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Just a dead playwright? Why Parliament should pay attention to Shakespeare

There is a monument to William Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey (Alamy)

7 min read

“Why are you asking the Prime Minister about a dead playwright?” That is how one unimpressed constituent put it to James Morris MP, chair of the APPG for Shakespeare, when he stood up at PMQs recently to raise the importance of Shakespeare’s works as a force for freedom in the world.

The constituent may have had a point. What business do politicians have with Shakespeare? Aren’t there more urgent matters for our legislators to be dealing with than a four centuries-dead playwright whose writings, classics of theatre and poetry worldwide, could hardly be said to need encouragement? And can’t Shakespeare’s performers, readers and admirers just get on with performing, reading and admiring, without the state getting involved? What is the point of an All Party Parliamentary Group on Shakespeare?

One important reason Westminster should take a profound interest in Shakespeare is that Shakespeare himself took a profound interest in Westminster. His sustained interest in how historical change happens and how power is obtained and passed on led him to dramatize some of the key events which had taken place in Parliament over the two centuries before his time.

When we now remember Richard II, responsible for the magnificient hammer-beam roof in what is now the oldest part of the Westminster palace complex, Westminster Hall, our view is still likely to be shaped by Shakespeare’s depiction of an event which took place there soon after its completion: “The Parliament scene, and the deposing of King Richard”, an episode in Richard II so sensitive under the Tudor monarchy that it was only added to printed editions of the play more than a decade after its original publication.

The plays of Shakespeare, in fact, have long formed part of our political language: questions of popular sovereignty and the rival claims of commoners, peers and monarchs haunt all of his English histories, and their scripts were recognised as potentially useful stimulants and vehicles of public debate on these topics very early.

The ambitious courtier Sir Edward Dering, for instance, one of the first recorded buyers of the First Folio collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, staged an amateur performance of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 at his house in Kent in 1622. Edited into a single play tightly focused on matters of political legitimacy and produced in private among political colleagues at a time when James I’s aspirations to absolute rule were pushing the country towards constitutional crisis, Dering’s Henry IV must have resembled a semi-public debate about the rival claims of aggrieved peers and a dubiously legitimate monarch, a Jacobean extra-parliamentary Shakespearean focus group.

Dering went on to become MP for Hythe, then for all of Kent, and ultimately the commander of a royalist force in the Civil War who nonetheless remained eager to achieve compromise with parliamentarians. Shakespeare’s depictions of usurpation and rebellion clearly served as a vital part of his political education.

“One important reason Westminster should take a profound interest in Shakespeare is that Shakespeare himself took a profound interest in Westminster”

Dering’s parliamentary Shakespearean legacy would be taken up by another MP caught up in a political crisis, Sir Thomas Hanmer, who as Speaker in the period leading up to the death of Queen Anne in 1714 found himself trying to guide the House at a time when debates as to whether a Stuart or a Hanoverian should succeed threatened to plunge the nation into renewed civil war. Hanmer was relieved at the coronation of the first Hanoverian, George I, but the Jacobite leanings of some of Hanmer’s Tory colleagues alarmed the new dynasty and, demoted indefinitely into opposition, Hanmer found himself, like others in his party then and occasionally since, with more time on his hands for literary pursuits.

While one Jacobite, John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, set about rewriting Julius Caesar to make it keener on autocracy and less sympathetic to the conspirators, Hanmer became not an adaptor of Shakespeare but an editor. With financial support from the Countess of Shaftesbury (who in the 1730s established herself as the leader of the first Shakespeare fan organisation, the Shakespeare Ladies Club), Hanmer published his Oxford edition of the Complete Works in 1744, the only Speaker to date to have pursued a second career in Shakespearean scholarship.

As Buckingham’s adaptation suggests, in the more neo-classical eighteenth century it was Julius Caesar which had become Shakespeare’s most important play for politicians. A cast of young aristocrats attending Westminster School staged it at the Haymarket Theatre in 1721 (presumably at the expense of their parents, though the presence of the king and queen at one performance must have helped), the first recorded instance of a school production of Shakespeare. (The tradition of making Shakespearean acting part of the education of those born to lead continues: the present King, famously, played Macbeth while at Gordonstoun).

By the 1770s the theatre critic Francis Gentleman was expressing a hope that all MPs would memorise Julius Caesar, that Parliament would commission an annual command performance of it, and that it should become part of a national school and university theatre-in-education curriculum: We wish…our senators, as a body, were to bespeak [Julius Caesar] annually; that each would get most of it by heart; that it should occasionally be performed at both universities, and at every public seminary in these kingdoms; so would the author receive distinguished, well-earned honour; and the public reap, we doubt not, essential service.

Those who wonder why Parliament might be interested in Shakespeare might perhaps be reminded that some of these wishes have by now been granted, in ways which make the modern state one of Shakespeare’s leading patrons. Shakespeare’s plays, thanks to the National Curriculum, are now embedded in the national education system. Parliament may not have acquired the habit of ordering its own command performances of Julius Caesar, but through the Department for Education the executive attends to Shakespeare in the classroom, and through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport it provides a low but symbolically important level of subsidy for productions of Shakespeare in theatres from Stratford to Prescot to Belfast.

In fact, other branches of the state find themselves dealing with Shakespeare too: the Ministry of Justice when productions of Shakespeare are staged in prisons, the Department of Health & Social Care when “applied Shakespeare” is put to therapeutic purposes, and even the Foreign Office when Shakespeare, by now the entire world’s local playwright, provides useful opportunities for cultural diplomacy.

It was the Foreign Office which supported the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) outreach to China in the days of the “golden age of Anglo-Chinese relations” under David Cameron and William Hague; it was Shakespeare’s plays which were at the heart of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, when Shakespeare’s Globe played host to “36 plays in 36 languages”; and it was a copy of Henry V which the Prime Minister presented to President Zelensky on the occasion of his visit to Parliament in February this year – on the same day, incidentally, as the first meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Shakespeare.

But might parliamentarians and the public alike yet reap more “essential service” from Shakespeare, as Gentleman imagined? As Erica Whyman of the RSC pointed out at the first meeting of the APPG, Shakespearean drama teaches not only eloquence but a highly nuanced and intent level of mutual listening.

At the second meeting, a cast of distinguished RSC actors will read, as Gentleman would have wished, passages from Julius Caesar – a play which enjoyed a worldwide wave in topical productions in the wake of the populist breakthroughs of 2016. These passages provide a textbook display of how civilised rhetoric can unleash very uncivilised mob violence, but might they not also provide clues as to how a shared political language might contain and avoid such violence?

Shakespeare. A dead playwright? His works and legacy are very much alive today. And if parliamentarians are responsible for maintaining Shakespeare’s presence across many areas of our public life, then perhaps through attending to Shakespeare they might also attend to the health of our public discourse.

James Morris is Conservative MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis and Professor Michael Dobson is director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham

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