Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter by Ewan Fernie
Cambridge University Press, $47.62 hardcover, 300 pages, 1107130859
Professor Ewan Fernie of the Shakespeare Institute explores how the Bard’s writing relates to socio-political and personal notions of liberty in his new book, Shakespeare for Freedom.
Writing in academic prose that’s not overly dense or too hard to digest, Fernie explains that both as an author and as a symbol, Shakespeare invites us to consider, broadly, existential freedom; the freedom to be different or of becoming; and the freedom to enter evil. Pairing close readings of texts like Romeo and Juliet and Henry IV Part I with analysis of literary criticism from the likes of Hegel, Freud, and Adorno, among others, Fernie puts forward his case for that tripartite Shakespearean freedom inherent in the plays. Further, he looks at how Shakespeare has inspired various political movements and figures fighting for liberty throughout history, from the days when actor David Garrick first politicized the Bard’s legacy with the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford in 1769, and later by Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth in the eighteenth century, up to the late twentieth century, when Nelson Mandela read Shakespeare’s works along with fellow political prisoners at Robben Island. Fernie also includes an investigation of more sinister iterations of Shakespearean freedom, used as a justification by the likes of John Wilkes Booth, himself the son of a Shakespeare actor, for example. Fernie concludes with an interesting discussion of several critical approaches to King Lear, and demonstrates Shakespeare’s ultimate call to human understanding and autonomy even in the bleakest of circumstances or on the stormiest of heaths.
While I found the book revealed new layers of meaning to Shakespeare’s work, and the real-world consequences that have unfolded in light of it, I think it may have benefited from some structural changes. Chapters providing close readings of text came after explorations of the political ramifications of reading Shakespeare’s work, and theory was interspersed throughout. I wonder if it would have been a more fluid reading experience to begin with laying out close readings of the text, followed by a critical framework (or vice versa), and then a discussion of Shakespeare in the political realm.
Nevertheless, my experience with the text was largely positive. In particular, I enjoyed the chapter concerning Romeo andJuliet. This was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw and got me interested in his work, and Fernie sculpted an analysis that made me consider the play in new ways;especially how the tragedy presents more radical potentialities and characters than we sometimes allow. Fernie’s discussion of this play adds a new dimension to that age-old question of whether human agency or fate guides the characters in Romeo and Juliet, and also presents a vision of liberty latent in some of the side characters’ dialogue.
All in all, I would recommend this book to those trying to see Shakespeare through new lenses, whether socio-political, historical, or critical.
As I am wont to occasionally indulge in costume dramas, I recently binge-watched STARZ’s The White Queen, a series based on Philippa Gregory’s novel of the same name, which details the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. So I was delighted to see Amy Licence’s new book, Son of York, which follows a young Edward from boyhood to his rise to the English throne, a path forged by bloody conflicts and political maneuvering.
If you’re a fan of Philippa Gregory’s writing, then Son of York is definitely for you. Licence’s prose is swift and cinematic – she paints clear pictures of scenes and characters that could very well lend themselves to the screen. Her writing is very present and has a good sense of flow, and I appreciated how Licence often imparts historical information via dialogue – having us learn the latest court intrigues and alliances that will shape the Yorkists’ fate alongside the characters. In this very present and absorbing narration, we see how political winds shift at the slightest provocations, sending the Duke of York’s family headlong into war against combatants supporting the ailing Henry VI and his powerful French queen, Margaret of Anjou. Eventually, the two families’ battle over dynastic claims shifts from debate in council chambers to combat in the field, and the Duke’s eldest son Edward finds himself growing into manhood against this hostile backdrop. We witness him go from a boy shunning his lessons, to a teenager entering into an affair with a young married woman (no doubt a precursor to his philandering ways later in life), to an exile in France, all the way to the head of his household back on English soil, leading armies to support his family’s claim to the throne.
All the while, Licence’s exploration of the relationship between Edward and his brother Edmund – younger by a year and growing up in Edward’s shadow – really piqued my interest. Looming large in our cultural conscience are Edward’s relationships with his other brothers – the ill-fated George, Duke of Clarence, and the infamous Richard III. Yet, Licence pays careful attention to another fraternal story, shading the contrasts between Edmund and Edward. She illustrates nicely how two young men of differing temperaments approach a politically precarious situation, and how varyingly they respond to questions of inheritance, leadership, and eventually armed conflict. Indeed, the novel very well could have been called Sons of York.
However, this is ultimately Edward’s story, and as a study of a young man stepping into adulthood, and the royal role he was destined to play, Son of York is an enjoyable read that is tough to put down.
On this very day in 1536, Anne Boleyn walked up to the scaffold after receiving a swift trial, conviction, and death sentence for high treason. Historian Alison Weir traces Anne’s journey to the block, from her childhood spent in European royal households through her courtship with and marriage to King Henry VIII, and her painful downfall in this novelization of true events.
I’ve been a longtime fan of Weir’s historical works, particularly her Six Wives of Henry VIII. Though this new novel is a piece of historical fiction, Weir’s depiction of Anne’s childhood years in Europe begins in matter-of-fact prose as if she were composing a work of straight history. I think Weir hits her narrative stride in the latter parts of the book, where we get swept up in the careening games of love and power that Anne enters – at first tentatively – upon her return to the English court. In that vein, Weir’s portrayal of Anne and Henry’s relationship as less of a love match, at least on Anne’s part. This is not a romance, but rather a story of a woman taken up by a king who was driven by unreciprocated amorous and sexual obsession, as Weir’s title suggests. Indeed, Weir emphasizes particularly in her exploration of Mary Boleyn and some of the Continental queens themes of sexual violence and domination that kings exercised upon unwilling female subjects, laying bare uneven sexual power dynamics and the deeply sad consequences they produced. These explorations bolster Anne’s reluctance to enter into a relationship with Henry, further supported by Weir’s depiction of Anne’s dedication to Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife whom the King eventually will put aside for Anne. However, following her sudden epiphany that the crown is within her grasp, Anne begins to yearn for power as much as Henry yearns for her, ultimately reciprocating his attentions and setting down a path that will ultimately prove fatal.
As their relationship progresses from flirtation to affair, and the couple’s plans to marry unfold, Weir successfully conveys the agonizingly long wait for a dispensation from Rome to annul the King’s first marriage, emphasizing how drawn out the process was before thoughts of church reformation began to bubble up. Finally, when Henry breaks from Rome and plans for the marriage are fulfilled, I felt fascinated to witness Anne’s euphoria in her early queenship, especially knowing what fate has in store for her. It’s almost like reading a howdunnit as opposed to a whodunnit. We know the end, but it’s remarkable how Anne gets there. In this respect, Weir is adroit at capturing Anne’s mounting fear and paranoia, reflected in a more stream-of-consciousness narrative style, as the Queen loses Henry’s favor after the delivery of a princess instead of a hoped-for male heir, and a series of miscarriages and marital fights that strain the royal couple’s relationship. In that style, we keenly feel how quickly Anne’s downfall comes to pass in the latter two parts of the book, as opposed to the former parts’ emphasis on protraction, delay, and uncertainty. Weir deftly conveys the swiftness of the fall, and the agony and increasing frenzy following Anne’s arrest and imprisonment, especially when those around her leave her in the dark as to the important details of her case. And she successfully conveys how Anne’s trial was a travesty of justice. The ending, capturing Anne’s final days, was tragic in the epic sense of the word – we see a woman literally lose everything she had worked towards, piece by piece, the result not only (in part) of her own hubris, but also the machinations of political forces far greater than herself. It is an undoing on a massive and complete scale. The final pages of Weir’s book which depict the morning of her execution up to the blow of the sword are truly haunting – they may even be viscerally upsetting to some readers (as it was for me).
For all the book’s strengths, there were some aspects that I found less enthralling. From the elevation of Anne’s potential romance with Henry Norris – one of the men convicted of adultery with the queen and executed just days before Anne – to her brother George’s involvement in an improbable and sensationalized murder plot, there were some elements of the story that felt like too much of a stretch. These plot points eliminate some of the poignancy of actual, historical events, and work against the idea of futility and arbitrariness of the divorces and deaths that marked this portion of Henry’s reign. Yet, Weir’s authorial note at the end of the book make clear her motivations for some instances of artistic license, and convey the depth of her research.
All things considered, Weir’s book was hard to put down, and I’d recommend it to anyone curious about Anne Boleyn, a fascinating and sometimes mysterious character who played an integral part in a captivating and dramatic portion of English history.
To learn more about Anne’s tragic end, see Weir’s discussion of her historical work about Boleyn’s final days here, and Suzannah Lipscomb’s essay on the same topic here.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer
Simon & Schuster, $11.30 paperback, 288 pages, 1476777411
Abdel Kader Haidara – librarian and longtime resident of Timbuktu – inherited a remarkable collection of manuscripts upon the death of his father (affectionately known as Mamma Haidara), and was called to care for them. He was only a teenager when Mamma Haidara passed, but has since dedicated his life not only to collecting manuscripts in Mali and in the larger Maghreb region, but to preserving them in libraries and institutes in Timbuktu. Newsweek reporter Joshua Hammer tells Haidara and his colleagues’ story skillfully, relating Haidara’s early manuscript rescue missions – on foot, by boat, and even by camel – with the same sense of urgency, danger, and triumph that Haidara must have felt on his expeditions. Racing against the clock to discover and protect rapidly decaying texts with origins in medieval and early modern Timbuktu – then a famed center of learning and scholarship in astronomy, religious ethics, mathematics, jurisprudence, and more – Haidara successfully gathered thousands of manuscripts. He also studied provenance, preservation methods, and scribal networks in Timbuktu, to better appraise and conserve the texts he encountered over his travels.
The journeys were not without risk, and after the hard work of gathering texts, Haidara found both his collection and his country threatened by the rise in northern Africa of a branch of Al-Qaeda, who soon enough began a campaign of terror that resulted in a period of jihadist occupation in Timbuktu in 2012. As a result, Haidara assembled a team to smuggle manuscripts out of the libraries and institutes to safe-houses around his hometown and eventually Mali’s capital city, Bamako, all under the noses of terrorists. What results is a stunning account about the importance of conserving materials and knowledge, which highlights the daring of everyday people collaborating to protect cultural artifacts in the face of fundamentalist forces determined to wipe out textual treasures. Haidara and his associates’ mission was successful in large part – 350,000 manuscripts were saved.
Overall, this book reads almost like a fiction – the plot is thick with intrigue, and the cast includes everyone from librarians, terrorists, soldiers, and diplomats, to folk musicians, teenagers, camel drivers, and professors. What’s miraculous is that this story is all too true, and demonstrates the pressing need to preserve cultural icons, particularly those threatened by extremist forces, to avoid the destruction that we saw in places like Palmyra in Syria, to give one example.
I noticed on GoodReads that some reviewers found the balance uneven between the story of the manuscripts themselves and the recounting of the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, with the bulk of pages dedicated to the latter. There certainly was a lot of ground to cover with regard to how the jihadists rose in the region, that at times the manuscripts did drop out of the narrative. Further, there have been claims that Haidara’s mission “may have been more prophylactic than urgently necessary,” according to The New York Times‘ Ben MacIntyre in his review of Hammer’s book. Indeed, an entirely new book about the subject came out earlier this month – The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past,written by TheGuardian‘s Charles English – which aims to delve more deeply into that uncertainly.
Controversy aside (and assuredly I’ll need to read English’s book as well for a fuller understanding), Hammer’s narrative provides a broad cultural picture, showing how sweeping political, religious, governmental, and literary forces coalesce and oppose each other around the subject of textual preservation. In that exploration of the confluence of different societal components and institutions, Hammer presents an engaging story that was hard to put down.
For more information on the Haidara and his colleagues’ project, you can visit their site here.
It’s been a busy week for medieval and early modern news. A few highlights below!
Richard III to be staged at Leicester Cathedral: The good news: the medieval king’s recently reburied bones won’t be disturbed. Yet defenders of his reputation are expressing how disturbed they feel by a new production of Shakespeare’s Richard III to be staged in July near his grave at Leicester Cathedral, where Richard’s remains were reinterred in 2015. The Richard III Society has condemned the production as a “deliberate humiliation” in light of Shakespeare’s less than flattering portrayal of the last Yorkist king. Nevertheless, with the Dean of Leicester’s promises for a “sensitive” portrayal, and the Cathedral’s insistence that the show will go on regardless of any controversy, it’ll be interesting to see how the play will be mounted this summer.
Anniversary of Shakespeare’s deposition in the Belott v. Mountjoy case: I recently reviewed Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger Shakespeare, which recounts the author’s life in a rented room in the Mounjoy family’s London household at the turn of the seventeenth century. Deposed in a court case regarding Mr. Mountjoy’s refusal to pay his daughter’s dowry to her new husband Stephen Belott, Shakespeare provided testimony on May 11, 1612, and signed his name to verify his statement. This remarkable record is one of the few instances of recorded direct speech from the Bard, and one of the precious documents containing his signature (one of only six that we know of!). See the documents at the link above, courtesy of the Folger’s Shakespeare Documented project.
The portrayal of women in Jamestown: Last week, Mark Lawson courted controversy after posting a review of the new TV series Jamestown, which depicts life in the Virginia colony nearly four hundred years ago. In his article for The Guardian, Lawson criticizes that the women characters in the show as “redolent of 21st century feminism,” even asking if the “real 17th-century spouses were as feisty, cheeky and rebellious” as the women portrayed. I really enjoyed Rebecca Rideal’s response on Tuesday (link above), which makes use of historical sources to question Lawson’s assessment, and provides details on “how a mixture of blunt language, subversive behaviour, industry and talent gave early modern women a considerable degree of agency” – yet without wholly diminishing the oppressive impact of certain social institutions (e.g. the lackluster and ineffective prosecution of rape cases in the courts, or the church’s teachings on female submission). Further, Rideal is sensitive to the divisions among women across lines of wealth, social status, and geography, reminding us that we need to tell more stories of the wide varieties of women’s experience in the early modern world. Will I be watching Jamestown? I’m tentative. But I appreciate a healthy call to proliferating early modern women’s stories with accuracy and heart – thanks, Rebecca!
Discovery of rare William Caxton leaves in box at Reading University: Two pages from a religious handbook printed by the father of the English printing press, William Caxton, in the late 1470s were discovered in a box at Reading University by librarian Erika Delbecque. The pages had previously been pasted down to reinforce the spine of another book, an example of the fascinating ways paper – an obviously scarcer commodity in the early modern world than today – was recycled to create and sustain other books. This find is especially exciting given the fact that “the only other pages from this book known to be in existence are eight leaves held by the British Library,” as the BBC reports.
As a bit of a Restoration nut, I jumped at the chance to read this book courtesy of NetGalley. Sarah-Beth Watkins’ latest history explores the life of a woman she labels “a forgotten queen marked by history as the neglected wife of Charles II and not much more.” In this briskly paced book, Watkins expands our understanding of Catherine’s personality and the events of her life, from her cloistered upbringing in Portugal to her marriage to Charles, a notorious philanderer who nevertheless showed his wife continual political loyalty. While Watkins’ turns of phrase sometimes lack elegance (the wording and exclamations can come off as a bit casual), her prose is straight-forward. What’s more, Watkins inserts a good deal of primary source material into the narrative, much to the book’s benefit – the commentary of famous diarists Pepys and Evelyn, and snippets from letters written by the royals themselves, add authenticity and flavor. Further, Watkins’ bibliography reflects a wide gathering of sources both historical and modern.
Given the book’s brevity, Catherine of Braganzais a history painted by necessity with a broad brush. While we don’t get all the nuance and particulars of events like The Popish Plot, or even explanations of any medical circumstances which may have caused Catherine to repeatedly miscarry, Watkins does provide some interesting tidbits of information relating to her subject. It was enjoyable to learn about Catherine’s passion for the navy, her skill as an archer, her enthusiasm for tea, and her patronage of music (she was the organizer of the first Italian opera performed in England). These details added color to Catherine’s life.
What I found especially fascinating about the book was the kinship networks Catherine worked hard to establish within the royal family – whether her closeness with the Queen Dowager Henrietta Maria, or her role looking after not only the children of Charles’ mistresses, but also her nieces, the future Queens Mary and Anne. And on that note of Charles’ mistresses, I felt intrigued by Watkins’ description of the ways in which Catherine lived closely to and collaborated with her husband’s lovers, particularly in the arrangements of entertainments. Certainly, queens before her had endured proximity to their husband’s paramours. Yet against the backdrop of Charles’ many mistresses jockeying for favor and position at court, Catherine remained a steady presence, who if not exactly their close companion was at least companionable. Here Watkins successfully highlights the sexual double standard at court – whereas Catherine not only had to put up with but also collaborate with Charles’ mistresses (her early protestations against them fell on Charles’ deaf ears), Charles would not suffer to let Catherine have a master of horse of her choosing, fearing she favored the man over himself.
Watkins succeeds in demonstrating Catherine’s role as a political pawn, even in her infancy as a symbol to spur on the Portuguese rebellion against Spanish rule, and later in life as a scapegoat for Catholics in England. Her part in that conflict – with accusations of conspiracy volleyed consistently against her on account of her religion – was interesting, too.
Overall, Watkins’ breezy history does convey a solid sense of Catherine’s character – a woman who, though stubborn at times, displayed a good deal of grace, devotion, maternal care, and savviness to know when political winds were changing.
In the midst of the English Civil War, Alice returns home to Essex from London after her husband’s unexpected death. Pregnant and with no where else to go, Alice seeks a safe haven in her brother Matthew’s inn. However, her stay with him turns out to be anything but safe – instead, Alice finds herself plunged into a series of witch trials which saw hundreds executed, trials orchestrated by none other than her brother.
Beth Underdown crafts an engaging and suspenseful debut novel narrated by the perspicacious Alice, based on these true events which took place between 1644 and 1647. Growing up in the United States, I’ve found that the Salem witch trials predominate in our cultural conscience. So it was fascinating to learn more about a different witch panic on the other side of the pond, and particularly after viewing (fellow Lincolnite!) Suzannah Lipscomb’s documentary Witches: A Century of Murder(available on Netflix) which details the Hopkins trials. Overall, Underdown’s book is both suspenseful and taut. She arouses our suspicions about each character, creating a reading experience akin to the environment of mistrust in which her characters live. What’s more, Underdown flirts with the supernatural, peppering her narrative with moments that can’t be explained by logic, including a description of a phantasmagorical dog that made me wary of going to sleep without the light on.
I stepped away from this book feeling as though I hadn’t come much closer to knowing Matthew Hopkins, self-appointed “Witchfinder General.” Underdown has created her Matthew as something of an externally distant and icy, but internally burning Puritanical zealot, who exchanges his priestly ambitions towards the execution of what he presumes to be justice. His motives for pursuing witches so ardently are multiple, from reacting against his own mother’s mental instability to persecuting those like the wet-nurse under whose supervision he was badly burned in infancy. I was initially, and still remain to a degree, somewhat hesitant about this aspect of Underdown’s fictional rendering of the historical Hopkins – assigning an external disfigurement as motivation for a character noted for internal wickedness, using it as a source of shame and the root of a need for vengeance. Nevertheless, towards the end of the novel, Underdown expertly weaves the threads of Matthew’s burns, his mother’s perceived madness, and witchcraft in a revelation concerning the circumstances surrounding Matthew’s conception and birth. This moment of tying plot elements together took Matthew’s scars from tired plot mechanism to a linchpin in a narrative which reflects early modern preoccupations with child-bearing, at a time when medicine and folk magic often intertwined.
And yet, for all the distance I felt from Hopkins, I remind myself that coming any closer to him isn’t exactly this novel’s point – it’s called The Witchfinder’s Sister after all, and what I most enjoyed about this book was the way Underdown’s characterization of Alice clues us in to early modern Englishwomen’s lived experience. Through Alice’s travels with her brother in pursuit of witches, we gain proximity to the accused, often older women on the outskirts of polite society. We get to know servants and tradeswomen, and we get to know Alice herself – a minister’s daughter of the middling sort, literate, widowed, and an individual who’s experienced life in both London and the countryside. I appreciated encountering a broad swathe of female experience both in the person of Alice, and also through other women characters in Underdown’s book.
I also greatly appreciated how The Witchfinder’s Sister lays bare the difficulty with which early modern people – and particularly early modern women – attempted to decipher the human body, from Alice’s fears for her precarious pregnancy to her and Matthew’s preoccupation over the incipient madness overtaking their mother’s inscrutable mind. We see how easily people turned to supernatural phenomena – ill-wishes, devil’s enchantments, the handiworks of imps, and curses – to explain catastrophic health events like miscarriage and unexpected deaths, to name just a few. In a world without the advances of modern science, any major illness – physical or mental – could plausibly seem like an act of God – or the Devil. We get to inhabit that that state of mind, particularly as Alice worries over the distinct possibility of losing her baby, and how some of the book’s accusers point towards vulnerable women as scapegoats for the sudden and disastrous illnesses that took the lives of previously healthy children. Indeed, the book demonstrates nicely the connection between concerns over maintaining fertility – whether healthy babies or productive fields and cattle – and fears over elements of female sexuality (including fertility) and witchcraft. Many of the accused witches in the book are older women, often widows, past their child-bearing years. Conception charms are found in this narrative. Curses against children are reported. Likewise, a woman’s overt fawning over children who later become ill is levied against an accused witch as evidence of maleficence. In such a way, Underdown hints at the ways anxiety over human and agricultural fertility were cast upon women no longer able to bear children, whose place in chains of production – whether through child-bearing or taking an active role in society’s agricultural or manufacturing activities – was indeterminate.
Last but not least, I admired how Underdown shows us the ease with which ordinary people slipped into complicity with the witch trials. Alice, forced by her brother to accompany him on his interrogations, and to search for witches’ marks (skin tags, warts, and the like, usually found near women’s private parts and thus unable to be contested in a court of law looking to maintain female modesty standards), confronts the futility of her small acts of resistance. She realizes that even by counseling the women she’s assigned to search, or slipping them money, she’s still participating in acts she finds unforgivable. As Alice puts it:
“I began to see, as the days passed, that with whatever small good I was attempting, I was doing twice as much evil.”
Even in the earliest moments of her journey with Matthew, as they leave the confines of the village of Manningtree to find witches in other towns, Alice reasons, “I would be removed from seeing harm done to anyone I knew.” Yet, in that reasoning, and in her collaboration with Matthew’s agenda, she condemns herself: “I thought, If I was ever blameless, now my blamelessness has ended.” We see that same conflict in the character of Rebecca West, who offers testimony against other accused witches – including her own mother – in exchange for immunity, the consequences of which are distressing. It is in these conflicts – compounded by the omnipresence of Matthew, who scarce lets the women alone and ensures their submission by verbal and physical threats – that we gain an idea how people in the midst of a witch panic and under the influence of dangerous men were able to renegotiate the bounds they were initially unwilling to cross.
All in all, Beth Underdown’s debut novel is well-written and engaging from beginning to end. There were parts of the novel that I found dubious, from the aforementioned scars to Matthew’s eventual demise, but overall this was a fast and gripping read written in clear prose. I’d recommend The Witchfinder’s Sister to anyone interested in topics as varied as witches and Puritans and early modern medicine. I hope to follow up this review, too, with a post exploring some of the history behind the book, for those like me left eager to delve deeper into the harrowing events which inspired Underdown’s captivating re-telling.