Tuesday, 10 May 2016

What country should give you harbour?

Romans in Britain, A Doll's House, Richard II, Behzti (Honour)

A play may be dangerous

Thomas Middleton’s words (in the sub-heading above) were true in Elizabethan and Jacobean times just as they can be true now: a play may be dangerous. Drama has always had the capacity to be contentious and provocative, although the Internet is the forum today where controversies are most easily stirred up. Shakespeare’s Richard II was banned in its day (because of the scene where the king is forced to abdicate on stage); Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was credited with women walking out on their husbands at the end of the 19th Century; the director of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain was prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act; and as recently as 2004 British-born playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was forced into hiding following death threats after her play Behtzi (Honour) had to close after two days of violent demonstrations outside Birmingham Rep.

Turbulent times

An Act of Parliament in 1543, while Henry VIII was establishing the Reformation in England, forbade plays that explicitly explored religious issues. 100 years later in 1642 the parliament (who seven years later would execute King Charles I) banned stage plays altogether.
Between 1543 and 1642 current affairs were in a dangerous state:
  • Who would succeed Henry VIII?
  1. Would it be the young Edward VI, who was keen on his cousin Lady Jane Grey succeeding him?
  2. The pro-Catholic (Bloody) Mary I?
  3. The daughter of beheaded Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I? 
  4. (In the event they all did, albeit Jane for only nine days!)
  • Could the old Catholic forces and new Protestant Church of England find a non-violent accord?
  • Could the country manage the effects of the colonisation of the Americas (the New World)?
  • Would the economic boom and bust caused by new trade routes ever stabilise?
  • How would the population of England deal with the influx of migrants from the new trading partners abroad?
  • Could the racial and sectarian conflicts, especially in London, be quelled by the authorities?
  • Would the increasing social mobility give the lower and middle classes an inflated sense of their rights and influence?
  • Would Spain invade?
  • Would the pockets of civil disobedience spread out of control?
  • Would the plague destroy the whole of society?
Turbulent times indeed.
Turbulent times in Elizabethan and Jacobean England

Ian McKellen in Stratford-upon-Avon

I enjoyed (most of) the BBC2 broadcast of the Shakespeare Live! presentation from the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – April 23rd 1616. One “act” that struck me as blindingly contemporary was Ian McKellen’s impassioned extract from Sir Thomas More. It’s astonishing that the speech McKellen delivered is the only known example of William Shakespeare’s own handwriting.
Shakespeare's own handwriting
When I saw Sir Thomas More in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2005 it was clear that a central section was indeed by Shakespeare – it had echoes of Coriolanus, King Lear and the Henry VI trilogy and vocabulary that was recognisably Shakespearean. Scholars agree the original work was by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle but that at least three other playwrights contributed revisions or additional scenes: Shakespeare, Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood.

Judi Dench as Elizabeth I and Simon Callow as Sir Edmund Tilney in Shakespeare in Love

What country.... should give you harbour?

The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney (played by Simon Callow in the movie Shakespeare in Love) is known to have banned the play unless major revisions were made – “Leave out the (riot) wholly” he demanded – a clear sign of political censorship. Within Shakespeare’s scenes is the climax of the May Day riot of 1517 when the character of Thomas More persuades the crowd to calm down by imagining the plight of the refugees and asylum-seekers:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs, and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires....
....What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?....
....would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth?
The text is timeless; Ian McKellen delivered the speech as if it were about 2016 not 1517; the sentiments and questions are as powerful now as they were in Shakespeare’s time. If you were an asylum-seeker or a migrant in another country, how would you hope to be treated? The crowd replies to Sir Thomas More:
Faith, he says true: let’s do as we may be done to.
Images of Thomas More (Paul Schofield, Anton Lesser, Nigel Cooke and "wretched strangers"