Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Shakespeare’s Not-So Sceptered Isle

In 2012, when the world tuned in for the opening ceremony of London’s Olympic Games, they were witness in part to a performance of one of Shakespeare’s most famed speeches, delivered by one of today’s most revered Shakespearean actors. Kenneth Branagh, dressed as English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, offered these lines in the spirit of the ceremony’s larger theme, “The Isles of Wonder”:

Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

In isolation, as part of a larger tribute to the British Isles, the speech has a powerful effect. But of course Shakespeare is often misleading out of context. At this particular moment in The Tempest, set not in Britain but on a remote isle long associated with the “New World,” the island “monster” Caliban tries to calm the nerves of his fractious guests, who have sought first to subdue him and use his knowledge of the island to help them colonize it. For readers who come to sympathize with Caliban, the moment is poignant—a tribute to a homeland over which he has no control, on which he has been held as a prisoner and slave.

Stratford-8 by Jen Hunter, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr
Stratford-8 by Jen Hunter, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Branagh—and Danny Boyle, who directed the ceremony—might have chosen something else for Shakespeare’s big moment; there are, after all, moments of panegyric actually about England in his plays. Perhaps most memorable is John of Gaunt’s famed “sceptered isle” speech from Richard II, in which England is figured as “This other Eden, demi-paradise” (2.1.42). But perhaps it is right to locate Caliban’s speech in a British context; after all, Shakespeare often wrote of other places—of the thirty-six plays in the First Folio, twenty-three are set outside the British Isles, and while their settings are varied and sometimes entirely invented, they often invoke the realities of life in England. It may have been Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it is also a world in which Bottom & Co. look suspiciously like amateur players in an earlier incarnation of the English theatrical practice that became so wholly professional in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

When Shakespeare does, in fact, write about the “Isles of Wonder,” the result is deeply rewarding for readers and audiences. Most of these treatments are found in the plays where Shakespeare wrestles with the land’s past, a notable exception being his lone England-set comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. The histories, especially, call forth the land at crucial moments: think of Hal hanging with the “good lads in Eastcheap” (2.4.13), a locale that comes to signify the prince’s carefully cultivated relationship with those he will eventually rule; or the Forest of Galtres in 2 Henry VI, where the landscape, “like a broken limb united” (4.1.161) comes to signify the stratagems of war. In Richard III, the looming specter of the Tower of London, mentioned twenty-five times, no doubt would have reminded audiences of their own experiences of the place, which sat not far from Shakespeare’s Globe. And when, in Henry VIII, the king decides where to hold the trial for his annulment, he calls on the very place where audiences may well have been sitting: “The most convenient place I can think of / For such receipt of learning is Blackfriars” (2.2.136-7).

Audiences in Shakespeare’s day would have heard here references to land in which they lived and worked, to land from which they may have hailed. But those audiences were not, of course, exclusively English, and readers of even the “English” plays should be mindful of the ways in which Shakespeare maps “Britain” more generally: Scotland, of course, is the setting for Macbeth; Ireland, too, engaged in wars with English forces throughout Shakespeare’s career, is invoked in 2 Henry VI, its “gallowglasses and stout kerns” (4.9.26) marching back with York to claim the throne. Wales, bordering close to Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford, figures prominently: Richard II attempts refuge at Flint Castle; Hotspur hatches rebellion with Glendower and Mortimer at Glendower’s castle in Bangor; the future Henry VII lands at Milford Haven—also appearing in Cymbeline—and marches through Wales to Bosworth Field, where the Tudor dynasty is born. And by the time Shakespeare is writing Lear, “Britain,” of course, is a crucial political subject, tied to James’s ill-fated efforts to unify all his kingdoms under one crown.

These are just a few examples of how Shakespeare maps his “Isles of Wonder.” But it’s important, even as we celebrate Shakespeare’s status as England’s most revered literary figure, that we recall the ways in which he did not so comfortably share John of Gaunt’s vision of a “sceptered isle.” For Shakespeare, the land was more plural, more textured, more spacious than Gaunt allowed.

Featured image credit: Winding by Richard Walker, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *