A review of Shakespeare’s Freedom, by Stephen Greenblatt

There is a new movement in Shakespeare studies and the evidence can be found at your local bookstore: Shakespeare’s PhilosophyShakespeare’s IdeasPhilosophers on Shakespeare, and Shakespeare the Thinker, to name a few of the recent titles. The authors of these volumes represent a wide range of humanities specialties, but they all share one commonsensical observation: any mind capable of moving and continuing to move so many human beings with his poetry must understand something of fundamental, enduring importance. Ben Jonson considered “Shakespeare’s minde” the key to his “well toned, and true filed lines,” and the reason the Bard was “not of an age, but for all time,” but this view has only recently regained credence with professional academics. In the current movement to articulate exactly what Shakespeare knew, and why it still resonates with us, the most authoritative voice is Stephen Greenblatt in Shakespeare’s Freedom.

Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, opens his case with certainty: “Though [Shakespeare] lived his life as the bound subject of a monarch in a strictly hierarchical society that policed expression in speech and in print, he possessed what Hamlet calls a free soul.” Evidence from the plays indicates that Shakespeare was the rare type of individual who could recognize the arbitrary limits of his historical and cultural circumstances. In this act of recognizing and reflecting on the character of Elizabethan conventions, Shakespeare was able to liberate his mind. Though most people—then and now—consider themselves competent judges of issues like justice, beauty, and noble action, most ultimately settle for some variation of the dominant expectations of their culture. According to Greenblatt, Shakespeare was different, “irremediably different.” He had to conduct himself in a manner that was acceptable to his immediate society, but in his mind and cunningly in his plays and poems, he was “absolutely free and unconstrained.”

Greenblatt’s argument is remarkable because he is the most influential contemporary literary authority to emphasize the possibly timeless character of Shakespeare’s thought. Half a century ago, articles in the American Political Science Review by Harry Jaffa (1957) and Allan Bloom (1960) influenced a number of political theorists and a handful of literary scholars to approach Shakespeare as a continuing source of philosophic reflection. But this approach did not prove influential in the academy generally. In the intervening decades, Shakespeare studies focused on his hypothetical biography, Elizabethan culture and commerce, or the historical reception of performances. Until recently, “New Historicism” was the only literary school to pay close attention to Shakespeare’s texts, but these studies too were more often attempts to understand the historical events that surrounded Shakespeare than to understand what occurs within the plays. It is on this last point that Shakespeare’s Freedom might signal a renewed interest in Shakespeare’s mind and what he can still teach us, because until now, Stephen Greenblatt himself has been the most prominent scholar attempting to demonstrate the impossibility that Shakespeare—or anyone else—could ever become a free soul.

* * *

Greenblatt’s apparent change of heart seems to center on a fuller recognition of the necessity imposed upon playwrights in any historical period or culture to remain within “ordinary social rules” when composing their dramas. It taxes the imagination to ponder what a 21st-century American playwright would have to do to break the law, but in Shakespeare’s day it was different. As early as 1559, playwrights were officially forbidden to touch upon issues pertaining to either politics or religion, and by 1581 the officer known as the Master of Revels became the crown’s de facto censor with absolute power to punish offenders. It is not known how systematically infractions were punished, but what is known is that Shakespeare stands virtually alone in remaining free of legal trouble. Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Nashe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, and others all spent time in prison “as a direct or indirect consequence of their writing.” In assigning punishments, the Master of Revels was limited solely by his personal discretion, and in circumstances where a writer could be held accountable even for the “indirect consequences” of plays, the need to appear respectful of “societal norms” was paramount. Plays were required to portray official versions of manners and morals. No coincidence, then, that many academic readers have tended to see in Shakespeare’s works a mere reflection of Elizabethan society. If Greenblatt is correct, however, a mind that is truly free would be willing to maintain this outward appearance of conventional propriety as a condition and even guarantor of his freedom.

* * *

In the first extended textual analysis in the volume, Greenblatt makes an admirable attempt to interpret Measure for Measure with this issue of censorship in mind. Rather than focus on the more famous aspects of this “problem comedy,” he focuses on a cameo character named Barnardine. In one of the play’s funniest scenes, the audience is introduced to a convicted and confessed murderer who has spent nine years in jail avoiding execution by being “Drunk many times a day, if not many days entirely drunk” (Act IV, scene 2, line 138). Barnardine drinks so much, we are told by the prison’s provost, that on the repeated occasions when the guards have tried to carry out his execution, he has been simply incapable of getting himself to the gallows. According to Greenblatt, in an Elizabethan theater “ringed with gibbets on which the bodies of criminals like Barnardine swung,” discerning audience members must have not only laughed, but shared a silent appreciation of his stubborn soul. Emblematic of the artist’s freedom to resist the norms of society, the convict, argues Greenblatt, embodies a kind of “irreducible individuality” that is similar to Shakespeare’s own. Barnardine is in fact confined, but he is simultaneously free to be himself. We need not agree with the particulars of this analysis to appreciate the attempt to access or uncover Shakespeare’s cunning. The Barnardine example is a useful one because it highlights the reasonable possibility that Shakespeare could embody his more radical thoughts in characters, or situations, that would least interest the censors.

In a society where playwrights were limited in their freedom of speech, we should expect limited “aesthetic autonomy.” Even attempts to subvert conventional understandings of politics or religion, for example, would have to be contained within legal boundaries. Art and society, in this view, would have to engage in murky negotiations—neither one able to free itself from the other. In Shakespeare’s Freedom, however, Greenblatt makes a very plausible case that Shakespeare was able to break free from his historical circumstances not by negotiation, but by using or taking advantage of legal constraints. First, by submitting “to artistic conventions or to societal norms,” Shakespeare the artist acquired a powerful voice. By scrupulously avoiding openly subversive speech, he was able to find the widest possible audience. Secondly, and more importantly, the “triumphant cunning” of appearing to have no practical or political intentions had the effect of making his plays more influential than his contemporaries’. Shakespeare’s plays can have an educative effect on discerning auditors, and he heightened this effect by making “his spectators forget that they are participating in a practical activity.” Unlike Christopher Marlowe, for example, who openly dissented from accepted “currents of ethical reflection,” Shakespeare was content to appear “nonfunctional, nonuseful, and hence nonpractical” and this subtlety made his plays more powerful. Greenblatt even implies that the zeal for skepticism in a poet like Marlowe might not only have detracted from his plays’ popularity, but also made the man himself less able to think through the limitations of his circumstances. Shakespeare’s patient recognition of the limits of expression ultimately allowed him to reflect more deeply.

* * *

This emphasis on Shakespeare’s art of writing runs throughout the book, but Greenblatt also attempts the difficult task of specifying the content of the poet’s thought, and this aspect of Shakespeare’s Freedom is not so persuasive. As Greenblatt points out, the intellectual step of doubting “the laws of the polis” comes first in the quest for autonomy, but there is also the far more difficult challenge of recognizing “the innumerable secret ways in which the world shapes any life.” If this is true for Shakespeare, it is more so for those of us attempting to interpret him in our own time. Following Theodor Adorno, Greenblatt suggests that Shakespeare’s true freedom consisted in his “deep skepticism about any attempt to formulate and obey an abstract moral law, independent of actual social, political, and psychological circumstances.” Such a conclusion seems conveniently close to contemporary dispositions to be accepted without further investigation. If Shakespeare was able to free himself from the dominant expectations of his culture, we must be willing to attempt the same. Shakespeare’s Freedom gives us reason to think that we, too, might become free souls and, to those who previously thought it either uninteresting or impossible to understand Shakespeare’s mind, it offers incentive to return to his plays with fresh hope.