Undiscovered Countries: Shakespeare’s Britain

‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ That’s what Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson wrote in memory of him, a mere seven years after he died, and long before some kind of posterity had had a chance to show its hand. Such claims were not that uncommonly made for poets of the period; but in Shakespeare’s case, almost uniquely, they’ve so far proved true.

What kind of stature is this? For Jonson it’s the capacity to transcend the narrow interests of an era, of a particular time and place – to have the more universal appeal of the great classical authors. We take all this as read, of course, now, in Shakespeare’s case. Yet we’re often reminded, too, that Shakespeare also has a more local habitation.

We’ve all come across the phrase ‘Shakespeare’s England’ – and this certainly marks him out from most of the other greats of English literature. We have Hardy’s Wessex, Joyce’s Dublin, the Brontes’ Yorkshire, but it’s rare indeed that anybody gets to have a whole country. In fact, the area around Stratford is marketed to tourists online not as Shakespeare’s Warwickshire, but as his England. There’s obviously a unique relationship between the Swan of Avon and the nation. That England’s national poet should also be an author of universal appeal and renown would appear to be just one more bit of evidence that God is, indeed, an Englishman.

It’s customary to trace this relationship back to the eighteenth century, when Shakespeare was canonised as a ‘bard’ – that particular title suggests, or proposes, an organic connection between people and poet; it makes the poet the one who ‘tells the tale of the tribe’, as Ezra Pound put it.

Yet it’s doubtful that this would’ve happened if Shakespeare’s works hadn’t included at least ten plays which dealt with the lives and deaths of several English kings – the ‘Histories’, as the first folio labels them, which took their fundamental material from the popular, and recently published, Holinshed’s Chronicles. These plays helped to crystallise a sense of a vivid national story, played out by larger than life heroes and villains, which has left its mark on the national consciousness. Shakespeare’s history plays became a source in themselves, shaping subsequent attempts to tell the national story. Just think how far the common perception of Richard III, for example, has been shaped by Shakespeare’s portrayal of him – it’s doubtful that there’d have been such fuss over the discovery and burial of his remains if we hadn’t long grown used to perceiving him through Shakespeare’s eyes.

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Sometimes this national story becomes the explicit focus for comment in the plays themselves. One of the most celebrated instances can be found in Richard II, when the dying John of Gaunt – ‘a prophet new inspired’ as he describes himself – launches into a patriotic peroration about the nation. England is described as a ‘royal throne of kings,’ ‘this sceptered isle,’ an ‘other Eden, demi-paradise,’

                                       this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house.

There’s an extraordinary intensity to the vision here, as it accumulates its representations of the essence of England – an intensity which is heightened, not diminished, by the sting in its tail: Gaunt’s condemnation of Richard’s England as a nation which ‘hath made a shameful conquest of itself’, betraying all the qualities and characteristics hymned in the preceding lines. Shakespeare’s involvement in the production of a vision of England isn’t narrowly jingoistic. It takes pains to give its patriotism a context, to show its limits and its ironies. This is one of the reasons that his version of this national story should remain so powerful down the centuries.

But the particular connection between Shakespeare and the nation was already being noticed in his own time. It’s there, in fact, in Jonson’s posthumous tribute. Notoriously – insultingly, as far as our classicist ancestors were concerned – Jonson states that Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek’; but the rhetorical point of this statement is to emphasise that Shakespeare still manages to outdo his classical predecessors. Neither ‘insolent Greece or haughty Rome’ can better him. And for Jonson, this is a source of specifically national pride. ‘Triumph, my Britain’, he urges, just before he gets to the resounding epithet with which I began.

Hang on, though. ‘My Britain’? What happened to Shakespeare’s England? Well, we might be inclined to say – as all too many have done in the past – what’s the difference? What’s in a name?

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Ben Jonson knew there was a difference. So did Shakespeare, though you wouldn’t perhaps think so from his invocation of a ‘sceptered isle’ in Richard II. Or, perhaps, if Shakespeare was capable of fallaciously describing England as an island in the 1590s, this became a mistake it’d be harder to make a few years later. The country in which Shakespeare and Jonson grew up was Tudor England, but in March 1603 – when Shakespeare was 38, and at the height of his creative powers – the Tudor line fizzled out and the English crown was acquired by James, King of Scots, who had spent many years carefully preparing what some of his new subjects feared would be a reverse takeover. Union between England and Scotland had been the devout wish of a fairly motley crew over the centuries – apocalyptic Protestants, Plantagenet would-be conquistadors, and Tudor Earls of Somerset alike. But it was most frequently imagined as English conquest – an incorporating union, as constitutional thinkers call it, in which Scotland would be absorbed into the English state much as Wales had been, finally, in the 1530s. Not much thought, it seems, had been given to other possibilities. And now here was this Scottish king, insisting on styling himself ‘King of Great Britain’, and putting the full weight of his multiple monarchy behind a plan for a full union of previously separate states.

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So what was this Britain to be? For some – lots of them Scots, naturally – the worry was that it would conform to the aspirations of generations of preceding English rulers, and be no more than an England writ large, basically identical to the state that preceded it. For others – most of them English, and seriously spooked by the apparently unrepentant Scottishness of their new king – the fear was that this was precisely what it wouldn’t be. Ideas of a Britain forged by English arms, and under English dominance, informed the histories popular in Renaissance England, and expansionist kings such as Edward I and Edward III were widely celebrated as heroes.

Such an Anglocentric vision can be found in the Shakespearean canon. Take Henry V, the most obviously ‘patriotic’ of his history plays. While the primary focus is inevitably on the Anglo-French dimension, the 1623 folio text of the play – but not the shorter version published in quarto in 1600 – includes a scene in which some of Henry’s soldiers are seen chewing the fat. It sounds like the beginning of an old joke – there’s an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman. The non-English characters are there largely for comic relief. Hilariously, they can’t even talk proper – the Telegraph reviewer commended the recent RSC production of the play for having a Captain Jamy – a stereotypically ‘fiery Scot’ – who ‘gaily cross[ed] the border into ludicrous incomprehensibility’.

The same reviewer described this production as ‘just what the nation ordered’. But which nation? Or perhaps, as the Irish Captain MacMorris is made to say, ‘what ish my nation’? Henry V gives an anachronistic answer, one which perhaps seemed more intelligible, if no more excusable, at the height of empire than in our age, or indeed in Shakespeare’s own. The inclusion of representatives from Ireland, Wales and Scotland among those happy to cry God for Harry, England and St George smoothly, if implausibly, abolishes the British problem.

Alex Hassell as Henry V: 'the story of a fairly mixed-up young man trying to do his best.'

But elsewhere in the play Shakespeare shows a very different awareness of the stakes – while the character of the Welshman Fluellen is indeed largely comic, he’s much more prominent in the play than Jamy and MacMorris, and earns from his king the rather startling admission that ‘I am Welsh, you know, good countryman’. Do we? Well, Henry was born in Monmouth, as Fluellen has told us a few lines earlier. But he then goes on to proclaim that ‘all the water in Wye cannot wash your majesty’s Welsh plood out of your pody’. This is on the edge of overdoing it. Henry might ultimately claim descent through his mother from the 13th century Welsh prince Llewellyn the Great, but this blood was pretty dilute. In fact, this same maternal line would also make him Scottish, a descendant of the Countess of Buchan. So why the embrace of Wales?

This wasn’t really about the Plantagenets – it conforms, instead, to Tudor sensibilities. The Tudor dynasty had been very keen to insist on its Welsh roots, and Shakespeare is here articulating a privilege that such roots accorded to the Welsh among the four nations.

Interestingly, though, the Tudors’ Welsh lineage also complicated the identity of Britain. For as medieval and early modern historians recognized, the true Britons – those who were the land’s original inhabitants – were of course the ancestors of the Welsh. When Henry Tudor defeated Richard III, he allowed himself to be portrayed as the fulfilment of a prophecy which would see the descendants of the legendary Welsh king Cadwalladr once more restored to rule over the lands lost to the English.

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So Henry V shows Shakespeare advancing the idea of an imperial, sovereign England, supported by her Celtic tributaries, taking the good fight to the dastardly French, while also recognizing that the relations between England and its local elsewheres could be a darn sight more complicated than that. The reappearance of an ancient Britain recalled by the Tudor lineage rendered England itself somewhat less solid, despite all the patriotic swagger. What’s more, in the Chorus before Act 5 the play allows a rare, directly topical moment to intrude – a reference to the Earl of Essex’s campaign to suppress Irish resistance to English rule, a campaign which had already ended in failure and bitter ignominy by the autumn of 1599. As the play’s closing chorus acknowledges, no conquest is forever.

By the time that James acquired his English throne, the vogue for history plays was fading. Indeed, after Henry V Shakespeare wasn’t to turn again to English history for his subject until his 1613 collaboration on Henry VIII with John Fletcher. But his interest in historical drama didn’t entirely disappear – it suffered a sea change. Indeed, there are three conspicuously – though very differently – British works in Shakespeare’s post-1603 oeuvre, which draw on the same chronicle sources he had plundered already. Interestingly, none of them are included in the category of the history play by the compilers of the first folio, and we ourselves rarely think of them as belonging in this particular genre.

But things weren’t always so clear cut. The earliest of the three, King Lear, was first published in 1608 under a mouthful of a title: Mr William Shakespeare his True Chronicle History of the life and death of King Lear and his Three Daughters. It’s a story set in a pre-Saxon – that’s to say, pre-English – Britain, and it’s sometimes been read as a pro-union play, since it appears to warn of the dangers of dividing up your kingdom in the manner attempted by Lear at its outset. It also echoes an old foundation myth, popularised by the medieval chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, which held that the kingdom of Britain had been founded by a wandering Trojan, Brutus, and at his death unfortunately divided up among his three sons, Locrine, Camber and Albanact. The latter two were rulers of what were to become Wales and Scotland, respectively, while Locrine was heir to the territory that eventually became England. This myth was often invoked by poets and propagandists around the time of James’s ascension to the English throne – he was seen as restoring the unity of a Britain divided into component parts for far too long.


The third of these plays, Cymbeline, is British in a not dissimilar way – in other words, it draws on the mythic history of the island in pre-English times. The title character is king of Britain; his invading continental foes are not the French, but the Romans. Here again, Shakespeare uses the rediscovery of ideas of Britain to make an alternative world out of a mythic history.

But the second of my trio isn’t British in this way at all. Rather than taking the Jacobean moment as an opportunity to think back to an original Britain, this play adapts a story from Holinshed’s account of Scottish history. It is, of course, Macbeth, and it’s a play which would’ve been unthinkable before the Stewart succession. Not just because it tells a story which is, in some sense, a Stewart origin myth – the Scottish historian Hector Boece had traced the descent of the dynasty from Fleance, who in Shakespeare’s play is destined to prove immune from Macbeth’s murderous intentions – but also because it no longer portrays Scots as comically ‘other’, all fiery and incomprehensible. Scotland and its inhabitants are taken seriously; and the play imagines Scots and their English allies teaming up to defeat a regicidal tyrant.

But if Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most obviously British play in this unionist sense, there are still glitches to be found. Take the prophetic vision of the line of kings that the witches reveal to Macbeth, the last in the line clearly representing King James himself. While this is rightly understood as a figuration of the Stewart dynasty, it also chimes with a prominent theme in Scottish patriotic iconography of the time. Scotland had its own origin myths, its own ancient histories, which were incompatible with the kinds of mythic ancient Britishness to be found in the stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth. These myths found expression in the evocation of an unbroken line of more than a hundred Scottish kings descended from Fergus I. Shakespeare’s line of kings alludes to this motif.

More than Macbeth

Why does this matter? Because the myth of Brutus, which he echoes in Lear, had often been used to justify English claims to seniority, and therefore dominance, over Scotland. So the Britishness of Lear, looking back to a time before the division of an original kingdom and perhaps wishing for its restoration, is incompatible with the Britishness of Macbeth, which looks instead to a different past and implies a more pragmatic coming together in the present.

Shakespeare’s Britain, in other words, doesn’t really fit together – it defies any attempt to get it securely under control, to appear in only one guise. And this is appropriate, because Jacobean Britain didn’t fit together either. James never got to see his dream of union realised. The establishment of a unitary kingdom of Great Britain didn’t happen until 1707, more than a century after the monarchies and government of England and Scotland were fatefully intertwined.

In an age of increasing devolution, that unitary kingdom is no more. Indeed, our current constitutional condition perhaps takes us closer to the Britishness of Shakespeare’s time than at any point since the seventeenth century. Shakespeare’s ill-fitting Britain is now ours as well.


This is the full text of my contribution to Radio 3’s week of Shakespeare-themed editions of The Essay. The broadcast version is available on the iplayer.

Selected further reading

John Kerrigan, Archipelagic English (2008)

Rory Loughnane and Willy Maley, eds. Celtic Shakespeare: the Bard and the Borderers (2013)

Claire McEachern, The Poetics of English Nationhood, 1590-1612 (1996)

Willy Maley and Andrew Murphy, eds. Shakespeare and Scotland (2004)

Willy Maley and Philip Schwyzer, eds. Shakespeare and Wales (2010)