understood his art to be dependent upon a social agreement, but he did not simply submit to the norms of his age. Rather...he at once embraced those norms and subverted them” (page 15).
He deals with the question of how Shakespeare, while not condoning resistance, deals with authority. Greenblatt points out that “throughout Shakespeare’s work, the ethics of authority are deeply compromised” (page 79).
But old Shakespeare was wily. With all of this subversive subversiveness Greenblatt reminds us the Shakespeare “made a lifelong habit of staying out of prison” (page 121). Clever Shakespeare.
Clever Greenblatt. Read this book!