The English Rugby Football Union is debating whether or not to ban the singing of the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as an anthem by its spectators. Although the hymn was apparently adopted by crowds as a way of honouring the achievement of black players, it is being described as ‘controversial’ and ‘problematic’ because of its links with slavery.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was indeed written by a former slave, Wallace Willis, though he was hardly a stereotypical one. He was the property of the Choctaw Nation of Native Americans, who ran plantations with slave labour in Oklahoma. The Choctaw sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War, and were obliged to manumit their slaves after the war as part of a treaty with the US government signed in 1866. Thus, Willis became a ‘freedman’ of the Choctaw nation.
Why should a song of anguish and hope from the past be something to censor in the present? The spiritual is seen as problematic by those who regard its expressions of longing and pain as a gesture of defeatist passivity, resigned to bondage as an inevitable condition of life, to be relieved only by death and the entry into heaven. This interpretation plays into the narrative of Christianity as an instrument of imperialist subjugation, designed to pacify the oppressed into submission: the opium of the masses. It fails to take account of both the political and religious significance of such songs in their time.
The chariot in the hymn is of course drawn from the prophecy of Ezekiel (Ezek. 1), linking American slavery with that of the Jews in Babylonian captivity. The motif of crossing the Jordan invokes the escape of the Israelites from slavery among the Egyptians, the liberation from bondage, the entry into the Promised Land. In the American South it denoted travelling the ‘underground railroad’, and crossing over into the freedom of the North. Frederick Douglass, former slave, Abolitionist and author of My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), wrote of the singing of spirituals:
A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.
Similarly Harriet Tubman recalled that spirituals such as Go Down Moses operated as a code for escaping to the North (quoted in Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (1886). Here Jewish and Christian prophecy and Apocalyptic were not tools of oppression, but instruments of liberation. They gave enslaved black people a grammar of aspiration, enabled them to imagine a better place, in the here and now, as well as in the beyond. In the words of another spiritual:
I’ll meet you in the morning
When you reach the promised land
On the other side of the Jordan
For I’m bound for the promised land.
When Martin Luther King delivered his great speech ‘I have a dream’ in 1963 he was drawing on exactly this same tradition, using the Old Testament story of liberation from bondage and arrival in the promised land as a prophecy of the future in which all people of all colours could expect the same justice and equality. When, in Martin Luther King’s words,
all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Is there a better way of remembering slavery than by keeping alive in those spiritual hymns and songs the hope that burned in the hearts of the people in bondage?
(The famous motif by Josiah Wedgewood reproduced here, which became a slogan of the Abolitionist movement, is also regarded as ‘problematic’ since it identifies the black slave, manacled hands raised in supplication, pleading for help from his ‘white saviours’. Many are probably unaware that the fashionable gesture of ‘taking the knee’ replicates this pose, while replacing the clasped hands with the straight arm and clenched fist of the 1960s ‘Black Power’ movement).
This special issue of Critical Survey, edited by Terri Bouros, situates that controversial text into the context of its early publication history, and the recent critical and editorial interest it has generated. The first edition of Hamlet – often called ‘Q1’, shorthand for ‘first quarto’ – was published in 1603, in what we might regard as the early modern equivalent of a cheap paperback. Q1 Hamlet is becoming increasingly canonical not because there is universal agreement about what it is or what it means, but because more and more Shakespearians agree that it is worth arguing about. If we read or perform it, rather than simply dismissing it (as was done for most of the twentieth century), Q1 makes us think: about performance, book history, Shakespeare’s relationships with his contemporaries, and the shape of his whole career.
On this day in 1381 the leader of the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’, Wat Tyler, was killed in Smithfield. As Labour propose a new ‘garden tax’ in order to dispossess landowners, this extract from Graham Holderness’s Meat, Murder, Malfeasance, Medicine and Martyrdom: Smithfield Stories recalls the revolt, and shows how the opportunity of reform can be thrown away in the pursuit of violent insurrection.
Mile End, 14 June 1381, Night
Richard by the grace of God, king of England and France, and lord of Ireland, to all his bailiffs and faithful men to whom these present letters come, greetings. Know that by our special grace we have manumitted all our liegemen, subjects and others of the county of Kent; and we have freed and quitted each of them from bondage by these present letters. Henceforward no man shall be a serf nor make homage nor any kind of service to any lord, but shall give four pence for an acre of land. And no man shall serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant. Henceforward all my subjects shall be free to buy or sell throughout the realm of England. We also pardon our said liege men and subjects for all felonies, acts of treason, transgressions and extortions performed by them or any one of them in whatsoever way. We also withdraw sentences of outlawry declared against them or any of them because of these offences. And we hereby grant our complete peace to them and each of them. In testimony of which we order these letters of ours to be made patent. Witnessed by myself at London on 14 June in the fourth year of my reign.[i]
Sitting under the canvas of a tent, by the light of a fire, Tyler had read the letter a dozen times, studied every clause, pored intensively over the stamp of the Great Seal. Usually, he knew, the king would use his own privy seal. But by Sudbury’s resignation Richard held the Great Seal in his own hands, conferring on these letters the unique and potent joint authority of state and crown, Chancellor and King.
As soon as the royal party had left Mile End, Tyler had taken a troop of Kentishmen and raced towards the Tower. There he found little or no defence, and they were able easily to penetrate the fortress and search for the traitors. They soon discovered Sudbury and Hale, dragged them unceremoniously onto Tower Hill and subjected them to summary execution. The king’s sergeant-at-arms, a physician and a lawyer met the same fate. Tyler had hoped to find John of Gaunt’s son Henry, and to take him hostage; but somehow he had been spirited out of the Tower and away. They chose not to return to the fortress, having no intention of being trapped inside the Tower as the king and court had been. And so Tyler rode to re-join the Essex rebels in their camp at Mile End.
The camp was a carnival of feasting and rejoicing. Word of the king’s concessions had spread through the host, and most of the rebels considered their objectives achieved. They were free; England was free; the young King was a true king. Who are you with? With King Richard and the true Commons!
But Tyler was gnawing at his lower lip. It had been too easy. He would like to have suspected treachery, but the letters patent lay undeniably in his hand, signed by the King, carrying the wax impression of the Great Seal.[ii] Absolute, ultimate, irrevocable. Why then was he dissatisfied? Had they not realised their vision, the dream of John Ball, a free people in a free realm?
No, he thought to himself. It cannot be so. The nobles still possess their lands, the rich their wealth, the powerful their armies. The people may be free to work and trade, buy, and sell, but still there was no equality. Sooner or later those in power would find new ways of oppressing the poor.
We have to cut deeper. We must have more than freedom; we must have power. Where does power lie? In land, in the law, in armies. The people had shown they could raise an army, and take London by force. They had shown they could wrest the law to their own ends, by executing the enemies of the people. But they had no land.
There had been a balancing, but not a reversal. The commons must expropriate the land, or they would never be truly free. All land to the commons. Agriculture, commerce, government, the military, all must be taken into public ownership. All power to the people. We will have a king bound by constitution to rule on behalf of the people. Or better still, no king at all, but a republic, ruled by a senate. Senatus atque Populus Anglicus. The Senate and the people of England.
‘How goes it, Wat?’ asked John Ball. ‘You are pensive and pale. What ails you, my man?’
‘The battle is won’, Tyler said, ‘but not the war. We must force the king to forfeit the land, to take it away from the lords and the church. All land to the commons. If he countermands, then we shall depose him, and throw down his throne. A council of the Commons shall rule in his stead’.
‘But he is our king!’ protested Jack Straw.
‘And what does it mean, to be our king? What do you mean by it, you, Jack Straw? The king who binds us in fealty’s fetters? The king to whom homage we’re forced to pay? The king to whom basely we bend the knee? If truly our king, he belongs to us: he is our creature; our puppet; our servant. We need a king to do our bidding, against the nobles, against the church. A king who’ll oppose all those who oppress us’.
‘A King of kindness, liberty, love’, came the dreamy voice of John Ball. ‘Who will bring us back to the golden age. Back to the garden; back to God. As the prophets sang: ‘a little child shall lead them there’’.
‘Too far you go, man’, cried Straw to Tyler. ‘Miles too far. This follow a fantasy. Damn you, the only end to this, is death to all’.
Tyler leaned over and seized Straw by the cloak, his white face incandescent in the firelight, his wild black eyes staring like those of a madman. ‘All power to the people’, he gabbled feverishly. ‘All land to the commons. If you are not with us, you are against us. If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out. Now the time is come. Now the time is come. Now the time is …’.
‘Back to Essex I mean to take my men’, interrupted Jack Straw. ‘Now. Tonight. This is folly, and follow we will not. It is not for this that we have fought’.
leapt to his feet, pushed Straw aside and stood in the doorway of the tent.
‘Send word to the king. On the morrow we’ll meet him. There is more to be
said’. He thought for a moment. ‘Close to the city. Smithfield. Quickly, send’.
[ii] See Juliet Barker, England, Arise: the People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 (London: Little, Brown, 2014) 256.
This notorious anti-Semitic mural continues to haunt the Labour leadership, as more and more senior members are exposed as having endorsed or admired it. The mural features in this extract from Graham Holderness’s forthcoming Meat, Murder, Malfeasance, Medicine and Martyrdom: Smithfield Stories, in which a young butcher undergoes radicalization and eventually joins ISIS.
It was a Saturday night. After their evening meal the boys would usually wander along the canal to Camden Lock, and meet up with a group of their compatriots. Together they would walk around the streets and estates, smoking cigarettes, looking at girls, or kicking a football around in an empty school playground. There was a certain aimlessness to these activities, and at school Tariq had found himself envying the Saturday nights of his white school-fellows, who would look forward all week with growing excitement to a night of drunkenness and sex. This troubled him a little, but after a while there were no more white kids at the school, so the temptations of alterity were no longer there.
This night was destined to be different.
‘Come on’, said Yusef, wiping his plate clean with a piece of bread. ‘We’ve got an appointment’.
Together they walked down the road. The fabric shops were closing, the grocers still optimistically staying open. The air was thick with the spices of Indian cooking: hot oil, turmeric, garlic. Tariq paused for a minute by a huge mural that decorated a blank brick wall. He had often studied it, and rarely passed without another admiring glance. Seated in a semi-circle, staring towards the viewer, were six figures, with a large flat board spread before them. The square surface was marked out as a kind of board game, at its centre a pile of green American dollars. Among the counters were miniatures of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Gherkin, monuments of western capitalism.
A global game of money and power. The board rested on the painfully bent backs of a circle of bald, brown-skinned men; and the faces of the players displayed the enlarged noses, grey beards and heavy moustaches of cartoon Jews. Above them the artist had depicted, in lurid colours, images of industry: chimneys and cooling-towers venting black smoke, a sky lit by the orange glow of blast-furnaces. Below them, metal cog-wheels intersected to symbolise the global economic system, driven by greed and racial hatred, run over the backs of the prostrate brown masses.
On either side appeared emblems of resistance. ‘The New World Order is the Enemy of Humanity’ proclaimed a slogan on a placard held up by shouting figure in paramilitary fatigues, his right hand raised in a clenched fist salute. On the other side was the face of an oriental woman, a dark-eyed and heavy-lipped beauty, holding a baby whose skinny little arm was also raised in clenched defiance. Gazing down at this scene from above was the great all-seeing eye, set in the apex of a pyramid, Tariq had seen on US dollars: the eye of global surveillance.
New World Order. The godless, materialistic West, allied with the Jews, playing
games of money and power on the bent backs of the brown-skinned masses. Tariq
took a parting glance at the baby. Weak, vulnerable, yet charged with an
indomitable spirit. Suckled on the milk of jihad;
born into resistance. Then he ran to catch up with his brother, who was
already further down the street.
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: Verona, Messina, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Roussillon, Navarre, Sicily, Bohemia, Padua, 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).
An Anglo-Saxon tomb near Southend, between a pub and a supermarket, has been excavated to reveal a noble burial with treasure-hoard. Read a translation of Beowulf’s funeral from the English epic.
They gathered the gear then, those Geats in their grieving,
To pile up a pyre, high-up and heavenward,
Hanging with helmets, shiny with shield-boards,
The brightest of byrnies, just as he’d bade.
Then weeping those warriors laid him upon it,
So famous a fighter, the lord they had loved.
Quickly they kindled a blaze on that barrow,
Fuelled a fire of baleful flame. Up went the woodsmoke,
Black on the brightness. Windswept and woven
With woe and with weeping, till the blaze in its
Burning bored through his breastbone
And hissed at his heart. High on the headland
The Wederas wrought him
A tomb on the topmost, where sailors could see it,
Wide on the waves. Ten days and ten nights
They were building that beacon, the battle-chief’s ashes
To shore in a shelter, as clever a construction
As any you’d come across, among the most artful
Makings of men. Then brooches to the barrow,
And rings they restored, such trinkets and trappings
As foes had filched from the well-hidden hoard.
Earth they endowed with the treasure of heroes
To have in its hold, the gold with the grit,
Where it stops still; useless to us
As ever it were.
From Graham Holderness, Craeft: Poems from the Anglo-Saxon (Shoestring Press, 2002).