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Monday, April 6, 2015

Shakespeare and Freedom


We don’t fully understand Shakespeare today because most of us live in a free world. Shakespeare doesn't really matter to us.

I think one of the greatest difficulties we have when we read Shakespeare’s plays is not that they are 400 years old, or the archaic words he uses.

No, the fundamental difficulty we have is that we don’t understand that the language in his plays and poems was written in something of a code.

Yes, poetic language is very difficult to interpret, but Shakespeare’s language goes even further. It is a secret language, written at a time when there was very little artistic freedom and human liberty.




Shakespeare was writing what can considered dissident theatre, and his plays were artistic resistance against the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I.

And in that Elizabethan/Jacobean world in which he lived, his plays really mattered. They were thrillingly and explosively subversive and politically courageous at a time when such theatre could put you in prison, or worse. 

In that world without TV, Internet and the news, Shakespeare was shouting at the top of his lungs for freedom and human dignity. We have lost touch with that understanding, are blind to what he was saying. To his audiences, every word of his mattered.




When I read this article about the present lack of freedom in the country of Belarus, and its underground theatre, it is eerily similar to Shakespeare’s England in the 1590’s and early 1600’s.

In Belarus, much of the country’s TV, film and music is “subject to harsh censorship.” Shakespeare never seems to have had too much difficulty with the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tylney — the royal censor. But other playwrights of the time did.

The fact that Shakespeare may not have been punished himself does not mean that his plays were written with any more freedom. Rather, it means that Shakespeare was better at writing poetry and plays that fooled the censors. 

Shakespeare also had the benefit of royal patrons, like the Earls of Essex and Southampton, who not only provided him with money for his work, but more importantly, provided him with political cover, and protected him from the queen.




The Belarus Free Theatre is following in the tradition of Shakespeare’s fellow actors, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which later turned into the King’s Men.

But whereas Shakespeare’s plays were tolerated for a time by Queen Elizabeth and King James, and performed openly in theatres like the Globe and the Curtain, it is illegal to sell tickets to see plays by the Belarus Free Theatre, and it has to perform underground.

After many years of persecution by the Belarusian government, many of the actors have fled the country, and reside in London.

While they still continue to put on plays in Belarus, the actors in exile have performed around the world, including New York, and even Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2012.

What play did they perform at the Globe?

They chose King Lear, Shakespeare’s greatest indictment of kings, and of King James personally, for whom Shakespeare wrote it in the first place in around 1606.




Nina Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, is quoted in this article. What she has to say is very instructive to help us understand what Shakespeare meant to his contemporary audiences.

She said that art today, in the free world, is created with the market in mind. Artists try to sell as much as they can. But art that came out of Russia and the former Soviet Union "was created precisely because it was always under threat of the government.”

She also said that in that part of the world, in countries without artistic freedom, “everything is forbidden so everything matters.” In free countries “everything is allowed and nothing matters."

We should not assume that Shakespeare was just a jobbing playwright, who only wrote plays to make money and please the crowds. If we assume that, then we will never fully understand Shakespeare’s plays.

His plays are very political. They expressed a basic human desire for freedom and for justice. 

He wanted to see good triumph over evil, and the honest defeat the corrupt, at a time when the monarch’s power was absolute, and the royal court was crooked.

He wrote of lovers who should be able to choose whom to marry for love, and not for duty or obligation, at a time when the queen meddled and even imprisoned young women and men who fell in love -- like Elizabeth Vernon and the Earl of Southampton, for whom Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet

Why does Falstaff steal the show in the Henry IV plays, and not the king himself?  Because Shakespeare made a political choice to celebrate what was common, and denigrate what was royal. He put common men and women on stage with kings and queens to make the political point that we are all human, which means that monarchs are not divine.

Every word he wrote was a matter of life or death. If there was one word or line out of place, or too agressively political, he could have been imprisoned, or worse. 

Shakespeare wrote his plays with the fear that plague would close the theatres, or that he might write a play was too political, and would shut the theatres. The play The Isle of Dogs, by Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe almost closed the theatres in 1597. If the theatres closed, there was no promise that they would re-open, ever.


all pictures from King Lear at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

For those of us who live in a free society, we should be very grateful. While it is difficult to appreciate what it is like to live under tyranny, we should try to approach Shakespeare's writings as the words of a man who longed for and worked for freedom while he had almost none.


Cheers,


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