a poet of freedom


Holbrook argues that freedom is the one item we could not subtract from Shakespeare’s plays “without their, in effect, ceasing to be his”. Freedom is both a personal and a political concept and Holbrook explores them jointly: Shakespeare is aware that personal freedom can often conflict with ethics and morality and social norms. Cordelia’s insistence on speaking in her own voice rather than another’s is both ethically principled and ethically disastrous; the autonomy of villains such as Aaron conflicts with society but so too does that of public rulers like Antony and Cleopatra. Such tensions between self and society lead to larger questions: if it is right for Hermia to disobey her father in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is it also right for a people to rebel against a king? Holbrook extends these themes to an analysis of Victorian and Modernist Shakespeare criticism. F. J. Furnivall’s approach to Shakespeare “reflects the liberal’s wish to break with a coercive morality”; Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde and others see Shakespeare “as standing for life and against a life-crushing morality”. T. S. Eliot objected to Shakespeare because he was morally problematic but Holbrook argues that fidelity to self-realization can be ethical; for Shakespeare (as for Montaigne, who gets much attention here), cultivating the self is more important than capitulating to expectation. When Shakespeare presents vice as a choice it becomes a positive marker of self-determination. Richard of Gloucester determines to be a villain, Aaron embraces his blackness, Antony and Cleopatra choose passion rather than just giving in to it.

more from Laurie Maguire at the TLS here.