Paul Yachnin is Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at McGill University and Director of the Early Modern Conversions Project. Among his publications are the books, Stage-Wrights and The Culture of Playgoing in Early Modern England, editions of Richard II and The Tempest; and six edited books, including Making Publics in Early Modern Europe and Forms of Association. His latest book, Making Publics in Shakespeare’s Playhouse, is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press. His ideas about the social life of art were featured on the CBC Radio IDEAS series, “The Origins of the Modern Public.” A recent area of interest is higher education policy, with publications in Policy Options, University Affairs, and Humanities, and projects, including the TRaCE Project, which is a collaboration of 24 Canadian universities.
In this talk, Paul Yachnin tells the story of how Shakespeare created a new kind of theatre able to give commoners the freedom to debate and judge matters usually left in the hands of the social elite. The story is not, however, about the untrammeled freedom of theatrical art. It is about how the theatre of freedom was born in one of the most unfree ages in history—an age that began with the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula and the forced conversion of Spanish Muslims and Jews and that played out across Europe and England in a century of state-sponsored forced conversions of whole populations, including Shakespeare’s family and friends. How was Shakespeare able to create a theatre of freedom under such dire conditions? The answer lies in the capacity of Shakespeare’s playful art to repurpose conversion itself—from his stories of the “shrew” Katherina in one of his first plays to the “servant monster” Caliban in his last single-authored work.