Shakespeare's Freedom

Shakespeare's Freedom

by Stephen Greenblatt

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Shakespeare lived in a world of absolutes—of claims for the absolute authority of scripture, monarch, and God, and the authority of fathers over wives and children, the old over the young, and the gentle over the baseborn. With the elegance and verve for which he is well known, Stephen Greenblatt, author of the best-selling Will in the World, shows that Shakespeare was strikingly averse to such absolutes and constantly probed the possibility of freedom from them. Again and again, Shakespeare confounds the designs and pretensions of kings, generals, and churchmen. His aversion to absolutes even leads him to probe the exalted and seemingly limitless passions of his lovers.

Greenblatt explores this rich theme by addressing four of Shakespeare’s preoccupations across all the genres in which he worked. He first considers the idea of beauty in Shakespeare’s works, specifically his challenge to the cult of featureless perfection and his interest in distinguishing marks. He then turns to Shakespeare’s interest in murderous hatred, most famously embodied in Shylock but seen also in the character Bernardine in Measure for Measure. Next Greenblatt considers the idea of Shakespearean authority—that is, Shakespeare’s deep sense of the ethical ambiguity of power, including his own. Ultimately, Greenblatt takes up Shakespearean autonomy, in particular the freedom of artists, guided by distinctive forms of perception, to live by their own laws and to claim that their creations are singularly unconstrained.

A book that could only have been written by Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare’s Freedom is a wholly original and eloquent meditation by the most acclaimed and influential Shakespearean of our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226306681
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2010
Series: The Rice University Campbell Lectures
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; and the groundbreaking Renaissance Self–Fashioning, the latter book published by the University of Chicago Press.


Cambridge, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

November 7, 1943

Place of Birth:

Cambridge, Massachusetts


B.A., Yale University, 1964; B.A., Cambridge University, 1966; Ph.D., Yale University, 1969

Read an Excerpt

Shakespeare's Freedom



Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30666-7

Chapter One

Absolute Limits

Shakespeare as a writer is the embodiment of human freedom. He seems to have been able to fashion language to say anything he imagined, to conjure up any character, to express any emotion, to explore any idea. Though he 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. Free, a word that with its variants Shakespeare uses hundreds of times, means in his work the opposite of confined, imprisoned, subjected, constrained, and afraid to speak out. Those who are called free are unimpeded and untramelled, generous and magnanimous, frank and open-minded. It is not only in hindsight that we recognize such qualities in Shakespeare. He was, said his friend and rival Ben Jonson, of a remarkably "open and free nature."

Yet if Shakespeare is the epitome of freedom, he is also a figure of limits. These limits are not constraints on Shakespeare's imagination or literary genius. Doubtless there were such constraints—notwithstanding his aura of divinity, he was, after all, a mortal—but I am among those who are struck rather by the apparently unbounded power and visionary scope of his achievement. No, the limits that he embodied are ones he himself disclosed and explored throughout his career, whenever he directed his formidable intelligence to absolutes of any kind. These limits served as the enabling condition of his particular freedom.

Shakespeare lived in an absolutist world. More accurately, he lived in a world pervaded by absolutist claims. These claims were not the relics of an earlier, cruder time; though they dressed themselves in the robes of antiquity, they represented something new. Religious radicals of Shakespeare's father's generation had successfully challenged the absolute authority of the Pope, only to erect comparably extreme claims for the authority of scripture and of faith. In the vision of English theologians inspired by Calvin, God was no longer a monarch with whom lowly mortals could negotiate by means of supplication, ascetic self-discipline, and other propitiatory offerings. Divine decisions were incomprehensible and irrevocable, unconstrained by any form of mediation, contract, or law. So too, crown lawyers for the two monarchs during whose reigns Shakespeare lived fashioned an elaborate conception of kingship above the law. Royal absolutism was a fiction—in reality, the will of the monarch was constrained by Parliament and by many other well-entrenched forces—and the absolute authority of scripture was comparably hedged about by innumerable limits. But the claims were made again and again, and, despite their obvious experiential failures, they did not seem simply absurd, echoing as they did the dominant vision of a universe governed by an absolute, omniscient, and omnipotent lord. Indeed, by Shakespeare's time the very idea of gods who possessed great but limited powers—the gods of the Greeks and the Romans—had come to seem incoherent, the consequence, it was thought, of putting demons in the place of the one true God.

With belief in an all-powerful God came an entwined set of linked absolutes: love, faith, grace, damnation, redemption. These conceptions had long since been stripped of any halfway or compromise postures in much Catholic theology and art: scenes of the Last Judgment on the portals of churches do not admit of unresolved cases or make room for a middle ground. The absolute nature of the core vision was, if anything, intensified by a Protestantism that rigorously eliminated Purgatory—the temporary middle-state of souls—swept away the mediating power of the saints and the Virgin Mary, and denied the efficacy of "works."

Shakespeare was not a theologian, and his work does not meddle in doctrinal claims, but he was raised in a culture whose official voices insisted on absolute divine freedom, unbounded divine love, faith alone, prevenient grace, eternal damnation, once-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, from the metaphysical to the mundane. His kings repeatedly discover the constraints within which they must function if they hope to survive. His generals draw lines on maps and issue peremptory commands, only to find that the reality on the ground defies their designs. So too his proud churchmen are mocked for pretensions, while religious visionaries, who claim to be in direct communication with the divine, are exposed as frauds.

Above all, perhaps, it is Shakespeare's lovers who encounter again and again the boundaries that society or nature sets to the most exalted and seemingly unconfined passions. "This is the monstruosity in love, lady," Troilus tells Cressida, "that the will is infinite and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit" (Troilus and Cressida 3.2.75–77). In a somewhat jauntier spirit, Rosalind assures the lovesick Orlando that "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love" (As You Like It 4.1.91–92). The peculiar magic of Shakespeare's comedies is that love's preciousness and intensity are not diminished by such exposure to limits but rather enhanced. And when lovers in the tragedies—Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Antony—refuse to acknowledge any limits, their refusal inevitably leads to death and destruction.

My interest in this book is in the ways that Shakespeare establishes and explores the boundaries that hedge about the claims of the absolute. My focus in the chapters that follow is on four underlying concerns to which Shakespeare's imagination was drawn consistently and across the multiple genres in which he worked. These concerns are beauty—Shakespeare's growing doubts about the cult of featureless perfection and his interest in indelible marks; negation—his exploration of murderous hatred; authority—his simultaneous questioning and acceptance of the exercise of power, including his own; and autonomy—the status of artistic freedom in his work.

Though I intend the chapters to stand by themselves—each a distinct exploration of a critical node of interest in Shakespeare's work—they are linked to one another in an unfolding argument, bound up with the fact that my four principal concerns have all served as the objects of sustained theoretical reflection in the writing of Theodor Adorno. The philosopher was not in fact particularly interested in the English playwright and wrote very little about him, but many of the knotty aesthetic problems with which Adorno grappled throughout his career arose in the wake of what he called Shakespeare's "breakthrough into mortal and infinitely rich individuality."

This breakthrough, I will argue, arose from an unexpected artistic swerve in his work, a startling departure from the norms of beauty that governed Renaissance taste. Shakespeare never formally repudiated these norms, but the figures who arouse the most fervent desire in his work—the Dark Lady of the sonnets, Venus, Cleopatra, and the succession of romantic heroines from Rosaline in Love's Labour's Lost to Innogen in Cymbeline—achieve individuation through their distance from conventional expectations. They are memorable, distinctive, and alluring not despite but precisely because of their failure to conform to the code of ideal featurelessness to which Shakespeare and his contemporaries subscribed. Departures from that code were understood to entail the risk of defect or stain, and indeed the forms of beauty in which Shakespeare seems most interested veer perilously close to what his culture characterized as ugliness. But that proximity is the price of individuation.

Radical individuation—the singularity of the person who fails or refuses to match the dominant cultural expectation and is thus marked as irremediably different—is suggestively present throughout the plays and poems but is perhaps most vividly exemplified not in Shakespeare's heroines but in two disturbing figures of otherness, Shylock and Othello. The Jew and the Moor do not merely run the risk of stain: they are what almost everyone in the dominant cultures in which they live defines as ugly. If Desdemona's love for Othello confirms the surprising proximity of supposed ugliness and beauty, the terms in which she articulates his allure reflect the continued power of the normative: "I saw Othello's visage in his mind" (1.3.251).

Otherness in The Merchant of Venice and Othello is far less a sign of allure than it is a magnet for hatred, a hatred that in the case of Shylock is not only directed at him but fully reciprocated by him and that virtually consumes the vicious Iago. To keep this hatred in check or to mold it to a socially viable end is one of the burdens of those in power. Such at least is the task of the duke and the law court in Merchant and of the senate in Othello. But the difficulty of the task—the ironies, constraints, mixed motives, and inadequacies that beset those in authority in both the comedy and the tragedy—is, as I try to show, part of a larger exploration in Shakespeare of the limits of power.

The only power that does not seem limited in Shakespeare's work is the artist's own. In the sphere of his sovereign genius the authority of the playwright and poet seems absolutely free and unconstrained. Nonetheless, Shakespeare, over the course of his career, repeatedly grappled with the question of whether he or anyone else could or should possess what we would call aesthetic autonomy. His most resonant response to the question, I suggest, is figured in Prospero's decision in The Tempest to break his staff and to plead for pardon:

As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulgence set me free. (Epilogue 19–20)

Prospero's words come at the very end of his play and near the end of Shakespeare's own long, complex, twisting path though a remarkably diverse body of poems and plays. At various points in the course of this journey, driven by a compelling vision of individuality, Shakespeare finds beauty in the singular, confronts the hatred aroused by otherness, explores the ethical perplexities of power, and acknowledges limits to his own freedom. Though they derive from the same vision, we should not expect these recurrent strains in his work to occur all at once—they tend to pull in different directions and to attach themselves to one or another of the genres in which Shakespeare worked. But they may be glimpsed all together for an instant, as if illuminated by a sudden flash of lightning, within a single strange character.

There is a moment in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare's comedy of substitutes and substitutions, in which the disguised ruler of Vienna, Duke Vincentio, needs a severed head, any head, to trick his hypocritical deputy Angelo, who has ordered the execution of the good Claudio and has demanded that the victim's head be brought to him personally. The death sentence is deeply unfair but not illegal: Claudio is in technical violation of a statute that makes fornication a capital crime. The fact that the statute had never before been enforced, that Claudio and the pregnant Juliet were married in all but the final, formal ceremony, and that Angelo himself is conniving to commit fornication with Claudio's beautiful sister Isabella do not invalidate the conviction.

Pleading with Angelo for her brother's life, Isabella calls attention to the grotesque presumptuousness of those who exercise power over their fellow mortals. "Dressed in a little brief authority," the petty officer storms about as if he were a god and

like an angry ape Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As makes the angels weep, who, with our spleens, Would all themselves laugh mortal. (2.2.121–26)

When Angelo asks why she has directed these observations to him, Isabella returns to the question of authority:

Because authority, though it err like others, Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself That skins the vice o'th'top. (2.2.137–39)

But the ability of those in charge to conceal their own corruption—to produce a cover that hides the vice that lies beneath—is beside the point. "The jury passing on the prisoner's life," Angelo has earlier remarked coolly, "May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two / Guiltier than him they try" (2.1.19–21), but their presence does not invalidate the law against thievery. So too the law against fornication does not depend upon the uprightness of the deputy who enforces it. "For my better satisfaction," orders Angelo, conscious both of his own duplicity and of the legal validity of the sentence he is enforcing, "let me have Claudio's head sent me by five" (4.2.113–14).

Though he is fully aware of the deputy's perfidy, the duke—who has temporarily absented himself from rule and disguised himself as a friar—cannot and will not simply declare the law to be unjust. He connives instead to deceive Angelo with a piece of legerdemain. It happens that another prisoner, a hardened murder named Barnardine, is scheduled to be executed later that same day, and the duke proposes that the prison provost simply carry out the sentence a few hours early, so as to present Barnardine's head, instead of Claudio's, to the cruel Angelo.

The provost, whom Shakespeare represents as an unusually sympathetic human being, does not wince at the prospect of shortening the convicted murderer's life. On the contrary, this particular prisoner, as the provost describes him, seems to evoke no sympathy at all from anyone in the play. In an odd, seemingly gratuitous exchange—irrelevant to the complex plot of a play that is rapidly approaching its climax—Shakespeare provides a compressed sketch of a life worth losing. Each of the details is cunningly chosen to diminish sympathy:

DUKE What is that Barnardine, who is to be executed in th'afternoon?

PROVOST A Bohemian born, but here nursed up and bred; one that is a prisoner nine years old.

DUKE How came it that the absent Duke had not either delivered him to his liberty or executed him? I have heard it was ever his manner to do so.

PROVOST His friends still wrought reprieves for him; and indeed his fact, till now in the government of Lord Angelo, came not to an undoubtful proof.

DUKE It is now apparent?

PROVOST Most manifest, and not denied by himself. (4.2.119–29)

Barnardine is not a citizen of the city in which he lives and in which he has committed murder, but he does not have even the excuse of strangeness or unfamiliarity to mitigate his crime. Though conviction on a capital charge ordinarily brought immediate execution—punishments in Shakespeare's England were generally carried out directly after sentencing, as Claudio's was scheduled to be—Barnardine has been a prisoner for nine years, in part because of the contrivance of his friends and in part because of some uncertainty about his guilt. But now that guilt, "his fact," has been proven, and the criminal himself does not deny it.

Case closed. Even for a playwright with an effortless ability to conjure up vivid glimpses of lived lives, this amount of incidental detail might have seemed sufficient, but Shakespeare wanted more. If a nine-year imprisonment suggested that the murderer already had more time in the world than he deserved, it also raised the possibility of moral reformation, a subject to which the play repeatedly turns. Repentance would not ordinarily lead to a pardon—virtually all criminals were expected to repent before their sentences were carried out and to quail at the prospect of meeting their Maker—but it would slightly soften the picture and make the hastening of Barnardine's execution in order to provide a convenient severed head seem somewhat discordant.


Excerpted from Shakespeare's Freedom by STEPHEN GREENBLATT Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations  Acknowledgments
1 :: Absolute Limits
2 :: Shakespearean Beauty Marks
3 :: The Limits of Hatred
4 :: Shakespeare and the Ethics of Authority
5 :: Shakespearean Autonomy
Notes  Index

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