It might seem exciting but, frankly, a bit mystifying that Nelson Mandela signed a copy of that once familiar teaching text, the ‘Alexander Shakespeare’, when he was a prisoner on Robben Island in 1970s. But in fact Mandela is only one in a tradition of revolutionaries to invoke Shakespeare as a genii of emancipation, particularly in the 19th century. He was often summoned up in just this way by the Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth.
And it was also as a spirit of freedom that he hovered over Primrose Hill when the Working Men’s Shakespeare Association’s planted a tree in honour of the Shakespeare tercentenary of 1864, then joined in with a subversive political rally in favour of Italian emancipation under General Garibaldi. 'For Foucault, in the Collège de France lectures,’ the Shakespeare scholar Richard Wilson informs us, ‘Shakespeare obstinately refused to sing “power’s ode”, dreaming instead of “the freedom to roam”, and of “free genesis, self-accomplishment… a freedom against the world”, and his dramas rank among the foundations of modern critical thought’. Amen, but I suggest that the inspiration modern critical thought takes from Shakespeare actually is a late iteration in a long-lost tradition of associating Shakespeare with freedom which we urgently need to recover.
The proliferation and specialisation of Shakespeare studies tend to have the unfortunate effect that we neglect the big question of why we bother with him at all. One of the great merits of Jonathan Bate’s important book, The Genius of Shakespeare, was that it faced up to that question, but Bate’s book is 20 years old now and we need to renew its effort. After the World Shakespeare Festival that was central to the Cultural Olympiad of 2012, and the 450th birthday celebrations of 2014, as well as 2016’s 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, there is a real and frankly reasonable danger of everybody without a vested interest in the playwright simply getting sick of him. And there’s no logical 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 this context especially, we need a less academic reason than the ‘aspectuality’ and ‘performativity’ which Bate defines as salient qualities of Shakespeare’s genius. Bate was pointing to important truths—about Shakespeare’s ambivalence, about his philosophical as well as aesthetic commitment to the realisation of character in action. But I suggest we now need a more direct and powerful way of expressing the poetry and reality of what Shakespeare has, in the past, given human life.
My new book, Shakespeare for Freedom, argues that that there is a fundamental connection between personal liberty and what is widely acknowledged as his greatest achievement as an artist—his creation of dramatic characters more spirited and alive than any who have been created before or since. At a time when neoliberalism has given freedom a bad name, and the Right have commandeered the politics of freedom for a dangerously regressive nationalism, Shakespeare can help us to reclaim that more progressive passion for freedom which was such a major driver of western modernity. That, I believe, is why his plays matter, and not just aesthetically but in terms of the impact they can once again have on personal and political life in the world.