Shakespeare, not the national poet

“Appropriate birthday or not, Shakespeare actually delivers very few of the things countries generally want from their national poets: patriotic invocations of past heroes, rousing poems suitable for use as national anthems”


Of which country is William Shakespeare the national poet? This isn’t a trick question: he was born in 1564 during the reign of Elizabeth I, the last Anglo-Welsh queen of England, but when he died in 1616 he was a subject of James VI and I, the Scottish king of a new entity tentatively called Britain which didn’t yet legally exist. The first properly national monument to Shakespeare, his statue in Westminster Abbey, was installed only in 1740, round about the time a small club began holding an annual dinner to celebrate his birthday on April 23 – which is definitely St George’s Day, feast of England’s patron saint, but is less definitely Shakespeare’s birthday, since we only know that he was baptised on the 26 and that Elizabethans generally christened their babies at about two or three days old.

Appropriate birthday or not, Shakespeare actually delivers very few of the things countries generally want from their national poets: patriotic invocations of past heroes, rousing poems suitable for use as national anthems, hymns of praise to the native landscapes of their childhoods, vivid representations of their native cultures by which foreigners might learn to admire their homelands. Think of Robert Burns. Now he’s a proper national poet - all that stirring stuff about Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled, that passionate address to the haggis, all those songs about and for the great whisky-appreciating egalitarian fraternity of Scotsmen everywhere. A foreigner who had just learned Burns’ greatest hits, his vocabulary, his pronunciation and his attitudes would stand a reasonable chance of passing for a native in many pubs in present-day Ayr or Glasgow even now.

A foreigner who had tried to learn English conversation, vocabulary and interpersonal habits from Romeo and Juliet, by contrast, would probably be picked up for suspicious behaviour (or something more serious) within minutes of arrival at Dover. Shakespeare’s career as a richly literary writer for the popular stage could not have happened anywhere except in England in his time, and his general underlying ideas about what woods and fields and towns are like are recognisably shaped by his experience of Elizabethan Warwickshire: but there is nothing in his plays and poems which lends itself directly to the purposes of either the English Tourist Board or the modern British state. A dying medieval aristocrat in Richard II says some impassioned things about this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, but the play as a whole, like all of Shakespeare’s plays about English history, depicts monarchical government as a system plagued by endless succession crises and perpetually vulnerable to squabbling warlords. Even his most supposedly patriotic play, Henry V, shows its protagonist invading France at the instigation of tax-dodging bishops and ordering a mass execution of prisoners of war, and its epilogue makes a point of reminding us that all Henry’s short-term military gains proved unsustainable after his early death. Later in Shakespeare’s career, in Cymbeline (c.1610), it is the ancient British nationalists who are demanding independence from the Roman Empire who are the villains.

So why are we repeatedly asked to think that, for Britons, enjoying Shakespeare is not just a pleasure but an innately patriotic activity, supposedly denied to unfortunate non-Anglophones who clearly need to be shown Shakespeare by way of advertisement for the UK? (By analogy, does the fact that the plays of Ibsen are performed in translation all over the world really mean that their global audiences are more likely to visit or invest in Norway, or to want lessons in the 19th-century Danish in which Ibsen wrote so as to be able to enjoy them better?) Shakespeare long ago outgrew these islands: his plays were already touring the Baltic during his own lifetime, being adapted into local languages as they went, and across many parts of the world they have been so naturalised into local theatrical cultures that, despite the British Council’s best efforts, they are only residually regarded as English. When modern nationalisms proliferated around Europe in the time of the French Revolution and thereafter, they frequently found the Shakespeare canon more obviously useful to their causes than had the English: translations of Shakespeare were among the first major literary classics in several vernacular languages hitherto suppressed by foreign-educated elites, not least German, and they have been involved in countless struggles for independence. (An early moment in the Latvian national awakening, for instance, was the first ever Shakespearean performance given in Latvian, 1885, and in 1918 the country declared itself a free republic in a ceremony held at its national theatre, in between performances of The Taming of the Shrew The contentious eloquence of Shakespearean drama – eccentric, independent of neoclassical rules, plural-voiced by its very nature – has admittedly served as an apt emblem and model of liberty for generations of Britons, but to try to badge Shakespeare as primarily ours seems parochial in a way completely foreign to a body of work as happy to dramatise ancient Rome and modern Italy and France and Denmark as it is to tell sad stories of the death of English kings. Shakespeare’s plays long ago became the lingua franca of world drama: a global phenomenon which may have started in the foreign realm that was Elizabethan England, but which long ago went far beyond it. Of which country is Shakespeare the national poet? Of none, and of all.