STRATFORD-UPON-AVON: Just over four centuries ago, the third-born child of a leather tradesman walked the streets of this medieval market town, nestled in the countryside of an enchantingly verdant island, and imagined stories set on a vast continent he would likely never see.
Epic French battles. Illicit Italian love affairs. Brooding Danish princes. William Shakespeare, forever after known as England’s national poet, was obsessed with Europe.
It’s an obsession that continues in Stratford-upon-Avon, where the men and women who tread daily in the Bard’s footsteps past half-timbered Tudors are fixated on their country’s imminent rupture from the European Union.
But is that break a historical triumph, or a tragedy? Nine months after Britain voted to leave the EU — and just before the United Kingdom formally gives notice to its soon-to-be erstwhile partners across the English Channel next Wednesday — there is nothing remotely approaching consensus. Stratford is every bit as polarised as the UK as a whole, split between those basking in glorious sunshine and others mired in the winter of their discontent.
The vote here exactly mirrored the national tally — 52 per cent opted to leave, 48 per cent chose to stay — and if anything the battle lines have only hardened as Britain’s departure draws near. Despite endless debate, neither side has convinced the other. Britain remains a house divided as it prepares to leap into the unknown of a first-ever EU defection.
To Brexit opponents in this charming tourist magnet of a town, the country is making an epic mistake, a misguided turn away from the world after centuries of looking outward. The internationally-minded Bard, they insist, would have cringed.
“My daughter lives in Madrid, she’s married to a Mexican, her children were born in Amsterdam. That’s the nature of the world now,” said Meg Gain, a retired librarian who is campaigning for Britain to somehow pull back from the Brexit brink. “And all I can see is borders being enclosed and walls being put up.”
But to supporters, British liberation is nearly at hand after decades under the thumb of unelected Brussels bureaucrats. Shakespeare’s English heroes, they insist, would have approved. “The country is ready,” said Kate Himmens, an enthusiastic Brexit backer, former civil servant and local guide. “We’re ready to have our freedom back.”
Standing on the site of Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford — it was torn down long ago, although the grounds were opened last year as the town’s newest tourist attraction — she was seized by a verse from Henry V in which the English king orders his men into battle against the French at Agincourt midway through the Hundred Years’ War.
“Follow your spirit, and upon this charge cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’ “ she crowed, punching the air for emphasis. Then she stopped and suggested a modern twist: “It should be, I suppose, ‘For Harry, England and Brexit!’
“Shakespeare gets no say in Brexit, of course, having died 401 years ago — long before even the United Kingdom existed, much less the still-in-its-infancy experiment that is the European Union.
But that hasn’t stopped both sides from periodically attempting to enlist the services of the Bard of Avon, widely regarded as the greatest-ever writer in the English language.
During last year’s campaign, politicians, columnists and scholars all pondered what the Bard might have made of it all.
Brexit backers point to his patriotic verse — “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” — and his often unflattering depictions of continental Europeans. Plus, they note, there’s no evidence he ever left his native island, despite the French coast looming a mere 19 miles across the English Channel.
Pro-EU advocates, meanwhile, argue that he read deeply about continental Europe, even if he never visited, that many of his plays were set there, and that he saw England as rooted firmly in a broader European history. “He takes the English people to Venice, to Rome, to Athens. For Shakespeare that idea of Europeanism connects us back to our roots — to who we are,” said Carol Chillington Rutter, professor of Shakespeare at the nearby University of Warwick.
He didn’t travel to Europe, she speculated, less because he lacked interest and more because it cost too much money for “a jobbing playwright with a family to support in Stratford”.
And even his seemingly patriotic verses, she noted, aren’t always so. Henry V’s famous order to charge the French positions at Agincourt — “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” — rings less of glory when you know what happens next. “The English are about to get their behinds whipped,” she said. “Those guys are doomed.”
Regardless of his stance on Brexit, scholars say that Shakespeare would have undoubtedly been intrigued by the subject — and may not have needed to go far had he chosen to write about it. “I think he would find it most interesting that Stratford was as accurately divided on this matter as the nation,” said Paul Edmondson, head of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Two hours by train from London, or a five-day walk in Shakespeare’s era, Stratford is heavily reliant on the tourists who stream in from around the world, giving it an international outlook and affluence unusual for provincial England. But like much of the country outside the major cities and university towns, it swung in favour of Brexit.
To Himmens, who once lived in Spain and who regularly visits long-time friends in France, it was an easy choice. “We’re the closest of friends with Europe,” she said. “We want to remain friends — but not be governed by them.”
Her husband, a fellow guide who stands where Shakespeare’s front door once stood, welcoming children with a doff of his black feathered cap, agrees. “There are 27 other countries being told what do by unelected people. It can only end in tears,” said George Himmens, a mustachioed 69-year-old. “We want to get out before the tears start.”
And the notion that there may be tears in Britain once the economic costs of breaking up with the country’s closest trading partner come to bear? The Europeans, Himmens suggests, doth protest too much: “Those French farmers! What are they all going to do with that bloody Camembert?”
Brexit looks very different to Jonathan Baker, a former English teacher who chairs a local group campaigning to keep Britain in even as it heads out. The voters may have spoken last June, he acknowledged. But as the reality of Brexit sets in, he clings to the hope that the country can still change its mind — especially when the stakes are so high. “We’ve had 70 years of peace thanks in part to the European Union,” he said. “That’s something not to be taken for granted.”
Nor, said Tomas Budi, is the effect that Brexit will have on Britain’s young. The 21-year-old is from Spain but has spent the semester in the UK under an EU student exchange programme known as Erasmus. The programme is named for the Dutch theologian whose writings are believed to have influenced the Bard. It is a programme that Shakespeare, keen student of Europe that he was, may have found appealing. But it’s one that could end, for Britain at least, once it is out of the EU.
“Since coming here I’ve met students from England and Greece and France and Italy. You grow up as a person, and your thoughts become more global,” Budi said as he and his mother paused for coffee after a day of sightseeing in Stratford. “If the UK leaves, European students won’t have the opportunity to come here and study. And British students won’t have the opportunity to go to France or to Spain. “I think that’s a mistake.”
By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2017