THE CULTURAL IS POLITICAL
The Globe to Globe season has seen each of Shakespeare’s plays performed by companies from around the world in their own languages, and has allowed for some genuinely interesting theatrical events. The programming avoided the self-congratulatory pretense of global unity and all nations coming together in the name of theatre that one might have expected from such an event (especially one so closely bound up with the Olympics), and instead met its political context head on. We saw Cymbeline, a play about sovereignty, nationhood and independence, played by a company from the newly formed nation of South Sudan. Timon of Athens, a stark look at wealth and debt in ancient Greece was staged by a German company. Contemporary political tensions were brought to the fore in a Greek Pericles and an Italian Julius Caesar, by the inclusion on the bill of the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear and, perhaps most notably, by an Israeli production of The Merchant of Venice. This last performance became the site of protest by pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators, as is critically documented and discussed in this excellent review by Peter Kirwan.
The ‘airport-style security’ Kirwan encountered was not unique to performances of The Merchant of Venice, though; people were ‘randomly’ searched and had bags confiscated for most of the season. This may have been in anticipation of nationalist protest or terrorism, but it is more likely that security staff were on the lookout for anything similar to the Reclaim Shakespeare Company, who in recent months have playfully disrupted RSC performances in Stratford Upon Avon. These protests have been targeted against the sponsors BP, and, like Liberate Tate and other groups before it, do well to frustrate attempts by major energy companies to redeem their tarnished brands by associating them with the arts.
Perhaps the obvious conclusion to all this is that Shakespeare is currently political in a way that was not previously the case; that the plays, as Kirwan concludes with The Merchant of Venice, have a contemporary relevance and can shed light on current situations, existing still as a vital and essential political voice in modern times. This is to some extent true: many of the questions Shakespeare concerned himself with remain unresolved and performance of the plays continues to provide space to critically consider them. More urgent than this, though, is the ongoing existence of Shakespeare as a cultural artifact and the way it is used as a totem for various forms of heritage. The biggest audience Shakespeare’s verse will receive this Summer will not come from theatre productions, and not even from the upcoming BBC films, but when Mark Rylance recites from The Tempest as part of Danny Boyle’s Olympic games opening ceremony.
Early reports of this show describe a mishmash of icons of Britishness. The inclusion of live animals will harken back to a romanticised and mythologised notion of some shared past of pre-industrial arable subsistence while model clouds dispensing artificial rain will demonstrate our famous self deprecating humour by affectionately invoking the sodden ‘British Summer’. In what may be an attempt at subverting traditional images of British national identity, or at least at including some modern ones, the show will feature two mosh pits: one representing Glastonbury festival (?), the other the last night of the Proms (?!?), which will, it is hoped, ‘do battle’ (?!?!?!). The barrel will be finally scraped with such establishment staples as James Bond, Sir Paul McCartney and, of course, Shakespeare.
Used without permission.
For The Bard this is nothing new; the plays and poems of Shakespeare, the idea of ‘Shakespeare’ itself as a cultural commodity, have played one of the greatest roles in the continuing reproduction of British (or more commonly English) national identity. Possibly the most frequently cited individual example of this is that ‘rousing call to arms during World War II’, the 1944 film of Henry V, a play ‘regarded by the British government as ideal patriotic wartime propaganda’, which Laurence Olivier was released from military service to direct and star in (albeit with the text ‘discreetly trimmed to fit the war effort’). The role of Shakespeare in the discourse of conservatism is not limited to specific performances of his plays. It is curious that so many people believe that ‘our national poet’ was born on April 23rd, St. George’s day, when no certain proof of this exists. During the expansion of the British Empire, Shakespeare came to be an emblem not just of English patriotism but of civilisation itself, to be exported to where it was seen as needed. Laurence Wright’s examination of Shakespeare in South Africa dwells on this reality:
The presence of Shakespeare in South africa is a fact of colonial history. He was imposed on the country, along with many other facets of large-scale globalizing society, as an integral part of the deeply one-sided colonial exchange: ownership of the land, gems, minerals and other raw materials for christianity, ‘civilization’ and western education. … He became an important part of South africa’s colonial education and culture, as was the case throughout the British Empire.
Writing in 1840, the essayist Thomas Carlyle grounds his gushing idolatry of Shakespeare in On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History by regarding him as a ‘real, marketable, tangibly useful possession’ of the British Empire:
England, before long, this Island of ours, will hold but a small fraction of the English: in America, in New Holland, east and west to the very Antipodes, there will be a Saxondom covering great spaces of the Globe. And now, what is it that can keep all these together into virtually one Nation, so that they do not fall out and fight, but live at peace, in brotherlike intercourse, helping one another? … Here, I say, is an English King, whom no time or chance, Parliament or combination of Parliaments, can dethrone! This King Shakspeare, does not he shine, in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest of rallying-signs; indestructible; really more valuable in that point of view than any other means or appliance whatsoever? We can fancy him as radiant aloft over all the Nations of Englishmen, a thousand years hence. From Paramatta, from New York, wheresoever, under what sort of Parish-Constable soever, English men and women are, they will say to one another: “Yes, this Shakspeare is ours; we produced him, we speak and think by him; we are of one blood and kind with him.”
For Harry, England and St. George!
Returning to the Olympics opening ceremony, Shakespeare is being used as part of a much broader program of conservative ideology, where the preservation and expansion of privilege is obfuscated by the deployment of notions of heritage, tradition and shared history. In a very literal sense the capitalist class system is reproduced, and so too are the mythologies and ideological propaganda that justify it. There is a myth around the Olympics, just as there was around the Jubilee and the Royal Wedding, that it represents a great moment of national unity in which everyone pulls together and collectively enjoys the event. Danny Boyle talks of how ‘the volunteers most beautifully express this Olympic ideal. They give up their time for free. Some of them have got a lot of spare time because they haven’t got jobs, some of them haven’t got much. But they give up their time, and try to present something that is the best of all of us.’ Boyle’s comments demonstrate a total obliviousness to the contentious political context of unpaid labour at the moment, in light of the controversial work program, which has been exacerbated by the scandal of Jubilee stewards working unpaid on the promise of paid work at the Olympics. Instead the event is presented to us as though it were a somehow apolitical celebration of all that is great about Britain; a celebration of a national identity which transcends the political arena, transcends trifling concerns about wages and budget and austerity, and instead strives for something much greater. At the centre of this are Shakespeare’s words:
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
How best do we respond to this use of Shakespeare for conservative ends? First, we can approach it on its own terms. The passage Boyle intends to use comes from Act III, Scene ii of The Tempest and is spoken by the monstrous slave Caliban. It ends with the chilling resolution that ‘when I waked / I cried to dream again’, which neatly contextualises it within the play’s ongoing consideration of reality and illusion. The island’s magic is at once wonderful and dangerous, all pervasive and transient – it quite deliberately reflects the theatre it was written for, in which things are in a constant state of simultaneously existing and not existing. The Tempest is also a play about power and dominance, specifically about slavery and colonialism. It is a play which presents many problems, but retreats from them further and further into its own ultimately meaningless theatricality. In a dark way it is an apt choice; The Tempest shows us, just as events of great performative spectacle do, the power to control, subjugate and disenfranchise that lies in the creation of illusion and the total investment in the unreal. The ‘Britishness’ and the ‘Olympic ideal’ that Danny Boyle seeks to capture are no more meaningful than the ‘noises, sounds and sweet airs’ that his ceremony quotes from: an unreal theatrical representation of something that is itself unreal. In the play, unlike the political world we live in, this tension is resolved and the deception is laid bare before the audience; the magic gives way to a gesture of honesty. How wonderful it would be for Danny Boyle, Sebastian Coe, Boris Johnson and the rest of the professional perpetrators of the Olympic myth to disavow themselves of their manipulation and illusion and beg of us our forgiveness as Prospero does, acknowledging the utter immateriality of what they have presented.
In her excellent book on this subject, Performing Nostalgia, Susan Bennett refers to ‘the invocation of lines (or basterdized versions) from [Shakespeare’s] plays that are plundered for their capacity to mean in particular ways’. Similarly, Margot Heinemann talks of taking lines ‘wholly out of dramatic context, disregarding entirely the conflicts of values and action that surround them in the plays’. Many of us are familiar with Shakespeare’s description of England as
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred 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,
Less commonly quoted are the closing lines of that speech:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watr’y 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, Act II scene i
Though his writing exists as a repository of useful quotations from which one can pluck a witty or passionate aphorism to support any argument, Shakespeare seldom said what those who quote him want. He did not offer the uncritical praise of England or of tradition and heritage that politicians, pundits and advertisers attempt to use him for, but ultimately this doesn’t matter. Shakespeare’s existence as a cultural force is far more than the collected words of his plays and poems. Bennett recognises that ‘Shakespeare, simply put, has a normative value … His availability to be enlisted in the regressive discourses of the New Right is without question’ What we have learned is that simply reassessing the dramatic meaning of Shakespeare’s words and arguing our own interpretation does little to combat the conservative appropriation of them. Heinemann quotes Nigel Lawson, Chancellor the Exchequer under Thatcher, as claiming that ‘Shakespeare was a Tory, without any doubt’, and she observes that ‘To hear Shakespeare cited directly in the context of cutting the health service and reducing taxation on the well-to-do is unnerving … We see more clearly what the struggle over the meaning of Shakespeare is really about’. There should be no confusion about the stakes; to be able to draft in Shakespeare as supporting one’s agenda is to claim significant weight and prestige, to appropriate the power of the English establishment and the authority of ‘our’ national poet. Heinemann argues the rousing insistence that we must ‘not hand Shakespeare over as a reactionary writer to be used or misused by the defenders of capitalism in decay’, and she is absolutely correct. We should not surrender Shakespeare to the right, and should not disregard the political content of his plays and poems, but to try to present (as she suggests) a 400 year old playwright as a progressive voice is dubious at best, and risks reinforcing the very conservatism that we wish to invalidate. The challenge that faces us is to find ways to resist the use of Shakespeare as a tool of conservative ideology; to resist the exploitation of Shakespeare in the continued reproduction of regressive ideals of culture and tradition which do nothing but preserve the privileges and divisions of the past.
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 Carolyn Jess-Cooke Shakespeare on Film (Great Britain: Wallflower Press, 2007) p. 78.
 Steven Jay Sneider (ed.) 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (Britain: Cassell Illustrated, 2007) p. 202.
 Susan Bennett Performing Nostalgia (Britain: Routledge, 1996) p.35-36.
 Ibid. p. 37.