26 December 2016

How like a god: Shakespeare and the invention of the world


Over the Christmas week, CapX is republishing its favourite pieces from the past year. You can find the full list here.

“I have not a shadow of a doubt that William Shakespeare would have voted to remain,” writes Chris Bryant, in a piece of sustained click-bait.

The Euro-fanatical Labour MP was aiming to needle, and he succeeded magnificently. As the poet himself said, “he did provoke me with language that would make me spurn the sea, if it could so roar to me.”

In support of his claim that Shakespeare was a Europhile avant la lettre, Chris cites that “late, lumbering play Cymbeline“, which ends when “the English King agrees to pay tribute to the Roman Emperor”.

Actually, Cymbeline is one of the rare Shakespeare plays which is not about England but about Britain – which, of course, did not exist as a political entity in the author’s time. None the less, Shakespeare has his ancient Britons anticipate modern attitudes with uncanny aptness:

Britain is
A world by itself; and we will nothing pay
For wearing our own noses.

Chris then trolls us with a few more misreadings (the Volscians weren’t Coriolanus’s “own people”, Chris: that’s rather the point) before, with vast chutzpah, trying to conscript John of Gaunt’s dying speech to his cause, arguing that it “ends with the words ‘this England … is now leased out … like to a tenement or pelting farm’.”

Hmm. Let’s recall the full version, bearing in mind that our country’s present subordination before the EU is the result of the inky blots of the Treaty of Rome:

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.

Eerily apposite, no? Was Shakespeare, then, a Eurosceptic? Of course not. If you try to claim him for any contemporary cause, you diminish rather than elevating that cause.

Shakespeare will always argue both sides of a case better than you can. It’s part of his inexhaustible fecundity, his limitless ambiguity, what Keats called his “negative capability”.

The truly magical quality of Shakespeare’s plays is that, as Harold Bloom once put it, whatever experiences we bring to them, they illuminate our experiences more than our experiences illuminate the plays. Whenever we read his words, they seem narrowly aimed at our circumstances. The same passage can speak to us in opposite ways at different moments in our lives.

How this sorcery works I shall probably never understand; but, if you’re familiar with the canon, you’ll know what I mean.

So, on one level, I can see why Chris claims Shakespeare as a Europhile. In much the same way, G.K. Chesterton was convinced that he was a devout Catholic. Goethe saw him as a kind of spiritual German who had accidentally been born in the wrong place.

Maya Angelou, encountering Shakespeare for the first time at school, was “convinced that he was a little black girl”, and the conviction deepened when she came across Sonnet 29:

I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope…

“Of course he wrote it for me,” she explained. “Of course he was a black woman. I understand that. Nobody else understands it, but I know that William Shakespeare was a black woman.”

We sometimes write too loosely of people having “divine inspiration” or “divine genius”. But Shakespeare created worlds and souls in a manner that makes lesser metaphors seem inadequate.

In a short essay, Jorge Luis Borges imagined Shakespeare meeting his Maker after death, and being told, “I dreamed the world as you dreamed your plays, my dear Shakespeare.”

If even God recognises Shakespeare as an equal, it is hardly surprising that the rest of us should see something ourselves in him.

Today, exactly 400 years after the date that, with some uncertainty, we assign to his death, Shakespeare is claimed by every faction. To Tories he is a Tory, to radicals a radical, to monarchists a monarchist, to Europeans a European.

And, in a sense, they’re all right. Or rather, as T.S. Eliot put it, “the most anyone can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way”.

Of only one thing am I absolutely certain: not a day passes without my being grateful that the most complete intellect evolved by our species speaks to me in my own language.

A time will come when our nation wanes, and all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre. But, as long as English is spoken, and Shakespeare’s canon is preserved, we shall never be just another country.

Daniel Hannan is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament and blogs at www.hannan.co.uk. This article originally appeared in April 2016.