Ewan Fernie. Shame in Shakespeare. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. xii+274 pp. ISBN 0 41 525827 8 (Cloth) 0 41 525828 6 (Paper).
Jerry Brotton
Royal Holloway, University of London

Brotton, Jerry. "Review of Ewan Fernie, Shame in Shakespeare." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.1 (May, 2002): 7.1-3 <URL:

  1. This is a splendidly old-fashioned book that effortlessly manages to move from Levinas to F.R. Leavis in offering a passionate argument that Shakespeare, and in particular his tragedies, are good for us, and that they offer a vision of redemption that emerges from a dramatisation of the main topic of Fernie's absorbing study - shame. Shame in Shakespeare is as much a philosophical study of the emotion as a critical account of its manifestation in the work of Shakespeare. Fernie begins by outlining the anthropological and religious dimension of shame, arguing that it is "among the most intense and painful of our human passions", but that Shakespeare's "obsession" with the emotion lies in the fact that "Although it can inhabit, constrain and even destroy a person, it can also cause them to reform and begin a new life" (1).

  2. For a first book, the range and breadth of Fernie's literary and historical grasp of his topic is deeply impressive, ranging from Plato to Salman Rushdie. Through a detailed exploration of the classical literary dimensions of shame, Fernie perceives "a marked increase of shame between the medieval and Renaissance periods" (24), as "Christianity reconceived shame as a positive experience" (30). His argument rests on a heavily revised vision of the Renaissance as the moment of the emergence of modern self-awareness, although, as Fernie points out, the first book-length study of shame, Annibale Pocaterra's Due dialogi della vergogna, first appeared in Ferrara in 1592 (47). Fernie is at his best in a series of carefully argued and exhaustively referenced close readings of Shakespeare's plays, from a general chapter on early plays (Henry VI to Measure for Measure), to chapters devoted to Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and finally Antony and Cleopatra alongside Coriolanus. In the early plays, Fernie detects a growing fascination with the ways in which "shame in Shakespeare devastates selfhood" (78) in figures as diverse as Troilus, Richard II, Lucrece. Fernie then explores the complexities of the character of Angelo. He argues that when Angelo "takes his shame upon himself, he becomes an existential hero, and this resonates profoundly with the strange exaltation in humiliation" (108) that defines the redemptive shame which Fernie identifies at the heart of Shakespearean tragedy.
  3. For Fernie, tragedy "is the most especially shameful genre, and one which offers epistemological and ethical uses of shame" (225). Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Antony and Coriolanus are subsequently all recuperated as abject heroes whose tragic fall "works against the illusion and the tyranny of the self" (225), pointing towards the possibility of a Levinasian sense of community and respect for the other. In this regard, Fernie cleverly marries his admiration for the likes of A.C. Bradley and L.C. Knights with the more modish ethical philosophy of Derrida and Levinas. This is a brave attempt to reinvest tragic catharsis and aesthetic affect with a politics of community, and despite the occasional drift into a Christian idealism, the argument is passionate and substantial. The result is often fresh and revelatory readings of the tragedies. Fernie argues that "'O shame, where is thy blush?' is a question that Hamlet asks in the world of the play, but Hamlet asks in the world of its audience" (132), and that "it is shame, not jealousy, that is the signal and unifying passion of Othello" (137). Both these arguments assist Fernie to offer compelling accounts of Hamlet's inaction and Iago's murderous motivation. The chapters on Lear and Antony and Cleopatra are less convincing, the former partly due to the weight of humanist, redemptive criticism that bears down on the play, and the latter because more is required to explain the complex clash of Roman and Elizabethan perceptions of shame. Fernie is also too quick to accept the "shameful" rhetoric surrounding assumptions about race, gender and sexual orientation, especially in his discussion of Othello, but overall Shame in Shakespeare is a passionate, controversial book that will spare many of our blushes when trying to justify the importance of Shakespearean tragedy to students.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).