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Shakespeare's Freedom (Campbell Lectures) [Kindle Edition]

Stephen Greenblatt
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Shakespeare lived in a world of absolutes—of claims for the absolute authority of scripture, monarch, and God, and the authority of fathers over wives and children, the old over the young, and the gentle over the baseborn. With the elegance and verve for which he is well known, Stephen Greenblatt, author of the best-selling Will in the World, shows that Shakespeare was strikingly averse to such absolutes and constantly probed the possibility of freedom from them. Again and again, Shakespeare confounds the designs and pretensions of kings, generals, and churchmen. His aversion to absolutes even leads him to probe the exalted and seemingly limitless passions of his lovers.

Greenblatt explores this rich theme by addressing four of Shakespeare’s preoccupations across all the genres in which he worked. He first considers the idea of beauty in Shakespeare’s works, specifically his challenge to the cult of featureless perfection and his interest in distinguishing marks. He then turns to Shakespeare’s interest in murderous hatred, most famously embodied in Shylock but seen also in the character Bernardine in Measure for Measure. Next Greenblatt considers the idea of Shakespearean authority—that is, Shakespeare’s deep sense of the ethical ambiguity of power, including his own. Ultimately, Greenblatt takes up Shakespearean autonomy, in particular the freedom of artists, guided by distinctive forms of perception, to live by their own laws and to claim that their creations are singularly unconstrained.

A book that could only have been written by Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare’s Freedom is a wholly original and eloquent meditation by the most acclaimed and influential Shakespearean of our time.

Editorial Reviews


"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." (New Statesman) "It is good, at a time when there is danger of seeing Shakespeare too exclusively as an entertainer, to find an acknowledgement of the intellectual powers that pervade his work, and Greenblatt brings his formidable critical expertise to bear on the writings in this deeply thoughtful study." (Times Literary Supplement) "In this short collection of essays, Stephen Greenblatt's analysis of both Shakespeare and the Renaissance is informative and often original. He argues that Shakespeare's genius lay in embracing and subverting the norms of his age.... Yet, the book's real lesson is Shakespeare's awareness of the human condition in all its complexity." (Financial Times)"

About the Author


Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; and the groundbreaking Renaissance Self–Fashioning, the latter book published by the University of Chicago Press.


Product Details

  • File Size: 1644 KB
  • Print Length: 163 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0226306666
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (November 15, 2010)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00AMCZ51A
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #609,538 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, and completely accessible June 26, 2011
By Reader
Like "Will in the World," this gem of a book contains insight after insight that have been hiding in plain sight in Shakespeare's works. Greenblatt highlights a point that I had not appreciated before: that Shakespeare lived in a world containing unprecedented new absolutist claims, an uncompromising Protestant extremist view of a universe governed by an absolute ruler where individual fates could no longer be affected by works, and "comparably extravagant claims" for the authority of a kingship "above the law" under a legal view fashioned by crown lawyers for the two monarchs during whose reign Shakespeare lived. (p. 2-3). Culturally, the prevalent norms were similarly abstract: faceless, featureless beauty and characterless morality. Through example after example, Greenblatt shows us a Shakespeare who rejected all of these ideologically driven ideals, finding beauty in "marked" women, and morality arising out of acts of individual courage and compassion. As to leadership, Shakespeare celebrates those individuals, including the peasants, who have the courage to make individual decisions to stand up to injustice from any source, and he refuses to adopt any grand schema because he sees that abstractions lead to hatred and immoral acts based on categorical thinking. The moral individual, Shakespeare is subtly telling us, is the one who "registers the social influences upon him" and who tries to counteract these influences and other propaganda, and who abandons any "fantasy of absolute ethical autonomy." Shakespeare suggests that the way out of his age of absolutes is to embrace "radical individuation" -- in other words, "the singularity of" each person (p. 6, 48), and to try to compassionately consider everyone as an individual. Read more ›
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brief, but with Penetrating Insights October 16, 2011
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I first became a fan of Professor Greenblatt when I read his wonderful look at the impact of changing religious beliefs on Shakespeare, Hamlet in Purgatory. This was followed by his equally wonderful biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World. Now we have a slim volume that takes a look at Shakespeare's breaking of conventions in his work. Despite its brevity, however, it is a piercing look at some fascinating topics.

Take, for example, his analysis of beauty in Shakespeare's works. Blemishes, wrinkles, birthmarks and scars were considered to mar beauty is Shakespeare's time, and the poetry and drama of the time often indicated that. And these disfigurements often indicated deeper flaws. Shakespeare used these conventions on occasion himself. On the other hand, he often noted these conventions, even as he turned them on their head. ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun... The sonnets glorify the "dark lady", Henry V encourages his soldiers to show their scars, and beautiful Innogen's mole all show Shakespeare to take a wider view.

Greenblatt also has a great discussion of the necessities of hatred and silence in his fresh analysis of Shylock and Iago. This is followed by, if anything, an even cleverer discussion of absolute authority which leads him to the idea of autonomy. The powerful in Shakespeare often claimed to be bound by legalisms and yet, would throw away the law by fiat, when it served. Thus creating an ethical dilemma for those that wield power that is difficult to resolve. This is linked to an author's ability to create his own world, and the dangers it entails.

All in all, this is a book filled with ideas, which is what I look for most in books about Shakespeare. Shakespeare runs so wide and deep that the is room for endless discussion and debate. Professor Greenblatt has added another series of sound arguments to the field.
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Shakespeare moves his best critics to making extreme statements of praise for him. As for Harold Bloom Shakespeare is the inventor of human self- consciousness so for Stephen Greenblatt Shakespeare is the subtle definer of his own special form of human freedom. Greenblatt explores four different realms in which this Freedom has its manifestation. The first is the realm of Beauty and he shows how defying the norms of perfection which mark out the sense of feminine beauty in his day Shakespeare gives his heroines moles and marks and scars which individuate their Beauty and give it new definition. In the moral realm too Greenblatt explores the subject of hatred and negation, and finds limits to freedom in this realm also. Greenblatt shows how Shakespeare in his own creative activity and his own search for Autonomy came to up against limits, even though he would no doubt consent to Borges' words of commendation 'Next to God Shakespeare created most' For surely in the freedom of his imagination, in his creation of character, in the unrivaled reach of his metaphorical poetry Shakespeare exemplified the free creator as no one else has. Yet this creator too comes against human limitation.

There is kind of Literary Criticism I have always loved reading because it seems to provide not only insight into Literature but wisdom about Life. This work rich in ambiguities and references at times outside my reading reach well exemplifies this kind of Criticism.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Greenblatt is cool December 30, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
He is a scholarly writer but not dry. He brings the old historical stuff to life. I long ago graduated from college and not with a Lit degree but I have always loved Shakespeare and wanted to explore his life and this book covers his milieu and other stuff. I like it.
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More About the Author

Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition, he is the author of nine books, including Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Practicing New Historicism; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, and Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. He has edited six collections of criticism, is the co-author (with Charles Mee) of a play, Cardenio, and is a founding coeditor of the journal Representations. He honors include the MLA's James Russell Lowell Prize, for Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

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