1599 and all that – Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, and Mr Blair

One of my holiday books this summer was ‘1599 – A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare’ by James Shapiro. An excellent, thought-provoking book. Shapiro tells us not only about Shakespeare’s activities that year, but about the issues which his fellow Elizabethans argued and gossiped about, which in turn sheds light on our greatest playwright’s work.

I was struck by a number of fascinating parallels with the situation we find ourselves in today.

There was, of course, the thorny issue of the succession. Childless Queen Elizabeth was approaching the end of her life, but refused to name an heir. The top ranks of her government were paralysed as the main players dithered, undecided as to whether they should commit themselves to one or other potential successor, or bite their tongues for fear of appearing disloyal to the Queen.

The complex political landscape was over-shadowed by an unsatisfactory war in Ireland. The Earl of Essex had been dispatched to sort things out, but he was hampered by lack of an overall vision. Elizabeth, apparently not sure of her objectives, was reluctant to commit herself to a decisive course of action. The troops’ morale, meanwhile, was low. Among other grievances, they had to pay for their uniforms out of their meagre wages. You couldn’t imagine our troops in Iraq having to buy their own kit – could you?

Our relationship with the rest of Europe was already problematic, four centuries ago. The English were seen as ‘disturbers of the whole world, as if they were happy in other men’s miseries’. Our constant provocation of Spain, by war-mongering and piracy, pushed them to support Ireland in their war against us, and the Spanish were regularly involved in schemes designed to ensure a Catholic succession in England. The famous Spanish Armada wasn’t a one-off – we lived in constant fear of invasion and plots from abroad.

These threats led to one section of the population being regarded with a great deal of suspicion and hostility, solely on account of their religious beliefs. Did Catholics pass the ‘Englishness’ test – or did they owe their ultimate allegiance to a foreign power?

Look at the plays Shakespeare wrote in 1599. He completed Henry the Fifth, he wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It, and then produced the first draft of Hamlet. (This was also the year Shakespeare oversaw the building of the Globe theatre on the south bank of the Thames.)

Like all his historical plays, Henry the Fifth and Julius Caesar were as much commentaries on current events as they were stories from forgotten ages. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare highlighted the fundamental issue of the relationship between rulers and the people they ruled. Here was an issue that would resonate with the play-goers at the Globe – as the power of parliament was growing, our Elizabethan forebears were beginning to question the divine right of kings to rule over us.

The Queen’s advisers were worried that the arguments applied to the tyranny of Caesar – is it legitimate, for example, to overthrow a ruler who does not have the consent of the people? – might be applied to Elizabeth. Is it too far-fetched to apply the same question to our current political leaders? It certainly seems to me that Tony Blair has taken decisions which do not have the consent of the people – indeed in some cases there has not even been a public debate. Think of Iraq, nuclear energy, casinos, trust schools, identity cards, the Lebanon, Trident …

But it was reading Shapiro’s description of how Shakespeare created Hamlet that brought Blair to mind time and again.

Struggling with indecision, wracked by self-doubt, unable to trust anyone, Hamlet acts mad and speaks nonsense. Shakespeare uses soliloquies to enable Hamlet to communicate his innermost thoughts to the audience.

Tony Blair has said his friends tell him he is reforming too much, while he feels he has reformed too little. He wanted to be bold, but he couldn’t find the courage within himself. Either way, he has obviously begun to lose the plot and it may now be too late for boldness.

I would certainly agree that Blair has not been bold enough. He has had a half-hearted stab at reforming the House of Lords, and has nodded in the direction of voting reform (though not for England). Most of his effort has gone into tinkering with our public services. More resources have been provided, certainly, particularly for health and education; but the value of the extra money has largely been dissipated by constant structural reform. Where he has been bold, he has been wrong – with the invasion of Iraq in particular.

Blair does not seem to be able to explain himself any more. ‘Trust me,’ he says. Or (more worryingly), ‘God will be my judge.’ He is losing his audience. And the problem with soliloquies is that when the audience no longer listens, you end up talking to yourself.

And where does David Cameron fit into all this? Well, let me tell you about Will Kemp. An actor in Shakespeare’s company, he was an accomplished clown, a great crowd-pleaser, and a theatrical conservative. In 1599 Shakespeare made it clear that, despite Kemp’s popularity, the future of the theatre belonged to serious thinkers, not clowns. The best Will Kemp could manage after that was to dance all the way from London to Norwich in nine days – which is where we get the phrase ‘nine days’ wonder’. Need I say more?