Magazine article The Spectator

How Shakespeare Can Save Britain

Magazine article The Spectator

How Shakespeare Can Save Britain

Article excerpt

Shakespeare defined our united national culture - and now he can help save it

Credit: Daniel Hannan

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'What country, friends, is this?' We've been wrestling with Viola's question almost from the moment she asked it. It was barely a year after Shakespeare had scribbled out those words, in the first Act of Twelfth Night , that James VI of Scotland inherited England's throne, beginning a 400-year confusion over national identity that has led to the present referendum on partition.

The new monarch wanted to amalgamate his two realms. In his first address to the House of Commons, James asked -- in his noticeably Scottish accent -- 'Hath not God first united these kingdoms, both in language and religion and similitude of manners? Hath He not made us all in one island, compassed by one sea?' The border, the king declared, had always been artificial, and had now disappeared. Shakespeare, whom the king sponsored, seems to have agreed. None of the characters in Macbeth , the world's most famous Scottish play, spouts Scottishisms. The bard, like his patron, was more struck by the similarities between the two nations than by the differences.

People sometimes imagine that England swallowed up its smaller neighbour, but contemporary accounts tell a very different story. While Scots saw opportunities in their sovereign's new dominion, many Englishmen felt almost as though they were being invaded. Landless Scottish lairds, they complained, were swarming south with their sovereign, snapping up titles and sinecures. While English MPs couldn't stop James rewarding his favourites, they could deny him the title he craved: 'King of Great Britain'.

But as he observed, the Union of Crowns was not the takeover of one country by another -- but the fusion of a people already bound together by language, idioms, ideals and a worldview. It is a point that today's unionists make far too little as they try to save the country. They attempt to confront the nationalists by talking about cash, oil and EU membership. But there is a more obvious case for the Union -- that because of our shared language and heritage we have the same outlook. And in both countries, the biggest single cultural debt is owed to man whose 450th anniversary we are about to celebrate.

Patriots began appropriating Shakespeare almost as soon as he died. Tellingly, however, he was not seen only as an English totem. In the first collection of his works, published in 1623, his contemporary Ben Jonson made a famous dedication, which opened with the following couplet:

Triumph, my Britaine, thou hast one to showe,

To whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe.

It's true that Shakespeare lived and died as an Englishman: the 'Britaine' of which Jonson wrote would be only a geographical expression for another 80 years. And it's natural, given the way he towers over other writers, that the English should be proud of him. The date by custom given for both his birth and his death is 23 April, St George's day.

Some Scots, equally naturally, react by asserting a separate literary tradition: their 'Bard' is Burns. The rivalry is an old one. The first performance of a work by John Home in Edinburgh in 1756 is now mainly remembered for the cry it elicited from the rapturous audience: 'Whaur's yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?' Even then, however, Shakespeare was appreciated on both sides of the border. A year earlier, the Scottish publishers Hamilton & Balfour didn't include Shakespeare in their Select Collection of English Plays , since 'The Works of this Author are presumed to be in every Body's Hands.'

Shakespeare's relationship with England, like most things about him, defies categorisation. He set many more plays in Europe than in the British Isles, and the references to Englishmen in those plays are often slighting. They get a glancing mention in Hamlet as madmen, for example, and another in Othello as drunks. …

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