Introducing…. Shakespearience

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I’m currently finishing a big book, which is on the demonic in Shakespeare and other writers. But it’s always more fun to look forward to the next one, and I’m planning a new book called Shakespearience. It’ll be about the way Shakespeare’s writing bears on and indeed constitutes life.

I want to get into the experience of Shakespeare, because that’s what it’s all about, don’t you think? Context can be so distracting.

I also want, if you’ll bear with me, to have a first bash at this in my regular blog, and I’ll be very interested in your responses.

One of the things I want to get inside is Shakespeare’s ‘myriadmindedness’ (Coleridge). It’s easy to invoke this lazily: because Shakespeare never thinks anything in particular, we don’t have to worry. Hurrah! Just float into his ether and enjoy….

But surely we should try to get down into at least some of the myriad minds? For me at least, really reading or watching Shakespeare isn’t an experience of delighted detachment at all. Instead, such is his power, it’s a condition of finding myself suddenly and absolutely not just in sympathy with but almost actually in one character, then another.

And there are minds elsewhere in Shakespeare, beyond character. Sometimes everything seems to be mind. You might tread on one.

‘Where the bee sucks there suck I
In the cowslip’s bell I lie’

You might scent one in ‘the filthy air’.

And it doesn’t seem misleading to say each play is itself a myriad mind, variously alive in all of its moments and phases, and often almost infinitely irreducible to the story of its plot, or any singleminded moral which may be drawn from it.

Which is not to say that there is no Shakespearian moral. It may be just this:

Everything is ALIVE!

In which case Shakespearian interpretation — in the academic sense of producing a single ‘reading’, or a strongly distinctive argument—is in trouble, in that it betrays the myriadmindedness and fails the moral.

But it’s not enough just to repeat the moral, like dogma. In Shakespeare, you can only get the moral by living it—living it in imagination—engaging as fully and as much as you can with the very varied life that is in the plays.

Well, does that strike a chord?

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Ewan Fernie is Chair and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. His books include critical and creative works and he is General Editor (with Simon Palfrey) of the provocative Shakespeare Now! series.
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  • Dankeschone

    I read your article and  i have a question? The expérience about Shakespear seems to be too dangerous for you.Perhaps the suck (suc?) and the swell is about a flower.Flecht to the cinéma of birmingham  or other town and see a film like bright star or other. 

  • Philliecal

    Dear Ewan, 
    I have a slight alliteration to add to Coleridge – Metaphor makes for Myriadmindedness. I think that Shakespeare’s superb use of metaphor creates the crevices of character. You feel that you ‘are’ one character or another, no matter whether it is the horror of Macbeth’s mental space with, for example, the superb neologism about making the multitudinous seas incarnadine, or Coriolanus’ stolid, superficially simplistic but fascinatingly self-destructive ‘alone I did it.’ (His character is like a sheer cliff, a Roman ruin.) I feel that Shakespeare’s ‘great’ protagonists are all in some way coping with aloneness – I know this sounds trite but I often find it fascinating to think about.  Somehow, the structures of our lives keep the aloneness, if not away, at least at bay. And with these characters Shakespeare puts them in situations where they are looking into the void, even if, like Lear, they are not actually alone, and even if, like Coriolanus or Othello, they don’t know that this is what they’re looking at.

    I like paul’s comment below – when Ariel is free, where will he go? The very structures that cabin, crib and confine us are also what block out the void.

  • Kaneheather

    The new movie ‘Anonymous’ explores the “what if” Shakespeare didn’t right any of his works. It looks interesting and I’m curious to see it.

  • Rana

    Ewan I love your passion about literature. And that you value the imagination so much. To bring such passion into literary criticism and open the door to and allow the use of one’s heart and imagination is beautiful. Scholarship should not just be intellectual since creativity isnt a purely intellectual pursuit. Scholarship the way you do it is imaginative communition, rather than categorisation and dissection. The scholarship of someone with intense artistic and spiritual sensibility himself….I look forwards to your book about the fiery demonic and then about ‘everything being alive’. You are connecting with Shakespeare as if his work were the equivalent of music, song and dance as well as words, theories or historical document and that is how he meant it I am sure. Rana

  • Paul is absolutely correct, in my view, to claim that most criticism these days begins with a rejection of experience (both of life and of literature); hence the appeal of returning to people like Leavis, whose criterion was ‘life’, whatever he meant by that. The problem today is that professionalised criticism (in all its forms) is so entrenched, and carries so much weight, that it becomes very difficult to deviate from its paths without one’s writing becoming reactionary and self-conscious; and a rejection of the standards of professional criticism morphs too easily into a rejection of serious critical standards, and one’s writing becomes windy and pompous. Those are the dangers: I find it difficult to avoid them, and I suspect that Ewan does as well; if he can avoid them, his book will be an important and provocative (important because provocative) contribution to modern writing on Shakespeare.

  • Hamiltonpaul

    Almost every major branch of criticism begins by rejecting the “experience” of the “naive student” as a form of “false consciousness”. I believe that much of the hostility towards literary studies is due to the unconscious arrogance that is concealed in this position.

    Perhaps “experience” is threatening because it is so idiosyncratic, anarchic, and uncontrollable – which is precisely what makes it so fertile. It is easy to forget that the great literature we love is born out of such volatile stuff.

    Paul Hamilton



  • RudyardP

    Yes, you’ve struck a deep, low E chord, the kind you don’t hear before you realize it’s shaking you entire body of writing.  Maybe I’d like to share short retellings of the bard in limerick form, I wrote when I was 12.  Then others later as I studied with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  But mostly, I’d say, myriadmindedness IS moral, as it’s natural totality evokes “mirrormindfulness” and back around the Rota Fortuna… 

    Rudyard Porter
    rudyardp at yahoo

  • Guest

    “Context can be so distracting” – absolutely! I have always thought that Shakespeare is at his most sublime when he talks about the basic things, and surely there is no reason why criticism shouldn’t be so too.
    It’s been somehow clear to me that you would at some point write a book like this, so good luck with it! Certainly there is a parallel between the demonic and what you say about being “in” a character – a fascination for the abomination, to borrow a phrase from Conrad.


  • Hamiltonpaul

    When Ariel is finally free from Prospero, what will he become? Where will he go? The line from ‘The Tempest’ that Professor Fernie posted tells us:

    ‘Where the bee sucks there suck I

    In the cowslip’s bell I lie’

    Perhaps Ariel will be in a place like death (where he becomes a kind of “Ear” as Dickinson would say, while the “Heavens” are a “cowslip bell”) – or perhaps, like Alonzo, Ariel also will be alive “Ding-dong-bell” (I. ii. 395-399) – only his life will only be visible from an “odd angle of the isle” (I. ii. 233)? If a flower could ring like a “bell”, what would it sound like? “Ding-dong-bell”.

    What is death? From the point of view of the experiencing subject, do we even know what it is at all? Perhaps, we need to view death from an “odd angle of the isle” in order to appreciate its mystery . . . Even Sanctity? “Ding-dong-bell”

    Paul Hamilton

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