On St. George’s Day…

April 23rd, 2012

…a few words from probably the greatest writer who has ever lived, to mark his 448th birthday:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, 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,
Against the envy of less happier lands
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…

(Richard II, Act 2 Scene 1, lines 40 – 50)

Before saying anything about the lines above I suppose I ought to begin by defending the application of the term “great” to a writer such as Shakespeare. It is no longer considered to be politically correct to say that writers such as Shakespeare are “great”. It is elitist. It will lay you open to the terrifying charge of “intellectual snobbery”.

This applies not only to English Literature in general, and Shakespeare in particular, but also to all other branches of the arts. I teach Classical Studies at the Open University. The courses I have taught over the years have contained some of the greatest works of art ever to have been produced by the human brain. But the course materials never once mention this. The present-day “official” attitude towards the art of the past is to regard it as an invaluable repository of information about earlier historical periods, not as something which has a certain special intrinsic value. An Open University Classics course will tell you a huge amount about, say, the plays of Sophocles. What it will not do is even discuss whether the plays in question have any purely artistic merit. Such matters are now regarded simply as matters of individual taste.

I do not and cannot accept this. But I do acknowledge that if we’re going to speak of “greatness” in art we need to be clear about what we actually mean. Here, then, is my criterion for greatness in art:

A work of art is “great” if, and only if, it is rich enough to allow the reader or listener or viewer to discover new things within it, or derive new experiences from it, every time they experience it. This doesn’t mean that a work of art must be lengthy or complex. The tiny songs of Hugo Wolf, the lyrics of Sappho, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience – they all fall into the category of great art because, small though they are, they never cease to surprise us, or to offer us new experiences every time we read or hear them.

If my criterion of greatness holds, then every single Shakespeare play falls into that category. And not one episode of any soap opera does. An episode of a soap opera is designed to be seen once and once only. Even diehard soap fans find it difficult to see any episode, no matter how enjoyable first time round, more than twice. But you can see, hear or read King Lear, As You Like It, or Richard II as many times as you want – you will never exhaust them.

The lines quoted about are, or were, some of the best-known lines in Shakespeare. Schoolchildren used to learn them by heart – not an exercise I would necessarily encourage. The phrase “this sceptred isle”, like Blake’s phrase “dark Satanic mills”, has found its way into common usage. As usual, those who use the phrase have little idea of the context.

This is perhaps not entirely surprising. Richard II is a truly great play. It is (I think) the only one of the plays to be written entirely in verse. If you see a really good performance of this play, or if you spend some time with the text, you will not forget the experience in a hurry. But it has never been very popular. I believe that it has only been shown once on British television. A quick visit to Amazon shows me that there are only two versions of the play on DVD. One of them, fortunately, is the BBC Television Shakespeare version with Derek Jacobi in the title role. If you’re interested, you needn’t hesitate.

The lack of popularity arises from the fact that the motivations of some of the characters, especially the central character, are hard for modern audiences to understand, let alone empathize with. Why does Richard turn on Bollingbrook? Why does he abdicate when he doesn’t have to? This is a historical play. Shakespeare can take some liberties but he cannot entirely re-write history. The play doesn’t provide conclusive answers to these and other questions. What the play does is to bring the characters and episodes to life in a unique and wonderful way and leave the viewers or readers to judge them for themselves.

The lines quoted above are from a speech by John of Gaunt. They are spoken in praise of England. These lines might be judged as having some contemporary relevance in the Diamond Jubilee year of Richard’s distant descendant Queen Elizabeth II. Events such as Royal Jubilees or Royal Weddings often evoke a certain emotional patriotism which Gaunt’s lines seem to express so eloquently. But quotations from Gaunt’s famous speech, like mine above, fail to present the whole picture. Gaunt’s speech is not a paean of praise but a lament for an England which is passing. Note how the speech ends:

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation throughout the world,
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
(Act 2, Scene 1, lines 57 – 66).

An England which is up for grabs, available to the highest bidder, an England in which money is all that really matters, a vain, selfish, self-serving leadership, influenced by corrupt counsel and acting in short-term self-interest, a leader who is so out-of-touch with reality that he might as well be physically blind…

Couldn’t happen these days, could it?

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