Richard Wilson: The Bard on Brexit

From The New European April 21-April 27 2017





Shakespeare scholar RICHARD WILSON says the Bard’s work is one long battle between Brexit and Remain. And his vision of ‘this sceptered isle’ is not necessarily what the Little Englanders would have you believe

Brexit Shaxedit

Shakespeare lovers love the spring, ‘the only pretty ring-time’, according to his best-loved song, when the Bard’s Birthday and St George’s Day fall boisterously together. But this April 23 there will be a louder ‘ding-a-ding ding’ than ever to the ‘hey-nonny-no’ in the ballad of the Brexiteers, who will be caroling how in ‘the present time’ their love of Will ‘is crownèd with the prime’ of the first spring of UK independence.

Already, the traditionalist quarterly This England has credited the joy that ‘The battle’s now won / Our day’s work is done,’ to the inspiration of Shakespeare’s poetry about ‘This sceptered isle’.

But in its next poetic breath this ‘unashamedly patriotic magazine for those who love our green and pleasant land’ is also resolved to ‘fight on’ under its Shakespearean banner: ‘Our enemy shall know fear / This battle cry to hear: / St George for England!

Since he issued directions in As You Like It that his lyrics about ‘the green cornfield’ and ‘the acres of the rye’ should be sung to ‘a tune like two gypsies on a horse’ – which sounds an apt cue for the pantomime of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson – it might, therefore, also be time to listen carefully to what the supposed Bard of Britain actually said about ‘This blessed plot, this realm, this England’.

John of Gaunt’s anthem to the ‘sceptered isle set in a silver sea’ contains some of the most quoted lines in English. But no one seems to clock how his words about ‘This fortress built by nature for herself / Against infection’ are uttered by an infected and dying man, whose wartime memories of his Dad’s Army marauding as far as Jerusalem are put down to ‘sickness and age’, nor that this Duke of Lancaster is named after his birth in the city of Ghent.

Gaunt by name and nature, Shakespeare’s most English Belgian is incriminated in the murder of his brother, which is why he confesses that this septic isle ‘that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself’. So, it soon emerges that nationalism is the infection it pretends to fight, in the autoimmune crisis that is Shakespeare’s take on the Wars of the Roses. Meanwhile, Gaunt’s last words to his son, as he sends him away from Fortress England, open a window onto a Europe of freedom and opportunity:

All places that the eye of heaven visits

Are to a wise man ports and happy havens…

Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honour.

Devouring pestilence hangs in our air

And thou art flying to a fresher clime…

Had I thy youth and cause, I would not stay.

To give up ‘thy world, enjoying but this land, / Is it not more than shame to shame it so?’ asks the xenophobes’ hero. Admitting how he would never live in such a self-defeating Little England if he were younger, UKIP’s favourite literary pensioner hurries his son off with a cruise-ship prospectus, claiming that on the other side of the Channel ‘the singing birds’ are all ‘musicians’, the ‘grass whereon thou tread’st’ is a carpet, ‘The flowers fair ladies, and thy steps no more / Than a delightful measure or a dance’.

Bolingbroke duly relocates to ‘Port Le Blanc, a bay in Brittany’. And in Richard II ‘The streaming ensign of the Christian cross’ – the flag of St George – is firmly nailed to the European mast, as the expats who fly it, like the Duke of Norfolk, ‘retire to Italy’, and give themselves over ‘to that pleasant country’s earth’.

There is a recurring story of continental migration here which does not fit the tub-thumping St George’s Day cult of England’s National Poet, but explains why so many of Shakespeare’s foreigner-bashing tirades are assigned to cornered and desperate tyrants, led by the monstrous Richard III:

  Remember whom you are to cope withal:

A sort of vagabonds, rascals and runaways,

A scum of Bretons and base lackey peasants,

Whom their o’ercloyed country vomits forth…

Let’s whip these stragglers o’er the seas again,

Lash hence these overweening rags of France,

These famished beggars, weary of their lives…

Fight, gentlemen of England! Fight, bold yeomen!

Draw, archers, draw your arrows to the head!

Advance our standards! Set upon our foes!

Our ancient word of courage, fair Saint George!

Shakespeare confounds the legend of England’s plucky yeomen archers by giving their battle cry of ‘God and Saint George’ to his most Machiavellian politician, Richard Crookback, as though such patriotism is truly the last refuge of a scoundrel, and the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ is all an act to ‘play the orator’.

Even Henry V’s D-Day ‘Cry “God for Harry, England and Saint George”’ is shamed by his war crimes at Agincourt, where he slits the French prisoners’ throats, ‘expressly against the law of arms’ (an episode omitted from Olivier’s film).

No wonder Falstaff prefers to booze ‘all night in the windmill in Saint George’s Field’. ‘Saint George that swinged the dragon, and ere since / Sits on his horseback at mine hostess’s door’, is best left to swing on a pub sign, according to the Bastard in King John.

It should be no surprise, then, that the most Churchillian rhetoric in Shakespeare is declaimed by the poisonous Queen in Cymbeline, whose defiance of her Roman conquerors is a satirical takeoff of Queen Elizabeth’s hyped-up triumph over the Spanish Armada a generation before:

 A kind of conquest

Caesar made here, but he was carried

From our coast, twice beaten, and his shipping,

Poor ignorant baubles, on our terrible seas

Like eggshells moved upon their surges, cracked

As easily ’gainst our rocks…

The Iron Lady’s exhortation to ‘Remember the natural bravery’ of Albion, with its white cliffs and ‘roaring waters, / With sands that will not bear your enemy’s boats, / But suck them up to the topmast’, is not only a wickedly camp send-up of the Virgin Queen at Tilbury, but Shakespeare’s parody of the nationalistic bombast that would later earn him glorification as the herald of the British Empire. His St George’s Day worshippers made the mistake of confusing the author with his characters.

And the Empire Loyalists overlooked a counter-intuitive yet crucial rule of Shakespearean drama, which is that whether the play is a comedy, history or tragedy, its resolution invariably comes from outside the homeland, when some Fortinbras, Richmond or Valentine breaks in with a ‘scum’ of émigrés or foreigners, to liberate an oppressed country that, as Malcolm reports of Macbeth’s dictatorship, ‘sinks beneath the yoke’. Far from being terrified of an invading Armada, as students are taught, Shakespeare’s rescue scenario in all these stories thus turns on the internationalism he gives to Imogen, the heroine who escapes the evil Queen of Cymbeline:

 Hath Britain all the sun that shines? Day, night,

Are they not but in Britain? I’th’world’s volume

Our Britain seems as of it but not in’t,

In a great pool a swan’s nest. Prithee, think

There’s livers out of Britain.

‘I am most glad / You think of other place’, Imogen’s servant responds, ‘The ambassador, Lucius the Roman, comes tomorrow’; and at the close Cymbeline does indeed announce that Britannia will rejoin ‘the Roman Empire, promising / To pay our wonted tribute, from which / We were dissuaded by our wicked Queen’. This turnaround flatters Elizabeth’s successor, King James, who was scheming to lead his new United Kingdom of Great Britain back into Catholic Europe, with a peacekeeping Treaty of Rome. Yet critics struggle to get their heads around the renegotiation on which this most ‘British’ work concludes, with its commitment to ‘Publish this peace… Set we forward, let / A Roman and a British ensign wave / Friendly together’.

That vision, of Britain’s Union Jack flying alongside the flag of some even greater European union, does not come easily to Shakespeare lovers who like to imagine that the man who wrote so much about ‘This England’ was destined to be born on St George’s Day. But this is because the Bard’s own Catholic history has been suppressed, and with it, the fact that Shakespearean theatre is one long battle between Brexit and Remain.

‘Mad world, mad kings’, is how the Bastard reports the first Brexit in King John, when to block European law in England, the hapless Lackland ‘willingly departs with a part’ of Europe itself. Shakespeare wrote this in the aftershock of the most seismic Brexit of all, Protestant England’s divorce from Catholic Europe, and he fuelled his plots with the violence of that split. So, no wonder he peopled his plays with Remainers like Gaunt, who complain how England is tied up in the ‘rotten parchment bonds’ of Protestant capitalism. The post-Reformation land these dramas depict is the reverse of the ‘Merry England’ of film and TV, since it is a country where, in the words of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Morris dancers’ village green is ‘filled with mud’, and ‘The human mortals want their winter cheer’ at Christmas, as ‘No night is now with hymn or carol blessed’.

Over and over on this stage, characters bemoan that April is in fact the cruelest month, reminding them at Easter how they ‘have seen better days, / And have with holy bell been knolled to church, / And sat at good men’s feasts’, before the war with Rome. Thus, Shakespeare’s austerity England is not at all as you like it, we are made to conclude. For always beneath his writing there runs a deep mourning for the lost Catholic continent, and grief at the ‘wasted building’ of the ‘ruinous monastery’, those ‘Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang’.

Though an Anglican clergyman recorded that ‘He died a papist’, all we can say of Shakespeare’s own religion is that ‘He must have struck contemporaries as a most unsatisfactory Protestant’, as historian Eamon Duffy puts it. Perhaps he spoke for himself when he had an actor admit in Reformation Denmark to being ‘reformed indifferently’. But it cannot be chance that he strings play after play around an identical oath of allegiance, in which some sovereign, like Lear, or seducer, such as Cleopatra, demands to know ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ or ‘If it be love, tell me how much?’ and a Cordelia objects ‘I cannot heave my heart into my mouth’, or an Antony: ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned’. So, it is certainly no accident that Shakespeare’s great mystery play concerns a student of Luther’s Wittenberg being called to remember his father’s Ghost from Saint Patrick’s Purgatory.

For whether or not his own father did sign a Jesuit Testament of Faith reportedly subscribed by him, when it was found in the Stratford Birthplace in 1757, Shakespeare’s repetition compulsion is the McCarthyite truth test written into the Elizabethan ‘Bloody Question’: ‘If there is an invasion, who will you support? The Pope or Queen?’ And his tragic existential choice is ‘the question’ put by Hamlet, of whether to suffer this ‘oppressor’s wrong’, or ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And, by opposing, end them’.

Shakespeare repeatedly begins plays with some coercive pledge to abandon the world and ‘enjoy but this land’, like the Puritan oath to ‘war against the huge army of the world’s desires’ sworn by the young fanatics at the start of Love’s Labour’s Lost. ‘Our late edict shall strongly stand in force’, these zealots insist, so that their country can become ‘the wonder of the world’ for the masochistic pain with which its hard Brexiteer is ‘mortified’, when ‘the world’s delights / He throws upon the gross world’s baser slaves’.

Clearly, this dramatist knew all about the populist self-harm his Biron scorns: ‘Which, with pain purchased, doth inherit pain… ’Tis won as towns with fire – so won, so lost… Why should I joy in an abortive birth?’ Shakespeare’s chief Remoaner campaigns for a second vote, arguing that ‘It is religion to be thus forsworn’. For time and again these works voice the second thoughts that come with the realization that ‘Necessity will make us all forsworn / Three thousand times within this three years’ space’. In the event, Love’s Labour’s Lost stalls in stalemate, on weary acceptance that the time is too short for these Regrexit Lords ‘To make a world-without-end bargain’ with their lost loves in Paris: ‘That’s too long for a play’. Shakespeare knew his own limits. But he never gave up the hope on which he ended As You Like It, of some grand European reunion:

First, in this forest let us do those ends

That here were well begun, and well begot.

And after, every one of this happy number

That hath endured shrewd days and nights with us

Shall share the measure of our returned fortune…

Where is the play’s Forest of Arden? Is it the Warwickshire Arden from which the poet was driven as a teenager, after poaching deer from the priest-hunter Sir Thomas Lucy, in what sounds like a religious riot? Shakespeare mocked such a surveillance society in Much Ado About Nothing. So, could his forest instead be the Ardennes of England’s Catholic exiles, where a First Folio was discovered in 2013, from the Jesuit college at St Omer, underlined for the boys to study how ‘our country weeps, it bleeds’.

When the outlawed Duke lectures his ‘brothers in exile’ on such ‘uses of adversity’, we do not know if he is in Arden or Ardennes, and that must be the point. ‘This England’ flips to ‘our fair France’ in Shakespeare’s imagination, as the countries become interchangeable. So, while the dramatist lived through dark times for those he termed, in Sonnet 124, ‘our fashion’ of co-religionists, in the same poem he spoke of being ‘hugely politic’. This must mean he was willing to wait for his happy endings to be realized, and for ‘These banished men’ to be ‘recalled’.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare would remain true to the sermon he gave Thomas More, in the only lines to survive in his own handwriting, where the Man for All Seasons confronts the Brexiteers, who imagine that they now ‘sit as kings in their desires’, on what their victory would really mean for ‘This England’:

  Authority quite silenced by your brawl

And you in ruff of your opinions clothed.

What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught

How insolence and strong hand should prevail,

How order should be quelled – and by this pattern

Not one of should live an aged man,

For other ruffians as their fancies wrought

With selfsame hand, self reasons, and self right,

Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes

Would feed on one another.

Richard Wilson is the Sir Peter Hall Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kingston University and the author of Worldly Shakespeare: The Theatre of Our Good Will

About kingstonshakespeareseminar

Kingston Shakespeare is the home of KiSS, and its offshoot KiSSiT. Both explore the world by thinking through Shakespeare.
This entry was posted in KiSS, News and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s