Wilson opened a lecture of original analysis, and delightful wit, by unpicking the seemingly ridiculous question, “did Shakespeare cause the fall of the Berlin Wall?” He emphasised the significant role of theatre and of productions of Shakespeare specifically, in the struggle for political freedoms. A remarkable instance of this was the production of Hamlet in which the ghost of Old Hamlet became Stalin and Fortinbras was a representative of Deutsche Bank. 

Just as, in this instance, Shakespeare may have played an important role as a symbol for changing the political status quo, this may too have been the case both in pre-Revolutionary France and in the 1930s. Voltaire’s play, the Battle of Hernani, a parodic homage to a Shakespeare that Voltaire had never actually read, was performed four months before the Bourbon monarchy was overthrown; Shakespeare was on the barricades. The 1934 performances of a loose translation of Coriolanus at the Comedie Francaise shows Shakespeare once again marched out and paraded on the political battle lines, this time as a cold-hearted authoritarian.

Wilson concluded by identifying the true quality of Shakespeare’s art as having sprung from an imagination that allowed humanity to be itself, and his ability to live with what Keats had termed Negative Capability, “…that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. He argued that no one could witness the murder of Desdemona or of Lady Macduff and her children or the humiliation of Timon and endorse Goethe’s view that Shakespeare sees evil as only the other side. In Shakespeare, “humanity is free to remain a chaotic mixture of good and evil”.  

Podcast: Shakespeare on the Road to Freedom (Full Lecture)

A transcript of the lecture will be available shortly


About the Speaker

A.N. Wilson is a prize-winning biographer and novelist who has written more than forty books. He has been the Literary Editor of both The Spectator and the Evening Standard.

About the Roads to Freedom Series

As part of The Culture of Prosperity programme, this series offers a progress report on the idea of freedom. The history of the developed west has been shaped by the increased degree of freedom exercised by individuals who have been able to escape the constraints that prevailed in the past. Contributors to this series will be drawing conclusions from the study of the past while also seeking to find ways of removing the obstacles to freedom’s progress.' The relationship between rights and duties, freedoms and responsibilities, provides Roads to Freedom with its central theme in 2016. More information is available here.


  • Shakespeare on the Road to Freedom, by Anita Marguerite-Butler, British Theatre Guide [View]