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Early Modern Literature Forum: Shakespeare and Complete Being

bannerDate: Friday 24 April 2015

Time: 4-6mp
Venue: Room 202A, Learning and Innovation Building (17), St Lucia Campus
Convenors: Kenneth Chong & Brandon Chua
Speaker: Professor Ewan Fernie Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham

Abstract: With reference to Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and Adorno’s famous dictum that there is no poetry after Auschwitz, this paper will ask what happens to ideas of Shakespearean freedom after the violence of the twentieth century.   Reading Freud and Adorno suggests that civilization represses barbarism, but that civilization also is barbarism.  Poetry is civilization, which is barbarism; and critical intelligence is part of the problem of a barbaric displacement from life.  So, how do you break the deadlock?  The Irish philosopher and mystic John Moriarty suggests that you undo the original repression and start building human culture again, hoping this time to make a better job of it.  In his remarkable autobiography, Nostos, Moriarty draws on Shakespeare, especially King Lear and Macbeth, in an effort to undo the repression and re-imagine culture.  Bu in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, his monumental consideration of all of Shakespeare’s work, the late English Laureate Ted Hughes offers a related but distinct answer.  Hughes proposes that Shakespeare’s plays and poems can help us to suffer through the whole process of barbarism and repression in the hope of coming out the other side and redeeming human culture.

Both Moriarty and Hughes acknowledge that theirs is a high-risk strategy, one that does not dodge but instead actively embraces the perils of Shakespearean freedom in the hope that this will help us win through to a more comprehensive life. And note that it is ‘Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being’: Hughes seems an unlikely feminist, but his proposal is that, across the entire canon, Shakespeare is working to redeem civilization in general by specifically saving the female freedoms which he contends it typically violates and represses.

Ewan Fernie is Chair, Professor and Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, Stratford-upon-Avon, where he co-convenes the pioneering MA in Shakespeare and Creativity and helps run the collaboration with the RSC at The Other Place. He is General Editor (with Simon Palfrey) of the Shakespeare Now! series, and his latest critical book is The Demonic: Literature and Experience. Fernie also writes creatively.  He led the AHRC grant-winning project which culminated in Redcrosse, a new poetic liturgy for St George’s Day that was performed in major UK cathedrals and by the RSC, and published in 2012. He is currently completing a Macbeth novel (also with Palfrey), and beginning to develop a play with Katharine Craik and the RSC called Marina, as well as seeing through the press a volume of essays edited with Tobias Döring on Shakespeare and Thomas Mann.  Fernie’s present critical project is a book entitled Shakespeare’s Freetown: Why the Plays Matter. But he also has a developing interest in the part played by Shakespeare in the nineteenth-century reformation of industrial Birmingham, and in particular in the work and life of the radical preacher and lecturer George Dawson.

Image: Title page of the First Folio, by William Shakespeare (1623). Copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Image courtesy of the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.