‘The debate in 2016 stirred
powerful emotions of fear, loss and betrayal, with deep roots in British
history. Its signature issues – immigration, ‘sovereignty’, citizenship and
trade – spoke to diffuse and sometimes inchoate ideas about identity, nationhood
and Britain’s place in the world. Campaigners on both sides invoked contested
memories of the past and made normative claims about Britain’s ‘natural’ allies
and markets. In all these respects, the campaign was closely interwoven with
the histories of empire and with the imaginative possibilities to which it gave
Robert Saunders (2020): Brexit and Empire: ‘Global Britain’ and the Myth of Imperial Nostalgia, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, DOI: 10.1080/03086534.2020.1848403 To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/03086534.2020.1848403
It is intriguing in this current period of uncertainty caused, in part, by a toxic cocktail of Brexit, the pandemic, climate change and the ongoing culture wars of identity politics, scapegoating and blame, to find historical parallels in the experiences of earlier generations.
I have recently returned from visiting family in Lancashire, following the onerous required covid protocols and quarantines. As a duel national, (Belgian/British), walking around Lancaster, with its grim castle and slave trade associations, and Prescot, near Liverpool, where I took a look at the building site which will shortly become The Shakespeare North Playhouse. https://www.shakespearenorthplayhouse.co.uk/ I asked myself the question; If someone had been born, like Shakespeare, in 1564 instead of 1964, and it was 1621 instead of 2021, how would they have experienced, perhaps similarly, the effects of plague, economic, social and cultural upheaval, a sense of displacement arising out of conflicts of power, contested religious or political ideologies, affiliations or identities, and a changing sense of 'self' re-orientated to a rapidly evolving global environment with a geography of altered time and space ? What false dichotomies or opposing dualities would one be forced to choose between? What dislocations and discontinuities would one need to bridge to remain whole?
' The County of Lancashire may now be said to abound as much in Witches, as Seminaries, Jesuits and Papists' . Thomas Potts 'Discovery' 1612 trials
Some of these themes are explored in Richard Wilson’s book ‘Secret Shakespeare’ which investigates the enigmatic ‘silence’ that surrounds the ‘lacuna’ of facts about the poet’s life, and especially the ‘lost years’, which he may have spent in a series of Catholic ‘safe houses', like Houghton Tower, in the North. Using contextual evidence and textual analysis of the plays, ‘masques/masks’, which paradoxically hide as much as they reveal, he contributes to a convincing case that Shakespeare was an ambivalent ‘recusant’ Catholic who ‘played’ a deadly game of appearance and illusion, with the confessional identities and power politics of the cultural revolution unleashed by the reformation in England and continental Europe.
‘Born into an Escher-like world of secret chapels, priest holes, subterranean passages, false walls and trap doors, Shakespeare constructed a theatre not of discovery, like his rivals, but of darkness, deferral, evasion and disguise, where, for all his hopes of a ‘golden time’ of future toleration, ‘what’s to come’ is always still unsure’
I recently visited the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp where Peiter Bruegel’s painting of ‘Dulle Griet’ painted in 1563, depicts just such a world of cataclysmic apocalyptic chaos, a world turned upside down through both human folly and natural disaster, in which the individual, the embattled ‘Dulle Griet’, the Flemish version of ‘Mad Meg’ storms the gates of hell for plunder.
Whilst Dulle Griet may be about the battle of the sexes in a topsy turvy world of madness and mayhem, the museum also houses this amazing and powerful 13th century sculpture of Christ with the beloved disciple John by Master Heinrich von Konstanz.
This beguiling work, made for the Dominican convent of Sankt Katharinental in Switzerland, speaks, perhaps, to the sexual politics of our own age, albeit anachronistically, and it is tempting to appropriate this Christian neo-Platonic image of human and divine same-sex devotion and protection to the contemporary politics of LGBT identities. Whilst this may well be considered by some to be an ‘inappropriate’ appropriation of the 'sacred' to the 'profane', the reverse has often been the case in literature or art that attempts to express the ineffable. This homoerotic ‘language of symbols’ can be seen in the mystical poetry of the Carmelite St. John of the Cross in verses 6-8 of ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ or in the ecstatic verses of Jalaluddin Rumi the 13th century Sufi mystic.
6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.
the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.
abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
Likewise Bernini’s 'St. Theresa' in the Church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria in Rome borrows iconography that references a classical Cupid and Venus, and uses it as a visual metaphor, clothing it in Christian mystical significance, the moment of ecstatic sacred spiritual union represented by its profane equivalent. The public performance of what is private and hidden is explicit in the architectural theatricality of the little chapel as its patrons, the Conaro family, for whom the chapel is named, are represented observing the scene, which has been created for them, from the viewpoint of their window on an ornate marble balcony mounted in the side walls, as if they were watching an operatic diva breath her last.
‘Spiritual friendships’ were celebrated by the Cistercian abbot Aelred of Rievaux, who continued a tradition of writing about friendship and love that had classical roots in writers like Plato and Cicero. Like the celebrated aristocratic codes of loyalty and honor between Japanese samurai warriors, which often carried homoerotic connotations, in 16th century Florence the dramatic potential of characters acting out the scenes of love and sacrifice, betrayal, dishonor and death was a visual trope exploited by Renaissance painters when they depicted the crucial moments of leading up to Christ's passion and death. Here Giotto's fresco, from the cycle in the Arena Chapel in Padova, shows Judas's kiss of betrayal, the gesture of trust and the contradictory act of betrayal, framed at the 'still point of the turning world', the axis of a wheel of violence, whose spokes are made from clubs, spears and torches.
In ‘As You Like It’ complex ironic multi-layered games involving gender, role-reversal, appearance and reality are woven into the language of the text, the performance by the all-male actors and the illusion of the play and its conventions, which involved the active participation of the real world of the audience and the theatre. Shakespeare's sonnets dedicated to the mysterious Mr. W H. and addressed to his ‘dark lady’ have long been analyzed for just such sexual ambivalence.
In Elizabethan England, as elsewhere in Europe, during the schisms of the 16th and 17th century, the question of sovereignty linked to one’s religious and political allegiances. Individuals were sometimes forced to confess their side in this conflict which involved love and loyalty, or treason and betrayal between the contested powers of religion and the state.
In chapter 5 of ‘Secret Shakespeare’ Wilson claims that Shakespeare’s poem ‘Venus and Adonis’,
‘….conceals politics beneath the erotic; yet behind the false facade of pornographic narrative the text discloses its topicality as nothing less than the ‘Bloody Question’ of loyalty or betrayal.'
Shakespeare’s distant cousin, the Jesuit priest St. Robert Southwell, had studied at Douai, Louvain and Rome before returning to England where he was subsequently betrayed, captured, imprisoned, tortured and finally executed at Tyburn. Southwell wrote his poem ‘Saint Peter’s Complaint’, as a criticism of ‘Venus and Adonis’ which he called a ‘pagan toy’ and dedicated it via a prose letter in the 1616 edition ‘To my worthy cousin Master W.S. signed your loving cousin R.S.’
Referring to the portress of the poem who asks Peter ‘art though not also one of this man’s disciples?’ which leads to Peter’s denial, Wilson says,
'If the portress figures Queen Elizabeth, Southwell seems to interpret Venus and Adonis as an example of craven capitulation to the Crown that followed the introduction of the ‘Bloody Question’ in 1588, when all English Catholics were confronted with a deadly test: If the Pope were to send over an army….whose side would you be on : the Pope’s or the Queen’s?'
Wilson states that '… the Elizabethan association of popery and sodomy complicates our understanding of both sexual and religious identity in the Shakespearian period. It had been Southwell, after all, who perfected what Louis Martz calls the ‘sacred parody’ of sexual love, by arguing that ‘If on thy beauty God enamoured be, /Base is thy love of any less than he;’ and when Burghley’s secretary scorned such sublimation, he may have been cued by the fervent homoeroticism in which the Jesuit moved.'
To identify or be branded as either a papist or a sodomite, or both, as they were often conflated, carried severe and barbaric penalties in which death or exile might be preferred to torture and imprisonment. To these two accusations could be added a third, witchcraft. In chapter 8 of Wilson's book he asks why Shakespeare anathematizes the Jesuits as Witches in 'The Scottish Play'.
'What prompted this transfer of guilt from the Gunpowder assassins to Macbeth's Witches, and why were the Weird Sisters presented, like Garnet's Jesuits, as an organized political conspiracy? '
Byrd’s setting of Henry Walpole’s poem was written to commemorate the execution, at which he was present, of the Jesuit Edmond Campion in 1581. Performed here by Fretwork it evokes the troubled times and the challenge to individual conscience in the title, ‘why should I use my paper ink and pen’.
It survives as do other 'silent witnesses' in the cult of relics from this period that continue simultaneously to assert, provoke and challenge various cherished narratives.
Shakespeare may well have been connected to the Baroque culture of Catholic counter-reformation Europe through recusant family networks and his association with a string of safe houses in the Midlands and the North for missionary priests moving between England, the Spanish Netherlands and Italy, but his chameleon like ability to assume different characters and roles throughout the plays, holds up a mirror in which viewers could, and still can, see themselves reflected obliquely within a convincing illusion of the world, even as it deflects sight away from a reality that hides behind and beyond the focus of its ornamented frame.
‘All the rest is silence’..............................or is it ?