Ewan Fernie's talk uncovered a confident and insurgent tradition of associating Shakespeare with freedom crucial to the development of modernity but now largely lost. He showed how Garrick both proclaimed Shakespeare's freedom and symbolically gave it away at the first Shakespeare celebration in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769, as well as how materially this was linked to the contemporaneous campaign for specifically political freedom that was spearheaded by John Wilkes. He explored the extraordinary conjunction of Shakespeare and freedom in Chartism, especially within the militant life and work of Thomas Cooper: the Shakespearean General. Fernie finally took his auditors back to an evening in 1853 at the London Tavern on the occasion of a remarkable Shakespearean presentation to honour the Hungarian freedom fighter Louis Kossuth.
Garrick, Cooper, Kossuth: Fernie picked out a pattern in their distinctively activist responses to the Bard. All three made Shakespeare their touchstone, invested with the self-realising charisma of his characters. This they channeled through their own charisma as an achievable and desirable existential goal. It redoubled and dignified their own personalities, but they didn't just glory in that. Instead, they offered up this heightened charisma as a Shakespearean benison for everybody. All of them stood for the fuller, more realised life that will obtain in a transfigured reality, which has an international significance and for Cooper and Kossuth was expressly political.
It is a tradition, Fernie suggested, we would do well to recover today....
Ewan Fernie is Professor and Chair of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. He has two books out in 2016. The first is Thomas Mann and Shakespeare: Something Rich and Strange, co-edited with Tobias Döring. The second is the forthcoming Macbeth, Macbeth, coauthored with Simon Palfrey. Slavoj Žižek has called it, ‘as close as one can come to a quantum physics literary criticism... a miracle, an instant classic’. Fernie is currently competing Shakespeare for Freedom for CUP.