Thursday, 10 January 2013
The European Parliament in Brussels has received a proposal to make Shakespeare the European laureate. According to Ewan Fernie, Chairman of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, Shakespeare remains 'intimately important in European culture, not just as somebody or something for Stratford and not just for self-congratulatory English patriotism'. Readers are supposed to consent to the tautology: of course English patriotism is self-congratulatory, which could never be said of that noble Eurocratic project expensively pursued by the political classes of Brussels. Fernie may acknowledge that 'Shakespeare cannot be definitively identified with any political or religious lobby', but it is precisely the political lobby comprising the EU, and not the whole of Europe, which Shakespeare would be obliged to represent. What has the Bard done to deserve such an honour?
These issues are, from certain angles, uncannily reminiscent of debates surrounding the tercentary of Shakespeare's death in 1916, a year in which events overtook long-planned celebrations. Israel Gollancz began his Book of Homage to Shakespeare by noting dolefully that 'For years past—as far back as 1904—many of us had been looking forward to the Shakespeare Tercentenary as the occasion for some fitting memorial to symbolize the intellectual fraternity of mankind in the universal homage accorded to the genius of the greatest Englishman... Then came the War; and the dream of the world's brotherhood to be demonstrated by its common and united commemoration of Shakespeare, with many another fond illusion, was rudely shattered.' Gollancz's Homage collected contributions from across the world, but restricted itself to friendly nations; the many important German Shakespeareans of the day were conspicuously absent. A partisan audience hailed Shakespeare's universal genius. As John Lee has argued in a fine essay, 'A Book of Homage to Shakespeare is, and is not, a war work; Shakespeare is seen both as a support to the war effort and a symbol of liberal values which see recourse to war as failure.'
It would be pleasing to believe that the EU will give careful thought to the question of whether Shakespeare is best treated as quintessentially English, or British, or European, or as a citizen of the world. But such lofty matters must come after a more basic requirement: if you want to pay homage to 'Shakespeare', make sure that, unlike François Hollande, you manage to choose the right one.