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Shakespeare for Freedom presents a powerful, plausible and political argument for Shakespeare's meaning and value. It ranges across the breadth of the Shakespeare phenomenon, offering a new interpretation not just of the characters and plays, but also of the part they have played in theatre, criticism, civic culture and politics. Its story includes a glimpse of 'Freetown' in Romeo and Juliet, which comes to life in the 1769 Stratford Jubilee; the Shakespearean careers of the Leicester Chartist, Cooper, and the Hungarian hero, Kossuth; Hegel's recognition of Shakespearean freedom as the modern breakthrough; its fatal effects in America; the disgust it inspired in Tolstoy; its rehabilitation by Ted Hughes, and its obscure centrality in the 2012 Olympics. Ultimately, it issues a positive Shakespearean prognosis for freedom as a vital (in both senses), unending struggle. Shakespeare for Freedom shows why Shakespeare has mattered for four hundred years, and why he still matters today.
This essay argues for the crucial importance of Shakespeare now. It reflects on presentism: a strategy of interpreting texts in relation to current affairs which challenges the dominant fashion of reading Shakespeare historically. Where new historicism emphasizes historical difference, presentism proceeds by reading the literature of the past in terms of what most ‘ringingly chimes’ with ‘the modern world’. This does not of course compel a choice between antiquarian irrelevance and self-repeating complacency. As we shall see, established new historicism is a complex practice and so – already – is presentism. But a deliberate synthesis of presentism’s commitment to ‘the now’ and historicism’s orientation to what is ‘other’ might reveal a way forward: an alternative presentism focused on, and concerned to maximize, the difference literature makes to the present. With respect to new historicism, the singularity of literature includes but also exceeds historical difference. Hamlet stands apart from its conditions of production. It also stands provocatively apart in the present. In his remarkable meditation on the play, Jacques Derrida characterizes ‘a masterpiece’ in terms of endless uncanny and effective otherness:
A masterpiece always moves, by definition, in the manner of a ghost. The thing haunts, for example, it causes, it inhabits without residing, without ever confining itself to the numerous versions of this passage, ‘The time is out of joint’.