(from a speech made to Dorset and later to Wokingham Conservatives)
This week we celebrate England’s greatest writer. 400 years ago he died after a phenomenal written output. He towers over the world literary stage four hundred years after his death. A replica of his theatre has risen on the South Bank where it stood in his time. He is a world brand, a commercial phenomenon, the inspiration for many operas, novels and other works. For many versed in English literature his characters are part of their network of personalities, helping readers to understand human nature better. Many remember Hamlet’s agonies over whether and how to avenge his father’s death.
1.Hamlet – Act 3, Scene 1
To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life; For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin?
Shakespeare’s genius lies in his ability to capture the timeless in human nature. His characters are immortal, though rooted in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. We have all met modern examples of the decency of Cordelia, Lear’s one honest but loving daughter. We have encountered the evil of Lady Macbeth, who thought any criminal means were justified by the pursuit of power. We have admired others with the bravery of Henry V. We have witnessed some with the factional strength of Bolingbroke, besotted by the ambition to become King. How many have we met, with the pretensions of Falstaff to be greater and more influential than he was? Whilst Malvolio’s puritanism and dress style are of the sixteenth century his pomposity and absurdity is timeless. They are at one and the same time of their age and of every age.
Shakespeare was rooted in England. He was both countryman, living in rural Stratford, and Londoner, living in the melee of the busy and fast growing Elizabethan metropolis. He knew his flora and his fauna, and writes intricately of the seasons, the weather and the harvests. He observed minutely the mores and opinions of the many and varied people that traded, landed and lived in the capital. He wrote of their divergent religions, values, embassies and business. Today some feminists find The Taming of the Shrew difficult to accept, and some think the Merchant of Venice too harsh. If we look more closely Shakespeare’s women often argue back, manipulate their men or have authority and power in their own right, whilst we are reminded forcefully in The Merchant that Jews and Christians share a common humanity and are of the same flesh and blood.
Tonight I want to celebrate both Shakespeare’s stunning achievement as poet and dramatist, and explore his vision and love of England. It is fitting that his birthday, the date of his death and St George’s day all fall around the same day in April, allowing us to commemorate both our country and its greatest writer at the same time.
Shakespeare’s England is written into all the plays, whether they are ostensibly set at home or usually in some more exotic location. The Merry Wives of Windsor shows a light hearted mocking reverence for the emerging middle class of contemporary England. Decent Mr Page and Mr Ford represent the comfortable men of some property and business that flourished as England grew more prosperous. We first meet Mr Page talking of eating venison and discussing his greyhounds. Their wives are to outwit the drunken and lewd Sir John Falstaff, who seeks to use his attachment to the court and his knighthood to win illicit favours of moral matrons. The Forest of Arden features in the plot of As You like it, woodlands well known to the author close to the haunts of his Stratford family. When we hear description of the grassy banks and leafy glades in Midsummer Night’s Dream it could as well be set in the rural England Shakespeare loved. Even when Shakespeare wishes to conjure an unkind weather and landscape to reflect the jealousy of the spirits, the English countryside shines through:
1A. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act 2, Scene 1
TITANIA Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea Contagious fogs; which falling in the land Have every pelting river made so proud That they have overborne their continents: The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain, The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard; The fold stands empty in the drowned field, And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud, And the quaint mazes in the wanton green For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here; No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
He is often kindly disposed to the beauties of the nature he was used to here at home. He portrays sylvan innocence and plenty in his comedies, contrasting shepherds and country folk, with people from the court. His rural settings have poor people with food to eat and gainful employment alongside the rich and powerful. His portraits of working men capture the variety of Elizabethan society. The mechanics in Midsummer Night’s Dream number a carpenter, weaver, bellows mender, tinker, tailor and joiner. Elsewhere we meet lawyers and constables, justices and soldiers, treated with satire in mind. Whilst he makes fun of many of them and gives them impediments of speech and understanding, there is often a loving tolerance of their foibles. Falstaff’s little army of Pym, Bardolph and Pistol offers a cynical contrast to the fine virtues many of Henry V’s soldiers display, versed as they are in petty crime and out to avoid personal danger.
The personality of Bottom, ever eager to please and never shy about his own capacities, comes out well as he awakes from his dream and tries to work out how his foray into fairy land had happened:
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Act 4
When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer. My next is “Most fair Pyramus.” Heigh-ho! Peter Quince? Flute the bellows-mender? Snout the tinker? Starveling? God’s my life, stol’n hence, and left me asleep? I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom. And I will sing it in the latter end of a play before the duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.
Perhaps the best known and most inciteful of all the pieces by Shakespeare’s fools comes in Jacques Seven ages of man:
- All the world’s a stage
(From As You Like It Act II Scene VII)
Jaques to Duke Senior
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Between the court and the rest lies the clowns and jesters. Just as today some of the brightest choose to be acerbic media commentators or scurrilous sketch writers, claiming to offer a mirror of truth to power, so in Shakespeare’s time the great and mighty licensed fools to tease and challenge them. The Fools from Lear’s to Costard, from Jacques to the players put up to the role in Hamlet are there to provide a moral commentary and to help the audience understand the choices before the powerful. They are a crucial part of Englishness. England as a country has a long tradition of scatological and irreverent commentary on those who practise government and the law. An anti-clerical country, we have a natural scepticism about those who claim superior wisdom, who claim the right to govern, and those who seek to preserve mysteries beyond the artisan’s understanding. The Fools stand up for the underdogs, ever popular in the English tradition of self-deprecation.
So what was this England that Shakespeare so stroked with magical words? It was a country at peace for a century after being riven by bloody civil wars. It was a country beginning a most extraordinary flowering, as a maritime and trading country, as a centre of great music, drama and poetry, as a power in Europe that could stand up to the superpower of Catholic Spain and work with the Netherlands and the other Protestant forces. England was growing together, was becoming more prosperous. It was a land with more brick homes and more chimneys, more hearths and better food, more trade and more exotic products, more ships and more sheep, more cloth and more technology. London was bursting out, with a population above 200,000.
Shakespeare’s history plays have but one enduring hero, England.
Henry V Act 2 Prologue, Chorus – “Now all the youth of England are on fire”
Now all the youth of England are on fire, And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies: Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought Reigns solely in the breast of every man: They sell the pasture now to buy the horse, Following the mirror of all Christian kings, With winged heels, as English Mercuries. For now sits Expectation in the air, And hides a sword from hilts unto the point With crowns imperial, crowns and coronets, Promised to Harry and his followers. The French, advised by good intelligence Of this most dreadful preparation, Shake in their fear and with pale policy Seek to divert the English purposes. O England! model to thy inward greatness, Like little body with a mighty heart, What mightst thou do, that honour would thee do, Were all thy children kind and natural!
The plays chart the troubles and dramas which disfigure the body politic, interrupt prosperous commerce and at times overturn the natural order. The plays set bastard against legitimate heir, strong man against weak monarch, faction against faction, north against south, England against France, even father against son. Despite all this England shines through, greater than any King, always present. The plays point crookedly towards a better future. For Shakespeare the histories culminate in an England at peace under a mighty and much loved monarch Elizabeth I. Such is her achievement that the kingdom can pass without dispute to James of Scotland. Shakespeare himself can praise the new King whilst questioning his old kingdom in the dark and very frank account of Scottish politics in Macbeth.
Not only do I dwell on the history plays because they are about England. I also draw most from Henry V. The stirring speech of Henry before Harfleur conjures up proud memories of military England.
Henry V Act 3, Scene 1: The Life of King Henry the Fifth
SCENE I. France. Before Harfleur.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead. In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage; Then lend the eye a terrible aspect; Let pry through the portage of the head Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it As fearfully as doth a galled rock O’erhang and jutty his confounded base, Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean. Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit To his full height. On, on, you noblest English. Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof! Fathers that, like so many Alexanders, Have in these parts from morn till even fought And sheathed their swords for lack of argument: Dishonour not your mothers; now attest That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you. Be copy now to men of grosser blood, And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman, Whose limbs were made in England, show us here The mettle of your pasture; let us swear That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not; For there is none of you so mean and base, That hath not noble lustre in your eyes. I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
Henry V is the nearest we reach to Shakespeare’s vision of ideal kingship. Trained partly in the taverns of Eastcheap, influenced but not ruined by Falstaff and the drinking boys, as a King Henry has the common touch alongside the royal virtues of bravery and moral purpose. Under him England begins to live up to Shakespeare’s expectations as an important power. Shakespeare never wrote a play expressly about the achievement of Elizabeth. The speech from his Henry VIII points to the crowning glory of England’s achievements under the great Queen and has to suffice.
Henry VIII Act V, Scene V speech on the birth of Elizabeth “This royal infant….”
SCENE V. The palace.
Let me speak, sir, For heaven now bids me; and the words I utter Let none think flattery, for they’ll find ’em truth. This royal infant–heaven still move about her!– Though in her cradle, yet now promises Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings, Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be– But few now living can behold that goodness– A pattern to all princes living with her, And all that shall succeed: Saba was never More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces, That mould up such a mighty piece as this is, With all the virtues that attend the good, Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her, Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her: She shall be loved and fear’d: her own shall bless her; Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn, And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her: In her days every man shall eat in safety, Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours: God shall be truly known; and those about her From her shall read the perfect ways of honour, And by those claim their greatness, not by blood. Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix, Her ashes new create another heir.
I end with John of Gaunt’s even more famous romance of our country. It is sadly coupled to his lament about what a bad king had once done to it, and with laced with premonitions of his own death. England emerges as the true hero, bruised and battered by bad politicians. We take comfort from knowing that England will recover as the bad Kings and nobles lose their grip on power and then on life itself.
Richard II Act II, Scene I, John of Gaunt “This royal throne of kings, this sceptre isle….”
JOHN OF GAUNT
Methinks I am a prophet new inspired And thus expiring do foretell of him: His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last, For violent fires soon burn out themselves; Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short; He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes; With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder: Light vanity, insatiate cormorant, Consuming means, soon preys upon itself. This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands, This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England, This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings, Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth, Renowned for their deeds as far from home, For Christian service and true chivalry, As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry, Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son, This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land, Dear for her reputation through the world, Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it, Like to a tenement or pelting farm: England, bound in with the triumphant sea Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame, With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds: That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself. Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life, How happy then were my ensuing death
Conclusion – England, the once and future country. Devolution for England – John Redwood.