Shakespeare, neither simply English nor British


by Willy Maley and Margaret Tudeau-Clayton

Minds across the globe will automatically couple Shakespeare and England as they will Coca Cola and the USA. Yet it was with Britain that Shakespeare was first joined by another writer. The prefatory poem to the consecrating, expensive edition of the first folio of 1623 trumpets:  “Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show / To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.”

To opt for Britain rather than England at this point was a politically charged choice consciously made by the author, Ben Jonson, a self-appointed cultural sponsor of the union of the two crowns of England and Scotland, dynastically achieved with the accession of James in 1603, but politically and legally established only a century later. Britain and England were not the more or less interchangeable terms they would subsequently become, but rather competing banners in a struggle that threatened the elision of English identity under the name of Britain, as in Jonson’s triumphant appropriation of Shakespeare.

Once they became alternative names, under the uneasy regime of the Anglo-British coalition, Shakespeare could be claimed, as he was in the monumentalising tercentenary tome Shakespeare’s England (1916), as at once “English to the core” and legitimising prophet of the “world-wide greatness” of Great Britain’s rule, although it was for ‘England’ that he was more often recruited.

Now that the Anglo-British coalition is strained to breaking point we might usefully return to that original, formative moment and Shakespeare’s place in it. For Shakespeare’s writing career straddles, and reflects on, a turbulent period of transition from an England under the sign of Rome — dismantled by Henry VIII in 1534 — to an England under the sign of Britain — willed by James I in 1603 but politically and legally achieved only in 1707. There was, thus, a brief period of independence for England during which it became an object of an intense quest for self-understanding and self-definition, in the work of Shakespeare, his immediate predecessors and contemporaries.

Indeed, contrary to what the entrenched association with England might suggest, Shakespeare appears to have been less obsessed with this quest than others. He does not for instance join Ben Jonson or Thomas Middleton in locating most of his plays in England (especially London). Apart from the histories, they are more often than not located outside England, usually in Europe (a feature tellingly occluded by the BBC’s relocation of the comedies to England in the 2005 series Shakespeare Retold).

Moreover, if there are memorable and lovable English characters — Bottom and his fellow artisans come to mind — Shakespeare’s vignettes of the English are not flattering: in The Merchant of Venice Baron Falconbridge is a monolingual ‘dumb show’, dressed up in a ridiculous ensemble of foreign fashions with nowhere to go; in Hamlet the English are accounted as mad as the eponymous hero; in Othello they are ironically eulogised as Europe’s drinking champions; and in The Tempest, they are, again ironically, portrayed as uncharitable consumers of exhibits of exotic, preferably dead, ‘others’.

The one comedy located in England, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is undoubtedly concerned with the character of England and the English. But if it includes a celebration of an inclusive, heterogeneous community, there is also exposure of the exclusions and internal divisions generated by a narrow class-inflected ideology of the English — epitomised in the emergent, protestant, bourgeois aspiration to a normative linguistic ‘King’s English’, which Shakespeare evokes here only to subject it to ironic interrogation. 

Through its location and characters, this comedy is linked to the second tetralogy of history plays, which similarly introduce only to question speeches on the character of England and the English. Most well known of these is John of Gaunt’s speech in praise of England as “this sceptered isle” in Richard II. Regularly assumed to represent Shakespeare’s patriotic voice, Gaunt’s beleaguered island imagery has been used for well over a hundred years to perpetuate a conservative, insular, even xenophobic, class- as well as region-inflected vision, or version of England. In effect, this is England as white, southern and middle class — a vision peddled by a heritage tourist industry centred on Stratford (which sells itself as the ‘heart’ of England) and cultivated by the political right.

In the play itself, however, the speech is clearly shown — like the discourses on the character of the English and the history of England that it evokes — to serve to authorise an opposition which is itself opposed within the play, notably by a speech which points to the horrors of the internecine strife of “kin with kin” “house against….house” generated by such visions of the nation. The passage may be taken not only to evoke the violence produced by the dynastic divisions of 15th century England, but also to warn of the coming Civil War to which the developing stand-off between the houses of Commons and Lords tended:

                                                                  let me prophesy
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act,
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace, tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound.
Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be called
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.
Oh, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursèd earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child’s children, cry against you, “Woe!”

Far from representing Shakespeare’s patriotic voice, Richard II demonstrates how his plays do not seek to create or reproduce a myth of England so much as to lay out and examine the conflicting formations of England and Englishness. In this they achieve what is the last and the least commonplace among the purposes of theatre announced by Hamlet: “to show… the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. 

This might be glossed: to show the structuring forces that inform the present, from which Shakespeare exercises what critics call ‘internal distantiation’. To take another instance, in the earlier King John, the name of England occurs more often than in any other play, but this does not denote mere celebration. Rather the play shows an England in search of itself while threatened with implosion by its expansionist aspirations in France and Ireland, problematically intertwined and sceptically depicted here, as in all the histories. 

From a divided England in King John the focus shifts, with the times, after the accession of James in 1603, to a Britain divided, as in King Lear. As with England so with Britain: less directly in Pericles, more directly in his most overtly ‘British’ play Cymbeline, Shakespeare explores and exposes the conditions of multi-nationhood.  Yet England is not forgotten, far from it. The last play in which Shakespeare had a hand — Henry VIII — significantly returns to the moment which saw the birth of the once future-now-past queen and an England to which she would declare herself wedded. The play, that is, stages a return to a defining moment in the past for an England faced in its pre-British present with an imperative to reconfigure itself. It is an imperative that today finds an echo in the quest for a post-British England. 

Shakespeare, then, might best be taken as neither British nor English, but rather as a fellow-traveller in the collective project of a new self-understanding. Certainly his relationship to Britain as well as England needs to be prised from the grip of the banalities of the tourist industry and the heritage trail as we approach the quartercentenary of his death in 2016. We should not allow Shakespeare’s work to be press-ganged into supporting the kind of patriotism he boldly examined and subtly probed. Shakespeare’s relation to nation and empire, to England, Britain and Europe, is more complex and more compelling than such appropriations allow. 

Piece originally published at Our Kingdom |

About the Authors:

Willy Maley is Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Glasgow and Margaret Tudeau-Clayton is a professeure ordinaire at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. This article was drawn from a paper given to the Warwick conference on Literature of Independent England.