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How might Shakespeare have voted?

by
12 August 2016

Paul Vallely probes the links between the playwright and the European Union

I HAVE just taken a whole month off. It is something I have never done before. Our family went on a modern Grand Tour to mark the end of our son’s GCSEs, taking in Paris, Venice, Dubrovnik, Heraklion, Ephesus, Athens, and Rome.

Our journey around Europe, coming as it did just after Britain had voted to leave the European Union, was accompanied by a faintly discomfiting grace note. We were re­­ceived with warmth and hospitality everywhere, but with a constant sense that our Continental neighbours were looking at us awry, and with a certain sadness, in the light of the Brexit vote. At the Acropolis, we were told that under-18s were admitted free, if they were EU members, and then we were asked whether the UK had left yet.

My son and I capped off the tour with a week at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Summer School in Stratford upon Avon, where one of the plays that we discussed with academics, directors, and actors was one of the Bard’s last works, Cymbeline. But there was still no escape from the politics of Europe. The director of the current RSC produc­tion, Melly Still, has decided that it is about Brexit.

You can see why. The play is set in Ancient Britain, and tells the story of how the Celtic king whom historians call Cunobeline refused to pay a long-standing tribute to Augustus Caesar, and went to war instead. You see the parallels: Britain pays taxes to a foreign power; British people resent it; so Britain bids for independence. To underscore the correspondences, Ms Still has set the play in a dystopian future, where everything is broken down or recycled.

The production opened before the Brexit vote. In those blithe days, it was possible to believe the jocular aside of the assistant director when he told the summer school “Shakespeare would have voted Remain.” Cymbeline, in the person of Gillian Bevan (the production has re-gendered the king as a queen), went further. It was mystifying, she pronounced, that the people of Merthyr Tydfil had voted No, when Wales gets £10 billion a year from the EU.

Risks arise in alchemising art and politics. Ms Bevan’s female Cymbeline enriched the play with echoes of Boudicca, and a strong line in maternal angst. But her statistics were askew. Wales actually receives only £245 million more from the EU than the nation pays in, which leaves, or left, the aver­age person in Wales about £79 a year better off. The £10 billion is the amount that Brexiteers claimed was the net UK contribution to the EU, including Boris Johnson’s dishonest claim about Britain’s paying £350 million a week in tribute to Brussels.

In the event, Cymbeline portrays both the British and the European elites as corrupt, and depicts the wild and woolly natives of Wales as the people of authenticity, integrity, and sound, if naïve, judgement. At the end of the play, however, having fought imperial Europe and won, Cymbeline decides to pay the tribute to Rome anyway. That may well be what will now happen again, if the UK wants to retain access to the single market. Perhaps Shakespeare went on his own Grand Tour in those missing years between Stratford and London.

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester.

Cymbeline runs in Stratford upon Avon until 15 October, and then at the Barbican, in London, from 31 October until 17 December. www.rsc.org.uk

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