Happy 450th Birthday, William Shakespeare: "Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and St George!"
From the quill of William Shakespeare comes the only line in Renaissance literature which links England with St George. It could not be more appropriate that the Bard’s birthday falls on this day, for it becomes a cause of celebration of England’s (and the world’s) greatest writer. To borrow from Hamlet: "He was a man, take him for all in all; we shall not look upon his like again." And today we mark the 450th anniversary of his birth.
That a humble son of a glover, with an education no higher than a grammar school, should tower above the university-educated; should have such insight into morals, manners, economy, philosophy, religion, taste, and the conduct of life, is a cause for wonder. That an Englishman was blessed with great knowledge of the greatest mysteries, understood the politics of high office without having held any, and could articulate with profound accuracy the emotions and needs of the common man, is a cause for great celebration – yea, a national holiday.
But we shall not get it - for fear of 'English nationalism'.
Saints Andrew, David and Patrick may be celebrated with a secure national identity and respectful chippiness. But George is vulgar, and represents the bunting-strewn, beer-swilling worst of what it is to be English. It ought to be cancelled on 'Health & Safety' grounds alone.
Like Guy Fawkes' Night - offensive, sectarian, divisive and dangerous.
But it's only English culture and tradition which needs to be subsumed and sidelined: Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism are wholesome manifestations of historical defensiveness and political identity. Even on Shakespeare's birthday, the cry to honour England or laud the English is 'racist'. Even in this second great Elizabethan age, we may not receive from or observe in Shakespeare's nature the peculiar impulse and impression which he, best of all, bequeaths to us. He is not just of England or for the English: he belongs to the whole world and is for all time. And yet he is English and of England, and at his quill patriotism becomes a virtue and a blessing.
The greatest human mind ever to walk the earth writes eloquently of love, friendship, marriage, parenthood, jealousy, ambition, hatred, revenge, loyalty, devotion and mercy. And into these he weaves the national life of England, caressed with extravagant sensibility: "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm", which is"possessed with rumours, full of idle dereams." And our national life is identifiably Christian: "Is this Ascension-day?"
He is not concerned with doctrine, but with the state of the human heart, will, intellect and soul. In this new age of limitation, restriction, deficiency and injunction, William Shakespeare liberates us to think what we may not, feel what is unmentionable, and be what is forbidden.
Happy Birthday, Will.