Shakespeare's Freedom

Stephen Greenblatt is one of America's most elegant and inventive literary critics. He writes with panache as he spins intriguing yarns from surprising materials. He has a gift as a reader of Shakespeare for noticing details that others have tended to overlook and using them as a prism to refract the plays in new ways.

Shakespeare's Freedom is a slender volume based on a series of lectures given at Rice University in Texas. It is not aimed at those readers for whom the vast library of books about Shakespeare is uncharted territory. The range of plays that it covers is small and somewhat arbitrary. Nor should it be anybody's choice for their first encounter with Greenblatt - that should be his classic Renaissance Self-Fashioning, which still reads beautifully nearly three decades after it was first published. For Greenblatt connoisseurs, however, there is great pleasure to be had in watching him hold together an apparently disparate series of topics under the general rubric of "freedom": beauty, hatred, authority and autonomy.

Focal points include the rebellious character of Barnardine in Measure for Measure, a small part that has seemed important to many major critics since William Hazlitt in the 19th century, and the equally old question of the treatment of the outsider in The Merchant of Venice. Greenblatt suggestively wonders whether his culture in 21st-century America views Muslims rather in the way that Shakespeare's in 16th-century England viewed Jews. "Go, Tubal, and meet me at our synagogue. Go, good Tubal; at our synagogue, Tubal." Imagine Shylock's line rewritten with "mosque" in place of "synagogue". That would make for a striking production of the play.

The best chapter pays close attention to the place of imperfection in Shakespeare's idea of beauty. One of his best-known sonnets parodies the technique known as the blazon, in which Elizabethan poets enumerate the beauties of their mistress (golden hair like the sun, eyes shining like diamonds, breasts like perfectly rounded hillocks). "My mistress' eyes," Shakespeare replies, "are nothing like the sun." That is an extreme. Greenblatt's concern is with the little blemishes that set off the blandness of perfect proportion. He is a man from the generation that appreciated Cindy Crawford for her mole and accordingly he has marvellous things to say about the "mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops/I' the bottom of a cowslip" that Iachimo observes on the left breast of the heroine of Cymbeline.

There are occasional lapses, as when Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part One is described as "the one authentic woman warrior in Shakespeare's work". This is not only harsh on Queen Margaret in parts two and three of the same trilogy, not to mention other female warriors such as Cordelia in King Lear and Tamora in Titus Andronicus; it is also a questionable claim, given that the character of Joan was almost certainly created not by Shakespeare, but by his collaborator on the play.

A more significant lacuna is any detailed consideration of the politics of freedom - beyond some brief consideration of post-Reformation debates about tyrannicide (a word that Greenblatt cannot spell). Greenblatt's reflections on autonomy owe a debt to Theodor Adorno, but he might have considered Hannah Arendt's restatement, in Between Past and Future, of Aristotle's idea that man is a political animal in the form of a theory of freedom: there is a powerful tradition of thought, from classical times through Shakespeare's to ours, which proposes that freedom and politics coincide.

Greenblatt is strong on religion, though one would have liked him to discuss Cranmer's prayerbook paradox that in God's "service is perfect freedom". He is, however, weak on secular politics. He has nothing to say about Jack Cade's appeal, in Henry VI, Part Two, to ancient English liberties:

I thought ye would never have given
out these arms till you had recovered
your ancient freedom; but you are
all recreants and dastards, and delight to
live in slavery to the nobility.

He is equally silent on the Roman notion of "libertas" and the vein of neo-Roman republican writing that was of great importance in the 1590s. Shakespeare knew about these things, but was wary of committing himself to any position. For the playwright, perhaps, and for Greenblatt without question, the freedom to withdraw from politics is a vital aspect of human autonomy.

Shakespeare's Freedom
Stephen Greenblatt
University of Chicago Press, 152pp, £15.50

Jonathan Bate is the author of several books about Shakespeare, including "The Genius of Shakespeare" (Picador, £8.99) and "Soul of the Age: the Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare" (Penguin, £10.99)

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus