Professor Ewan Fernie MA, PhD

Photograph of Professor Ewan Fernie

Shakespeare Institute
Chair of Shakespeare Studies and Fellow

Contact details

The Shakespeare Institute
Mason Croft
Church Street
CV37 6HP

As a critic, I'm about opening up and analysing the life there is in Shakespeare and other literature. This involves thinking about the ways verbal and dramatic art constitute sensuous, ethical and even spiritual experience. I'm also interested in the way standard critical forms such as the essay and approved styles of critical prose reveal but also limit the kind of experience reading is held to be, and I'm committed to experimenting with those forms in the hope of revealing more of literature and its possibilities. 

I believe in 'big-picture Shakespeare': in putting the plays and poems into dialogue with other literature, art and thought from different periods and cultures - I’m particularly interested in German Shakespeare.  I believe in a potentially vital reciprocity between art and criticism; I also write creatively. And I'm all for taking Shakespeare and other art into the world beyond education; I believe that art is and should be political.  My latest book is Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter, and my current critical project is on the forgotten challenge of progressive culture in 19th-century Birmingham.

Ewan Fernie is also Director of the ‘Everything to Everybody Project: using Birmingham's forgotten past to inspire our future. Which aims to unlock the world's first great people's Shakespeare library for all.


I won the James Elliott prize for my 1994 first-class degree from the University of Edinburgh, where I was also awarded a medal in aesthetics and a number of other prizes. I took my PhD from the University of St Andrews in 1998, and from 1998-9  was the Caroline Spurgeon Research Fellow at Royal Holloway. I was Lecturer in English at the Queen's University of Belfast from 1999-2003, and returned to Royal Holloway as a Lecturer in Shakespeare in January 2003.  I was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2005 and Reader in 2007 before taking up my Chair at the Shakespeare Institute in January 2011.


All my teaching is informed by a desire to vivify, explore and extend literary experience and, increasingly, to unlock the potential for creativity in Shakespeare and other historical literature. I devised and co-convene the new MA in Shakespeare and Creativity.  I teach on the undergraduate Shakespeare course at Birmingham, and on various postgraduate programmes at the Institute.

Postgraduate supervision

I have supervised PhDs on a range of subjects, including Shakespearean narcissism and existentialism; Stephen Greenblatt and the subjectivity of criticism; Shakespeare and the American imagination; androgyny in Renaissance drama; undressing in early modern literature and culture; Shakespeare and the Bible; Shakespeare and Wagner; forgiveness in Shakespeare and early literature; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and immortality; and the fortunes of verse drama after Shakespeare.

I would be pleased to hear from students interested in working with me on Shakespeare and nineteenth-century culture and politics, particularly in Birmingham; and on how Shakespeare may be read in conjunction with great European (especially German) traditions.

Find out more - our PhD Shakespeare Studies  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


I am the Director of the Everything to Everybody project. The University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council are collaborating on a £1 million plan to revive the city’s almost-forgotten Birmingham Shakespeare Memorial Library, housed in the iconic Library of Birmingham - and the first, oldest and largest Shakespeare collection in any public library in the world as well as one of the UK’s most important cultural assets. This major project aims to re-connect Birmingham’s communities with the city’s Shakespearean heritage, re-stablish the West Midlands as the world’s ‘go-to Shakespeare centre’, and recover Birmingham’s once proud reputation as the most democratic and progressive cultural centre in the world has won National Lottery support.

Everything to everybody project logo

My latest book is Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter (Cambridge University Press, 2017).  Ranging across the breadth of the Shakespeare phenomenon, it offers a new interpretation not just of the characters and the plays, but also of the part they have played in theatre, civic culture and politics. 

Shakespeare for FreedomShakespeare for Freedom presents a powerful, plausible and political argument for Shakespeare’s meaning and value.  It shows why Shakespeare has mattered for four hundred years, and why he still matters today.

In 2016, I published Macbeth, Macbeth, an experimental fiction written with Simon Palfrey. This exemplified an alternative and more primary and creative form of literary response, making a whole new world and story in the image of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy, and featured original artwork by Tom de Freston. 

In 2015, I published Thomas Mann and Shakespeare: Something Rich and Strange, co-edited with Tobias Döring. This first ever volume devoted to the always interesting if sometimes disturbing connections between these two major authors was the clearest indication to date of my interest in bringing powerful German perspectives and ideas to bear on English literature.

In 2013, I published The Demonic: Literature and Experience, a wide-ranging investigation of the demonic theme in western literature and philosophy. This linked demonic to psychological, sexual and more positive religious experience as well as to revolutionary political creativity, and sought a more experientially honest and intense way of doing and writing criticism.  

I am currently working with Katharine Craik to create a new play, Marina, based on Shakespeare’s Pericles, as a Research and Development project for the RSC.  Marina explores themes of female depression and radical chastity, in Shakespeare’s time and today. 

I have also embarked on a major new project with the Library of Birmingham: ‘To Give Everything to Everybody’: Recovering George Dawson’s Legacy for Birmingham Now.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Birmingham pioneered progressive civic culture for the modern world. Key to this was George Dawson (1821-76) and his comprehensive ‘Civic Gospel’, which extended from cleaning the sewers and tearing down the slums to saving Birmingham's historic built heritage (Aston Hall) and founding the world's greatest Shakespeare Library, one which, moreover, belonged to all the people of Birmingham, regardless of class or creed. As a heterodox preacher and lecturer, Dawson reclaimed and reimagined for new times all of English literature, history and religion. A large-minded internationalist, he brought the Hungarian freedom fighter, Louis Kossuth, to Birmingham in 1851 and many, many thousands of Brummies celebrated in a city centre festooned with the Hungarian tricolour. His monument stood in Chamberlain Square till 1951, surmounted with images of Shakespeare, Carlyle, Bunyan and Cromwell. I am researching his extraordinary range of intellectual and political activities to exemplify a lost, Birmingham-based form of Englishness, and as a salutary challenge to contemporary culture.

I am also the author of Shame in Shakespeare and the editor of Spiritual Shakespeares and Reconceiving the Renaissance.  I am editing a new book with Paul Edmondson  titled New Places: Shakespeare and Civic Creativity.  And I am General Editor (with Simon Palfrey) of the ‘Shakespeare Now!’ series of short, provocative books in the Arden Shakespeare imprint.  redcrosse photo by Tony Hardy

In 2011 I co-authored Redcrosse, a new Spenser-inspired liturgy for St George’s Day, which has been performed in major UK cathedrals and by the RSC and was published by Bloomsbury.  Redcrosse was one major outcome of the AHRC / ESRC funded project, The Faerie Queene Now: Remaking Religious Poetry for Today’s World, for which I was Principal Investigator.  It was additionally supported by grants from the Arts Council, the PRS Foundation for Music, LCACE, Awards for All and the Church Urban Fund.

Other activities

In the 2012 / 13 academic session I was Visiting Scholar at Eton College and Visting Fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies, LMU, Munich, where I worked with Tobias Döring, with whom I also convened a DFG-funded Anglo-German research group working on civic Shakespeare. I was a Visiting Professor at the University of Queensland, Australia in 2015, where I returned in 2017 as Lloyd Davis Memorial Visiting Professor.

I am a regular speaker and reader (from my creative writing) at national and international venues in Britain, Europe and America.  Recent and current engagements have included: the University of Verona; the Sorbonne; the University of Sydney; a plenary at the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association conference in Auckland, New Zealand; the UCD / Abbey Theatre Shakespeare lectures in Dublin; the Robin Dix lecture at Durham; a plenary at the 150th anniversary of the Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft in Weimar; a centennial lecture at the University of Texas (El Paso); the A. C. Bradley Memorial Lecture, Cheltenham, 2017; a keynote at the Swiss Association of University Teachers of English, 2017; the Société Française Shakespeare, Paris, 2018.

I was variously involved in the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016.  Most saliently, I was part of a collaboration with Ex Cathedra Choir and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which marked this important milestone with an historic revival of the original Garrick Shakespeare Ode, featuring the actor Sam West as Garrick, paired with the first performances of a new Shakespeare Masque for contemporary society by Carol Ann Duffy and the composer Sally Beamish.  I was also Academic Adviser for the highly distinctive ‘Our Shakespeare’ Exhibition that was mounted in collaboration with the British Library at the Library of Birmingham in the anniversary year.  And I was a featured ambassador for the British Council’s Shakespeare Lives campaign, as part of which I spoke to large audiences in Budapest and Belgrade. 

My creative and cultural engagement activities continue with Redcrosse and beyond.   I wrote a new poem for the celebrated choir Ex Cathedra's Candlelight concerts in Birmingham, London and elsewhere. I was an academic consultant for Lucy Bailey's  RSC productions of The Taming of the Shrew and The Winter’s Tale, as well as for her celebrated King Lear in Bath. A major focus of my current activity is the University of Birmingham’s five-year collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company; this is dedicated to exploring the scope for cross-fertilising and fusing radical thought and theatre practice, and is based at the RSC’s newly reopened studio theatre, The Other Place. 

I have considerable media experience and have featured on radio or television in the UK, Europe, the US and Australia.   I have also been the subject of features for The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent.


  • Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter (Cambridge University Press, 2017)
  • ‘Introduction’, The Poet's Quest for God: 21st Century Poems of Faith, Doubt and Wonder, ed. Todd Swift et al (Eyewear Publishing, 2016), pp. 19-30.
  • (as co-author with Simon Palfrey) Macbeth, Macbeth (Bloomsbury, 2016)
  • (as co-editor with Tobias Döring) Thomas Mann and Shakespeare: Something Rich and Strange (Bloomsbury, 2016)
  • ‘Freetown! Shakespeare and Social Flourishing’, Shakespeare Survey 68 (2015)
  • ‘Love’s Transgresssion’, in The Circulation of Knowledge in Early Modern English Literature, ed. Sophie Chiari (Ashgate, 2015)
  • ‘Another Golgotha’, in Shakespeare and Varieties of Early Modern Religious Belief, ed. David Loewenstein and Michael Witmore (CUP, 2014)
  • ‘Afterword’, Revisiting The Tempest, ed. Silvia Bigliazzi and Lisanna Calvi (Palgrave, 2014)
  • ‘Redcrosse: Storytelling, Religion and Nation in England’, in Storytelling: Critical and Creative Approaches, ed. L. E. Semler, Philippa Kelly, and Jan Shaw (Palgrave, 2014)
  • The Demonic: Literature and Experience (Routledge, 2012)
  • (as editor) Redcrosse: Remaking Religious Poetry for Today’s World (Bloomsbury, 2012)
  • ‘Wisdom in Reverse’, The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middletoned. Gary Taylor and Trish Thomas Henley (OUP, 2011)
  • (with Simon Palfrey) ‘Major Excerpt from Dunsinane’, in Crrritic, ed. John Schad and Oliver Tearle (Sussex Academic Press, 2011)
  • ‘Mea Culpa: Measure for Measure and Complicity’, in Shakespeare and I, ed. Will McKenzie and Theodora Papadopoulou (Continuum, 2011)       
  • ‘Dollimore’s Challenge’, Shakespeare Studies (2007)
  • ‘Hard-core Tragedy’, in Transhistorical Tragedy, ed. Sarah Annes Brown and Catherine Silverstone (Blackwell, 2007)
  • ‘Action! Henry V’, in Presentist Shakespeares, ed. Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes (Routledge, 2007)
  • ‘Terrible Action: Recent Criticism and Questions of Agency’, Shakespeare 2 (2006)
  • (as co-ordinating editor) Reconceiving the Renaissance: A Critical Reader  (Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • ‘Shakespeare and the Prospect of Presentism’, Shakespeare Survey 58 (2005)
  • (as editor) Spiritual Shakespeares (Routledge, 2005)
  • Shame in Shakespeare (Routledge, 2002)
  • (as General Editor, with Simon Palfrey) The Shakespeare Now! series (Arden), including Eric Mallin, Godless Shakespeare; Amy Scott Douglas, Shakespeare Inside; Philip Davis, Shakespeare Thinking; Douglas Bruster,To be or Not to Be; Henry Turner, Shakespeare’s Double Helix; Michael Witmore, Shakespearean Metaphysics; Lukas Erne, Shakespeare’s Modern Collaborators;  Steve Mentz, At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean; Philippa Kelly, The King and I; David Fuller, The Life in the Sonnets; Will McKenzie and Theodora Papadopoulou (ed.), Shakespeare and I; Graham Holderness, Nine Lives of William Shakespeare; David Schalkwyk, Hamlet’s Dreams; Liam SemlerTeaching Shakespeare and Marlowe: Learning Versus the SystemPaul CeflauTragic Cognition in Shakespeare’s Othello: Beyond the Neural SublimeKiernan RyanShakespeare’s Universality: ‘Here’s Fine Revolution.  

View all publications in research portal


Shakespeare (especially Shakespeare Now: his importance and relevance to contemporary life); literature and religion; literature and philosophy; literature and creativity; Spenser; St George

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  • The role Shakespeare has played in theatre, civic culture and politics
  • How Shakespeare impacts on literary and performance history, civic culture, politics and religion
  • Shakespeare and modern art, civic culture and politics
  • The relationship between criticism and creativity
  • Universities collaborating with cultural institutions and organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company