The pageantry in London to mark the 60-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II has been unprecedented in modern times, a celebration that the old hometown of the English royals hasn’t witnessed for 350 years. To understand it, maybe we need to refer to a playwright who was around when kings were kings and heads were rolling. By KEVIN BLOOM.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Thus said Henry IV in William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, complaining that he couldn’t sleep. The king had seized the English throne from Richard II—who was portrayed by the Bard as pathetic and vindictive—and then had him murdered, so it was no wonder he couldn’t get some decent shut-eye.
Personality-wise, Henry IV didn’t receive great treatment from Shakespeare either. A pious hypocrite, he was shown mishandling the affairs of state while his son, Hal (later Henry V), was out whoring and drinking with Falstaff.
In fact, aside from Henry V, who would redeem his youthful improprieties via a famous military victory at the Battle of Agincourt, and Henry VII, who didn’t get his own play, none of the English monarchs we come across in the Shakespeare canon seem entirely worthy of the crown. Henry VI was depicted as benevolent and peaceful but otherwise insane, and Richard III is referred to as “that bottled spider, that foul hunchback’d toad.” As for Henry VIII, no elaboration is necessary.
Thing is, Shakespeare lived during the reign of Elizabeth I, and the English history plays are often interpreted as propaganda for the House of Tudor, as against the rival House of York. In an era where a monarch was well within his or her divine rights to chop off a dissident’s head (and it needn’t have been any dissident or even a simple head-chopping: Henry IV is thought to have “starved” Richard II to death), the playwright would have been keenly aware of his place in the chain of being.
So what would he have made of the reign of Elizabeth II? It’s a tough one to answer, partly because English monarchs no longer hold the power of life and death over their subjects, but mainly because scholars over the centuries have tried and failed to get a handle on how Shakespeare’s life bore any relation to his work. The most we can do, perhaps, is take some of the bard’s immortal lines and see how they would have applied to the monarchy in the 21st century.
Let’s start with the abovementioned from Henry IV, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” The only application here has got to be literal, a reference to the crown that London jewellery house De Beers created specially for the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, a celebration that takes place from 2 June to 5 June in honour of Her Majesty’s 60-year reign.
Made up of 974 diamonds—797 polished and 177 rough—the crown took a hundred hours to complete, and at the top “sits a 73-carat rough diamond contained within a cross pattée that allows natural light to shine through.” Is the head that wears this crown going to feel uneasy? Given that its cost is not far off the GDP of a small country (a country that the British Empire in all likelihood once plundered), it’s hard to see how not.
Less uncharitably, there’s Polonius from Hamlet: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.” The shrewd Polonius, recognising that his king is off his rocker, mentions this as an aside to the audience, after Hamlet has registered his disapproval about a slander on old age by saying, “…for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.”
On Sunday, a flotilla of 1,000 ships floated down the River Thames, in a spectacle easily as crazy as Hamlet’s famous screed. The pageant, the largest of its kind for 350 years, included rowing boats, a contingent of Dunkirk “little ships,” tall-ships such as the Southampton-based Tenacious, modern military vessels, a Maori waka and a barge carrying the Queen and members of the royal family.
But on Monday night, in an arguably crazier spectacle, Buckingham Palace became the centre of attention with a BBC jubilee concert starting in the evening. More than 10,000 ticket holders saw artists including Robbie Williams, Dame Shirley Bassey, Stevie Wonder, JLS, Jessie J and Elton John perform. A pre-advertised highlight was the group Madness performing "Our House" from the roof of the palace. Also, more than 4,000 Diamond Jubilee beacons lit up the night sky across the UK and the Commonwealth.
What then—talking in both the capitalised and uncapitalised version of the word, the former being the group and the latter the noun—is the method in the “madness”?
Well, to start with, having Madness belt out "Our House" from the roof of the Queen’s digs in central London isn’t the worst public relations move in the world. Madness, if anybody remembers, started out life as The North London Invaders and in their early years were closely associated with skinhead subculture. The British royal family, since the death of Princess Diana and the near-implosion of the whole ancient institution, has been trying desperately to recast itself as something with which the country can identify. Its efforts to keep up with the times, to respond to a realm that has grown diffuse and cynical, have met with increasing success in the last decade. The Diamond Jubilee would appear to be the apotheosis of this strategy.
Which would also be the answer to the question when the more generalised version of “madness”—Shakespeare’s version—is applied. Come Tuesday, when the Jubilee ends, an estimated two million people would have visited the United Kingdom to witness the event. That’s a whole lot of positive international interest in one country, not to mention a whole lot of tourist pounds sterling during a period of economic hardship (the sale of commemoration memorabilia alone could raise the annual growth rate).
The “method” has worked so well, in fact, that even the UK’s left-wing newspapers have been crowing, offering—in royalist Boris Johnson’s words—“Go’-bless-yer-ma’am-style apologies for their former belief in a presidential alternative”.
Still, as South Africans can attest, there is a potential downside to all the patriotism and general civic-mindedness. As Mary Riddell wrote last week in The Telegraph: “The lesson of this Jubilee is that Britons crave shared life and common purpose. The question, once the Ma’amite sandwiches are gone, is whether politicians can build on the upsurge of public unity. If not, then next weekend’s festivities will be nothing but a national sugar rush, fuelled by cupcakes and nostalgia, before democracy drifts towards perdition.”
Down here in the former colonies, we have to ask: nostalgia for what? For life before the compromised Cameron government? For Tony Blair or John Major? For Winston Churchill, who was the prime minister when Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne? For Queen Victoria and the age of imperialism?
Perhaps it’s nostalgia for an England that never existed, an England that Shakespeare—the man who over the centuries has shaped its national consciousness more than any other—conceived of thus (in Richard II):
“This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed and famous by their birth.” DM
“Our public service Queen has a lot to teach her failing politicians,” in The Telegraph
Photo: Queen Elizabeth speaks to her husband, Prince Philip, on the Spirit of Chartwell during the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant on the River Thames, in London June 3, 2012. Queen Elizabeth joined an armada of 1,000 boats in a gilded royal barge, in a pageant down the River Thames on Sunday in a spectacular highlight of four days of nationwide celebrations to mark her Diamond Jubilee. (REUTERS)