Published by Daily Mail
On April 23rd 2016 – and probably throughout the entire year – we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. By ‘we’ I mean not only England and the English, or the United Kingdom and the British, but all nations and cultures of the world where Shakespeare is a passion, pastime or of any scholarly interest. And that necessarily embraces the whole of civilisation. As the holder of the Guinness World Record for performing the Complete Works single-handedly non-stop (five days without sleep – never again), I’ll certainly be raising a glass or two to the world’s greatest poet-playwright.
My record still stands after 25 years, and has just been re-published in the 2013 edition of the Guinness Book of Records. I will forever be grateful to those fine English teachers I had at school – Roger Calvert, Daphne Cooper and Jean Tidy – who between the years that spanned my O-levels and A-levels introduced me to Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Antony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Measure for Measure and King Lear. From the academic confines of the classroom to the emotional exuberance of the school play, I found my soul simultaneously steeped in dramatic greatness, lyrical beauty and profound wisdom: ineffable, noetic, passive – it was like a religious experience. Every visit I made to Stratford-upon-Avon became a pilgrimage: sometimes wrestling with darkness and devils, and then rejoicing with angels and ministers of grace.
The words of Shakespeare have been translated into thousands of languages, from German to Japanese, Hebrew to Hindi, Maori to Yoruba. The Globe even gave us a hip-hop Othello last year as part of the London 2012 ‘Cultural Olympiad’. The Complete Works have inspired more plays, films, paintings, musicals, ballets, operas, overtures and oratorios than any other work of literature, bar the Gospels. In short, Shakespeare cannot be bound in a nutshell – national or continental. He crammed into his ‘wooden O’ a universe of divine reasoning and the whole world of human passion.
So it irks somewhat to learn that a group of academics is seeking to persuade the European Parliament to adopt Shakespeare as its ‘European laureate’ in time for the 2016 anniversary. So keen are they to promote him as a ‘shared cultural heritage’ that a European Shakespeare Ode is to be commissioned after the fashion of the 18th-century Garrick Ode, by which the most famous actor of generation rekindled the nation’s interest in Shakespeare’s writings. Poetry by committee is not likely to have the enduring potential of Garrick’s individual creation. But the EU has a habit of appropriating odes for political purposes – just look what they’ve done with Schiller (via Beethoven).
According to Professor Ewan Fernie of Birmingham University, Shakespeare is ‘intimately important in European culture, not just as somebody or something for Stratford and not just for self-congratulatory English patriotism’.
While this is undoubtedly true, there’s a rather predictable academic sneer in that ‘self-congratulatory English patriotism’. Shakespeare wrote of England and the English (people and language) no fewer than 422 times: he mentions Europe just 10 (or 11 if you include a conflation with the goddess Europa). He waxes eloquently of England’s kings and crown, of the superiority of the English court, and of the English and their nobility, honour, valour and soul. And it isn’t some superficial patriotic pageant: he holds a mirror up to our nature, one time mocking and then lauding the national psyche. The England of King John that ‘never did, nor never shall, / Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror’ is that same country where Hamlet is told ‘the men are as mad as he’.
But God forbid that the English might now actually find anything to celebrate about England in any of this. And should they myopically and unintelligently do so, it cannot possibly be without a whiff of conceited nationalism.
No, like our agriculture, fisheries and airspace, Shakespeare is set to become a ‘common European resource’, as decreed by the European Parliament (courtesy of a lavish grant by the taxpayer). Like our foreign and security policy, he is to be forever moderated and muted in the cause of human rights. Like our sovereignty, the Bard is to be ‘pooled’ under the aegis of redacted Euro-citizenship.
But it is a bizarre academic blindness which on the one hand asserts that Shakespeare cannot be definitively identified with any political or religious lobby, yet on the other seeks to celebrate him as ‘a figure for European creativity’. That is a manifestly political, if not pseudo-religious pursuit. And Professor Fernie is quite overt in his objective. He explains to The Observer: “Europe is said to be in crisis and imagined simply as an economic union. What we want to do politically is suggest that there’s a great cultural tradition to affirm and promote.”
In this age of moral relativism, logical positivism and the equality of all religions and beliefs, Christianity is obviously no longer able to constitute the soul of Europe. So it falls to the spirit of Shakespeare as the chosen medium by which Europe’s ‘great cultural tradition’ will be promoted and the people evangelised. And no doubt all those who baulk at this manipulated pan-European inculturisation will be cast as swivel-eyed bigots, right-wing Europhobes and narrow-minded little Englanders.
Funny, isn’t it, how those Euro-enthusiasts who so disparage any hint of ‘self-congratulatory English patriotism’ in Shakespeare have no problem at all imposing their own political egos on the text, supplanting the Cross of St George with the flag of the European Union, and appropriating his manifestly universal genius for their own self-congratulatory Euro-nationalism.