Freedom, Freetown and Fernie’s Fiery Feast

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Professor Ewan Fernie, University of Birmingham

Professor Ewan Fernie, University of Birmingham

You do not expect a critic of Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and other geniuses of human depth and intellect to be as good as Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky or Kierkegaard. Fair enough. But not when the critic’s name is Ewan Fernie. I had never before heard the author of what I consider to be one of the most terrific books ever written, live. So his inaugural lecture entitled “Freetown! Shakespeare and Social Flourishing” at the Barber Institute of the University of Birmingham on 27 January was something to look forward to.

Fernie started his talk with a rhetorically powerful interpretation of the concept of Freetown in Romeo and Juliet. From a more immediate expression of Freetown in the “fair assembly” in Capulet’s household ball towards a broader prospect of freedom and liberty, Fernie invited us to ruminate about the double-edgedness of these concepts: how the universal as well as social understanding of freedom can stem from an individual’s excessive possession of it. Fernie implied that by amplifying the youthful love of Romeo and Juliet into an “oceanic feeling”, Shakespeare reveals, breaks through and redefines the boundaries of a single person’s human capacities as “a teenage girl’s amorous enthusiasm becomes universal”.

“Romeo and Juliet attain their tragedy”… “We pity them but they make it that far.”

Following up on the idea of an individual’s ability to embrace universal and social freedom, Fernie moved from Shakespeare’s characters to Shakespeare enthusiasts and ultimately to Shakespeare as a universal incentive for freedom and reform on individual, emotional, social, political, historical and cultural levels. Fernie expanded on the unprecedented effect that David Garrick’s initiation of the Stratford Jubilee had on our conception, perception and observation of Shakespeare as “Garrick took Shakespeare out of the institutions literally to the streets”. The phenomenon of global and local Shakespeares is not as new as we think: the binarity of Shakespeare’s Britishness and universality dates back to 1769… for as Garrick’s own song line goes:

“the lad of all lads was a Warwickshire lad”.

Fernie showed that Shakespeare’s influence on individual fighters for freedom has not always been necessarily straightforward or even exactly positive. From Boswell’s costume of a Corsican chief at the Stratford Jubilee to Booth’s almost aesthetic assassination of Lincoln from the stage, the infective mind of the Elizabeth playwright reached far and beyond to interfere with the American struggle for independence, Garibaldi’s (ad)ventures and Wilkes’ radical acts for liberty.

When formally introducing Ewan Fernie to the audience, Michael Dobson joked about Fernie “writing The Demonic and growing a beard to match”. The grain of truth in this humorous metaphorical parallel is in fact transparent. With looks that would make him an ideal cover photo for a Roman Gods’ magazine, Fernie’s protruding individuality and phenomenal intellectual depth threaten to smash our outworn stereotypes of a thinker, academic, writer, lecturer, orator and author and make him a new blueprint for a socially and academically productive intellectual. He sang, he shouted, he used rhetoric and put on accents – it was an inaugural lecture that forever set the spirits of at least one audience member on fire…!

If you could not get enough of Fernie or missed his inaugural lecture, you should be looking forward to his plenary talk “Lighten our Darkness” at British Graduate Shakespeare Conference 2014.

You can view the whole of Ewan’s inaugural lecture clicking here.

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Author:Annie Martirosyan

ANNIE MARTIROSYAN has recently completed her Ph.D. in Philology at Yerevan State Linguistic University after V. Brusov in Armenia and is currently doing M.A. in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. Annie has contributed to various linguistic/literary magazines and also writes at the Huffington Post UK. She credits Professor David Crystal as a life-long inspiration for all her linguistic, philological and Shakespearean interests.

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