What did Europe mean to William Shakespeare?

Shortly after the news of the referendum result, I heard some English politicians being interviewed on BBC radio. One of them remarked with apparent satisfaction that membership of the European Union had now been rejected by a majority of ‘our countrymen.’ Another, a woman, observed that the entire referendum campaign had been a very masculine affair, and pointed to her adversary’s telling use of the word ‘countrymen.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ he replied, ‘I have been reading the works of our national poet, and it must have affected my vocabulary.’

I assume that the male politician not only meant Shakespeare, but also meant to imply that Shakespeare would himself have endorsed a strictly insular version of British nationalism – despite the fact that the ‘countrymen’ most famously addressed in Shakespeare are of course not Britons at all, but ancient Romans, the fellow-citizens of Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. As his pervasive interest in classical history and mythology suggests, Shakespeare was a product of the European Renaissance, and he grew up in the knowledge that the territory in which he lived had originally been Britannia, a mere province of something much larger and more significant, the Roman empire. I have written elsewhere about how misleading it can be to think of Shakespeare as modern Britain’s national poet. I would add that it is even more misleading to suggest that Shakespeare thought of Britain as anything other than part of a larger geopolitical entity called Europe.

By Peter Holland’s count, Shakespeare used the word ‘Europe’ ten times (and ‘Europa’ three), and on only one of those occasions does it seem to distinguish one side of the channel from the other. In the early Henry VI Part 1, the Duke of Bedford sets out to defend Plantagenet territory in France: ‘Ten thousand soldiers with me will I take,’ he declares, ‘Whose bloody deeds shall make all Europe quake.’ But everywhere else in the canon, even among the other English histories, ‘Europe’ is more or less synonymous with ‘Christendom,’ an imagined territory to which even the most reprobate and irresponsible among Shakespeare’s compatriots emphatically belong. Falstaff, for instance, grandiloquently signing a letter to the would-be crusader Henry IV’s son prince Hal, proclaims himself ‘Jack Falstaff with my familiars, John with my brothers and sisters, and Sir John with all Europe.’

Shakespeare, it is true, never used the word ‘European,’ but he did come across it: its first recorded appearance is in Richard Knolles’ General History of the Turks (1603), on which Shakespeare drew for some of the military background to Othello. Internally divided it may have been, not least by the Reformation, but the Europe of Shakespeare’s time still recognised itself as a single unit in relation to external threats. During the playwright’s childhood, an alliance of Christian states centred around the Venetian defence of Cyprus, had temporarily slowed the westward expansion of the Ottoman empire (most notably at the Battle of Lepanto, 1571, about which Shakespeare’s future monarch and patron, the ecumenical and pacific James VI and I, even published a poem). In Shakespeare’s Othello, characteristically for a play by someone always wary of simple binaries between us and them, it is a fellow European who turns out to be more of an immediate threat than do the Turks, namely Iago, whose name suggests he is of Spanish origin, despite serving among Venetian and Florentine comrades.

Spaniard among Italians he may be, but nobody in Shakespeare’s Venice asks Iago to show them a visa or a work permit. Elsewhere, Shakespeare is at pains to elicit particular sympathy for migrant labour: in around 1603, while he himself was a lodger with a family of French expatriate jewellers in London, the Mountjoys, Shakespeare contributed a scene to a banned collaborative play, Sir Thomas More, in which More single-handedly quells a xenophobic riot against foreign workers. More light-heartedly, in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597) – the only one of Shakespeare’s comedies set in his own country rather than elsewhere in Europe – the local doctor, Caius, is French. There are some cheap laughs at the expense of his English pronunciation, but no more than there are about that of the Welsh parson, Evans. When the two get farcically into a quarrel that threatens to become a duel, the local pub landlord is just as keen to preserve the lives of each. In Shakespeare’s England, as in ours, the health service seems to depend on imported labour, and in The Merry Wives, nobody suggests for a moment that Dr Caius doesn’t have at least as much the right to live and work in Windsor as do the Fords and the Pages.

Shakespeare, whose works have helped inspire emancipatory movements right across the continent, has long been celebrated as European drama’s most internationally popular exemplar of freedom of expression. Perhaps we should be celebrating him as a champion of freedom of movement, as well. One of his last plays, Cymbeline, closes with heartfelt rejoicing that, after a brief, aberrant and villainous outbreak of short-sighted and insular nationalism, Britain has chosen to rejoin the Roman empire. Let us hope that modern Britain can follow where its greatest contribution to a shared European culture has led. He is a countryman of us all.

This article was first published on the British Council website.

Professor Michael Dobson                          

Director of the Shakespeare Instituteand Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Birmingham