Not Saussure

October 1, 2006

Shakespeare Day? Reid ‘just doesn’t get it’

Filed under: Community, England, Foreigners, UK — notsaussure @ 11:33 am

The Telegraph reports that

Senior Cabinet ministers are backing a campaign to create a National Shakespeare Day, to celebrate the life and work of the playwright.

William Shakespeare’s birthday could become an annual celebration

Under the plans, the commemoration of the Bard would be held on April 23, the commonly accepted day of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 and the day he died in 1616, and the date on which St George, the patron saint of England, is celebrated.

John Reid, the Home Secretary, and Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, have both lent strong support to the idea and hope the celebrations would develop into an English version of Burns Night, when Scottish revellers mark the anniversary of their national poet.

Scots-born Mr Reid has told colleagues that while his fellow countrymen have Burns Night – normally held on or around the poet’s birthday on January 25 – he “cannot understand” why there is no English equivalent on April 23. He has indicated that he would strongly support a Shakespeare Day to celebrate “England’s greatest playwright”.

Last night, Miss Jowell told The Sunday Telegraph: “As a huge fan of Burns Night celebrations myself, I think this is a really interesting idea and certainly well worth exploring.

I fear no good will come of this.

This isn’t just because of a not ill-founded suspicion that anything our senior cabinet ministers think is a good idea, probably isn’t, though that should be enough to raise suspicions. We certainly could have fun with thinking of appropriate Shakespearean references to go with some of the cabinet; I’d often like to ask Patricia Hewett, for example, when she worries about binge drinking and our diets, ‘Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’. Then, of course, dear Dr Reid himself would doubtless be rushing around Southwark and Gads Hill, clapping ASBOs on Prince Hal, Falstaff and the rest of the gang, and shouting

‘the laws of England are at my commandment. Blessed are they that have been my friends; and woe to my lord chief justice! ‘

when anyone tried to object.

It’s the thought that because ministers think we ought to have such a celebration, they’ll kindly provide one for us that fills me with forebodings. The clue should be in the fact John Reid ‘cannot understand’ why we don’t have such a festivity; well, I’ve never known anyone to suggest we should have one. I’ve never been able to understand why Scotsmen make such a big thing of Burns Night (apart from any excuse for a party, which is fair enough but I don’t need the government to organise one for me), other than that they feel the need to assert their Scottishness every now and again in the face of English cultural hegemony.

They obviously make a big thing of Shakespeare’s birthday in Stratford-upon-Avon, not far from where I live, and very enjoyable it is, too. But the RSC and the local council didn’t wait for HMG to tell them they ought to have hold such a festival; they went ahead years ago and got on with it. We’ve had an all-too-recent example of what happens when Government takes it into its head to organise some ‘fun’ for us; that was a flop, and the Millennium was something that people were obviously going to want to celebrate. This just seems a totally artificial idea.

We get part of a clue later on in the story; it looks like it’s going to be a sort of ‘not really St George’s Day’ (for which there is some demand) rather than anything particularly to do with Shakespeare:

One possible feature of a National Shakespeare Day could be ox roasts at venues around the country – taking their cue from the haggis-based celebrations on Burns Night.

There could also be special performances of Shakespeare’s plays as well as public readings of excerpts from his drama and poems. He was, after all, the playwright whose Henry V includes the rallying “Cry God for Harry, England and St George”. Schools could be encouraged to play a leading role in the celebrations.

Previous campaigns to make St George’s Day a national holiday in England – including one led by Andrew Rossindell, the Tory MP for Romford – have failed, partly because of fears that the day would be hijacked by the far-Right. Business leaders have warned that an extra bank holiday every year could cost the country billions of pounds.

Ox-roasts are all very well — provided you can find someone who knows how to roast an ox, of course; I have an idea you’re best advised to hire the Army Catering Corps to help you (quite seriously). But, while they’re all very well as an icon of Englishness, they’re not the first that springs to mind when I think of Shakespeare. I’m all in favour of celebrating St George’s Day, if that’s what people want to do (and there’s nothing to stop people from going ahead and so doing, is there?), but if that’s what you want to do, then celebrate it; don’t faff around celebrating an ersatz version because you’re worried the BNP might try to hijack it.

Shakespeare deserves better than being treated as a sort of cultural prophylactic against undesirable elements, with having to listen to a sort of Classic FM medley of some of his famous bits as the price for the ox-roast and beer afterwards.

He’s far more complex than that. As the Telegraph editorial puts it,

though Shakespeare’s poetry was expressed in English, and rooted in England’s culture, his vision is universal and cannot be identified with any single country.

Readers from Mongolia to Chile recognise his characters, from his portrait of a man’s descent into psychopathic hatred (in the Scotsman Macbeth), to the glorious depiction of passionate love (encapsulated in the Italian Juliet).

We zealously endorse the idea of a celebration of humanity’s greatest poet. But he belongs to all mankind, not just to the English.

He’s not a particularly iconically English writer in the way that Burns is iconically Scottish; he’s certainly rooted in English culture, but he doesn’t seem to me to embody Englishness in the ways that, for example, Dickens, Kipling and Wordsworth all do.

Because of this, you have to flatten and oversimplify him to turn him into a national icon. This shindig, apparently, ‘is the brainchild of Robert J Williamson, artistic director of the British Shakespeare Company,’ whose website quotes, without any context, what Mr Williamson calls ‘A few of [Shakespeare’s] words about our nation’

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.

which is all very well, but let’s have the rest of John of Gaunt’s speech, even though it might spoil the mood a bit:

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

Richard II, of course, isn’t at all interested in John of Gaunt’s warnings and comes to a sticky end at the hands of the Lancastrian later known as Henry IV pt 1.

To my mind it’s downright dishonest to wrench bits of Shakespeare out of context to turn them into party-pieces for your sort of but not really because it’s cultural historical pageant, just because your worried about how Nym, Bardoph and Pistol’s descendants might misbehave.

Yes, it’s a great speech — in a great play, and can’t (shouldn’t) be pulled out of context like that; drama isn’t opera, and Shakespearian speeches aren’t arias. It should be appreciated in context, for what it is.

No, if Dr Reid wants a suitably Shakespearian anniversary to celebrate, there’s an obvious candidate; October 25th:


KING. This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian”:
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (Henry V, IV.iii)

The choice of this date has great advantage that it would annoy the French.

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  1. Great post.

    Annoy the French? Well, that’s good enough for me.

    Comment by Prodicus — October 1, 2006 @ 12:13 pm

  2. Lets get one thing clear. Robert J Williamson of the British Shakespeare Company is the person who has called for there to be a day to recognise the life and work of William Shakespeare. See:

    John Reid is one of a number of cabinet ministers who is backing the call.
    The fact he is a Scotsman is irrelevant.

    Having a day for our greatest literary genius is better than celebrating a mythogical dragon slaying.

    Comment by Chris — October 4, 2006 @ 1:32 pm

  3. Certainly, but the life and work of William Shakespeare are recognised and celebrated far more frequently than just one day a year anyway, are they not? The British Shakespeare Company celebrate it all the time, as do the Royal Shakespeare Company most the time. Ditto the National and heaven knows how many other theatres. His works are studied at schools and universities up and down the country, people publish books and articles about them constantly…

    What were I and an almost full house at Stratford doing a couple of weeks ago at a performance of The Tempest other than celebrating the life and work of Shakespeare?

    People don’t need a special day organised by the government for this to happen. Or do you think the masses need some culture and it’s best delivered with an ox roast to help the medicine go down?

    And, as I say, if we must have a special day, let’s make Shakespeare’s and Henry’s words come true by ensuring that

    Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
    From this day to the ending of the world,
    But we in it shall be remember’d

    Comment by notsaussure — October 4, 2006 @ 1:47 pm

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