September 2016        

Fear not Shakespeare’s tragedies

Thomas Metscher

Jenny Farrell, Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Comprehensive Introduction, Nuascéalta (2016).

Aimed at all who would like to fully appreciate Shakespeare, this lucid and highly readable book is a fresh and illuminating analysis of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.
     More than a mere introduction, Jenny Farrell’s Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies courageously and intelligently bucks fashionable trends with a determination to provide a comprehensive guide for all who wish to understand Shakespeare for pleasure, study, cinema, theatre, even opera.
     Central to the interpretation of each text is a close reading, setting the plays in their historical context. The first chapter explains this context: the early modern period as a time of momentous change, the beginnings of bourgeois society, the Renaissance and Tudor absolutism as the epoch from which Shakespearean theatre originates.
     This brief outline leads to Shakespeare’s life, about which much has been written but little is really known.
     At the heart of this book are the readings of the four plays. The author follows a simple but clear pattern: plot, characters, themes, dramatic devices, the ending, and the question of tragic content. This method makes for more than an introduction. Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies does what few books now do: by reading the play closely she deduces the meaning from the text itself.
     The strength of this approach is that it unlocks the crucial content underlying these tragedies, that which gives rise to their conflicts, from the texts themselves—the very thing that is missed by most mainstream academic research.
      Jenny Farrell does not, as is often the case, approach the text with a preconceived thesis to be illustrated but is guided by the conflicts developed in the tragedies. These are, according to her convincing interpretation, the expression of a fundamental collision of conflicting historical and ethical forces that emerged after the collapse of the mediaeval world and the rise of the early bourgeoisie.
     On the one hand there arises a self-liberating humanity whose values are peace, justice, the welfare of all, ultimately the idea of human equality. On the other, the instinct for domination and submission appears, leading in the final analysis to the plundering of our planet. Farrell describes these conflicting forces—taking the terms from Shakespeare’s time—as humanism and Machiavellianism. “Humanism” is used in the sense of Erasmus and Thomas More, “Machiavellianism” after Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, a famous breviary on the gaining and retaining of power.
     The third force involved in the basic constellation is the representatives of the old order, the mediaeval-feudal world.
     The fourth player in this overall constellation is the plebeian element, the working people, who are given a voice for the first time in Hamlet’s gravediggers. Humanists, Machiavellians and at times the old feudal nobility come into conflict in the plots of the four tragedies. The tragedies bear out the clash of these forces in a variety and diversity that is peerless in world drama.
     In a short and highly concentrated conclusion, an overall interpretation is offered, highlighting the utmost relevance of Shakespeare’s tragedies in our own time.
     This book is available from Connolly Books as well as from as either a paperback or an e-book.

■ A fuller version of this review, “Entschieden gegen den Strom,” was published in Unsere Zeit (Essen), 1 July 2016.

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