The publication of a book by Stephen Greenblatt is always a significant event and Shakespeare’s Freedom is no exception. Opening with a claim that may surprise many, Greenblatt asserts that ‘Shakespeare as a writer is the embodiment of human freedom’:
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.
Addressing Shakespeare’s ‘free soul’, here construed as a kind of capacious creativity, Greenblatt explores the contest between an ‘absolutist world’ and ‘literary genius’ and ‘the ways that Shakespeare establishes and explores the boundaries that hedge about the claims of the absolute’. Drawing on his usual eclectic range of theoretical models Greenblatt interprets a selection of plays with all that was original and refreshing about new historicism – reading against the grain, historical anecdote and an acute sense of Shakespeare’s interest in power on display. The book is structured around five major themes and their dramatization – absolute limits, beauty, hatred, authority and autonomy. Shakespeare is seen as a supremely creative free thinker, working within an absolutist society but with an apparently infinite capacity for imaginative investment. Thinking outside the confines of his culture, Shakespeare was able to create and destroy versions of these concepts, enabling us to recognize the depth of his achievement. Taking on morality, for example, in Measure for Measure, Greenblatt examines Barnadine’s peculiarly comic refusal to die:
Barnadine, so unnecessary and so theatrically compelling, serves as an emblem of the freedom of the artist to remake his world. But this strange character is – by Shakespeare’s careful design – a most unlikely emblem of artistic freedom; penned up, drunken, filthy, and rustling in the straw, the convicted criminal Barnadine is the embodiment of everything that is mortal, bodily and earth-bound.