It’s been quite a time, lately. Celebrating Her Majesty’s 90th birthday. 400 years since Shakespeare died. Such national events focus the question that’s not far from my mind as we anticipate the referendum in June. What is our national identity?
It’s a key question as we face more weeks ahead of debate about whether we should leave or remain in the European Union. It’s heated – on both sides. For many people – perhaps for you and me – the question rests on the fundamental view of how best to express our national identity. There are other considerations, of course. Reform of the European political apparatus. The economic arguments. But when it comes down to it, those who will vote to leave will do so because they want to defend a national identity that they think is under threat. They fear the countless homeless people that might arrive on our shores. The loss of our distinctive culture.
Shakespeare. When I lived and worked in Bradford, at the Cathedral there, one summer we staged a performance of Much Ado About Nothing.
Remember Beatrice, arguing, flirting, with Benedict – great fun! The play has a dark side as well. Claudio and Hero have fallen in love and are engaged to be married. But the dastardly Don John persuades Claudio that Hero has been unfaithful, and she is denounced before the stunned guests at her wedding. She faints, humiliated before her father and family, to the extent that it’s better that she dies. You’ll remember that all believe she has; although really the death is faked and all comes well in the end.
In his plays, Shakespeare explored all sorts of issues that addressed the conventions of his day. Much Ado tackles the place of women in society. The feisty Beatrice who argues as well as any modern day feminist. The sad Hero whose reputation can be destroyed with one false accusation, leaving death as the best option.
To watch this play in Bradford raised all sorts of issues. With women of Pakistani origin and some Christian friends we watched it together. Shakespeare enabled us, from our different cultures, to explore the place of women in society, in relationship. Shakespeare was there before us, addressing the same questions that Pakistani Muslim, English Christian women still struggle with today.
We need to think of ourselves belonging in a global world. A world of diverse cultures. Living in Bradford, I felt the force of the differences between myself and Muslim friends, but thanks to Shakespeare, we found a way to talk about our common experience.
In his plays, Shakespeare captured (and enhanced) our national ability to examine ourselves, our prejudices, and change. Much Ado focuses on attitudes about women, but all his plays explore different aspects of the human condition. Shakespeare continues to represent a profound strength and joy about our national identity. We can look at ourselves, laugh at ourselves, and change. We are not a defensive culture.
Let that inclusive, non-defensive, hospitality be our hallmark as a nation, as we seek to find our place in an increasingly globalised world.
-- The Very Rev Frances Ward is Dean of St Edmundsbury