Shexit: Shakespeare and Brexit

I remember a time when British culture among the educated was thoroughly European. Everyone listened to French music, wore Italian clothes, watched European films, smoked French cigarettes, drank German beer and French and Italian wine. Everyone owned a fondu set, and burned their mouths on hot melted cheese. At school I studied French, German and (unsuccessfully) Russian; read Dante in Italian and Flaubert in French. People started to holiday in Spain and Portugal (no visa required), following the men of my father’s generation, who had virtually all visited Europe (visa-free) in less salubrious circumstances, but to the considerable benefit of European citizens. I lodged a French student in my house, and looked after a group of Germans on a study-abroad programme. I was the first member of my family to travel to Europe, on an educational visit, and without a military uniform and a rifle.

When were these halcyon days of European harmony? In the late 1960s and early 1970s: before the UK joined the EU.

The point of this wander down memory lane is that there are more ways of being European than belonging to the EU. The UK was European before the EU, and will remain European outside it.

Indeed, to claim Shakespeare as ‘European’ could provide no better illustration of the possibilities of cultural reciprocity and symbiosis without economic and political union. If it was possible to be as European as Shakespeare was 400 years ago, then European-ness can scarcely be identified with membership of the European Union.  

Let’s remind ourselves that shortly before Shakespeare’s birth Britain exited from Europe. It was partly in resistance to limits on national sovereignty – taxes, tributes, foreign political interference – that Henry VIII effected his break with Rome, or ‘Brexit 1535’ (strictly speaking this should be ‘England-exit’, but ‘Exit’ is pretty meaningless). In my book The Faith of William Shakespeare (Lion Books, 2016) I argued that Shakespeare was as much a product of the English Reformation as he was of the European Renaissance.

Shakespeare was thoroughly European, international and global. He was steeped in European culture, especially that of Italy, where a third of his plays are set. He may well have spoken Italian, and read Boccaccio and Bandello for himself; and he knew enough French to make fun of the language in Henry V. He knew at least small Latin, and less Greek. His scenes are set in Italy, France, Austria, Denmark, Spain, Greece: VeronaMessina, Rome, Venice, ViennaRoussillonNavarreSicilyBohemiaPadua, Ephesus, Athens, Troy. His sources were European: Homer, Ovid, Plutarch, the Italian novella. His characters are often strangers lost in another country – Viola, Perdita, Imogen. He wrote sympathetically of European minorities, such as Jews and Moors in Venice. In the section of Sir Thomas More thought to have been written by Shakespeare, Londoners are condemned for attacking ‘strangers’  from other countries. Everyone is a foreigner outside his or her own borders:

Go you to France and Flanders

To any German province, Spain or Portugal,

Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,

Why you must needs be strangers.

Shakespeare probably wrote this while lodging with an expatriate family of French Huguenots, the Mountjoys, in Silver Street: exactly the kind of migrant workers deserving, according to Shakespeare’s More, of London’s protection.

But these Protestant refugees were living and working in London because they had fled from religious persecution in Europe, and were welcomed by the English state, on grounds of religious affinity and economic utility, if not unanimously by the common people. Then, as now, London offered these refugees from Europe shelter, protection, freedom of worship, economic opportunity; and in return they contributed to the economic boom triggered by the ‘fiscal stimulus’ of expenditure following Henry VIII’s confiscation of church property. Under an ‘Australian-style points system’ they would have scored highly. Yes, Shakespeare’s lodging with the Mountjoys is an illustration of his own cosmopolitanism. But it is also a story of a family turning its back on a European project that had become oppressive and constrictive, and instead integrating into a new, successful Protestant nation-state.

The Calvinist Mountjoy household provided Shakespeare with a congenial cultural space as well as a comfortable lodging. He increasingly made use of the Geneva Bible, and his later plays converged on the Protestant Christianity of the Book of Common Prayer. When Hamlet delivers his famous line ’there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’ he is literally quoting Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (‘speciali Dei providentia’). Luther and Calvin were also European, and the Protestant Reformation was a European movement. But one of its effects was to engender national churches, seeded by European ideas, but flowering within the native soil of the nation-state. Such was the Church of England to which Shakespeare belonged, and which remains both a global and a local institution, a world-wide communion, yet always rooted in a particular parish. The Christian language through which Shakespeare absorbed his religion – not just from the Bible, but from the Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies – was not the Latin of the Roman Church, but the language in which he spoke, thought and wrote – English.

Shakespeare’s faith, like that of Elizabeth I herself, probably resembled was what we now call ‘Anglo-Catholicism’, a hybrid of diverse European influences. But it was the faith of a Protestant church. It was national, as well as international; the faith of the Geneva Bible, but also the faith of the English Book of Common Prayer.

Graham Holderness, The Faith of William Shakespeare (Lion Hudson in November 2016).

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