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Brexit, Shakespeare, and International Law

How to make sense of the Brexit vote and its aftermath? To where can we look if we are to learn more, and to learn more deeply, of the agonistic parts played by principle and pragmatism in human decision-making where self, sovereignty and economic well-being are concerned? King John – Shakespeare’s English history play with the earliest setting of all – casts the longest and, perhaps the strongest, light. The dramatic premise of the play is King John’s dispute with the King of France regarding the sovereignty of England. It is agreed that their dispute should be handed over to a plebiscite of the people, in this case, the citizens of Angiers who look down on the rival kings from the walls of their town. In this respect the play rehearses The EU referendum, in which the British public were raised to the castle walls and empowered to pass judgment on competitors for the sovereignty of their nation.

In the event, King John and King Philip of France make a peace based on a form of exchange or trade, only for their bargain to be forcibly broken off by the intervention of a Pan-European central authority – the Pope, represented in the play by his legate Pandulph. Nowadays the most celebrated event in King John’s reign is the sealing of Magna Carta. Shakespeare’s play reflects the fact that for his early modern contemporaries the most significant event was the surrender of the crown to the papal legate and King John’s receiving it back as a vassal of Pope Innocent III.

The “Brexit” vote has been labelled, somewhat dismissively, as a protest vote. This it may have been, but there is a long British tradition of protest against Pan-European authority. Julius Caesar felt it, the Nazis felt it and the Roman Catholic Church felt it. Let me pose a controversial possibility. Could it be that a predominantly Roman Catholic EU is still modelled along essentially Papal lines or still espouses the same federal, even feudal, ambitions? Was the Roman Catholic communion of nations the template for the European Community? Even if the answer is ‘no’, might it still seem so to the English from the perspective of their national history? A Eurobarometer poll of 2012 found that 48% of EU citizens describe themselves as Roman Catholics, which is four times times more than those who call themselves Protestants. Even more striking is that the UK is the only country, outside the Nordic nations, in which the number of respondents describing themselves as “Protestant” outnumbered those describing themselves as “Catholic”.

The death of King John, in an 1865 production of the play at the Drury Lane Theatre, London. Image credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The death of King John, in an 1865 production of the play at the Drury Lane Theatre, London. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In Shakespeare’s play, the Papal legate promises King John that “by the lawful power that I have, / Thou shalt stand cursed and excommunicate” (3.1.172-3). Can we hear this echoed in the threats levelled by the “remain” camp against the rebellious English in the lead-up to the referendum? When, in Shakespeare’s play the Papal legate compels France to withdraw from its bilateral pact with England, are there not clear parallels in the EU’s expectation that individual Member States should not enter into free-standing bilateral trade agreements with the UK post-Brexit? In Shakespeare’s play, the Papal legate threatens France with excommunication: “What canst thou say but will perplex thee more, / If thou stand excommunicate and cursed?” (3.1.232-3) and the Dauphin counsels his father to comply:

Bethink you, father; for the difference
Is purchase of a heavy curse from Rome,
Or the light loss of England for a friend (3.1.204-7)

Who should we say has played the part of the Papal legate, or the Pope, in the debate surrounding the UK’s EU referendum? It is hard to look beyond the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. A lawyer, as Pope Innocent III was, Juncker, Pandulph-like, fanned the flames that the UK’s leave campaigners had lit. If a Member State were now to say to Herr Juncker, as King Philip of France said to Cardinal Pandulph “Out of your grace, devise, ordain, impose / Some gentle order, and then we shall be blessed / To do your pleasure and continue friends [with England]” (3.1.250-252), would we be surprised if Herr Juncker replied, as Cardinal Pandulph replied, “All form is formless, order orderless, / Save what is opposite to England’s love” (3.1.253-4). Pandulph’s words in response to King John’s defiance express the same sentiments we would expect to hear Herr Juncker direct to those in the UK who voted “leave”. The argument that the people of the UK made a mistake and will lose more than they gain is heard in Pandulph’s “‘Tis strange to think how much King John hath lost / In this which he accounts so clearly won” (3.4.121-122). The claim that the fight to take the UK out of Europe will be followed by a fight to keep the UK united within its own borders, is an echo of Pandulph’s “A sceptre snatched with an unruly hand / Must be as boisterously maintain’d as gained” (3.4.135-6). The prediction that the people of the UK will repent recalls Pandulph’s, “This act, so evilly borne, shall cool the hearts / Of all his people, and freeze up their zeal” (3.4.149-150).

The most attractive character in the play is the Bastard son of Richard the Lionheart. He stands throughout as a chorus or everyman, inviting the audience to share his critical commentary on the mischief of the ruling powers. The Bastard acknowledges that amongst King John’s forces raised against the French there are, along with those of noble and gentle birth, “Some bastards too!” (2.1.279). He has in mind the many common folk of England who lack formally legitimate social status, but we are all too aware nowadays that there are bastards of a baser sort – nationalists who default to racism or violence. It is dangerous to speculate on the opinions of Shakespeare the man, but we can suppose that Shakespeare was a friend to foreign refugees. We know that around 1604 Shakespeare lodged with Protestant (Huguenot) immigrants in London and it is around this time that Shakespeare contributed to the play Sir Thomas More in which he sets out “the strangers’ case” in a speech that Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton have have called an “extraordinarily sympathetic evocation of Huguenot asylum seekers” [p15]. On the world stage post-Brexit, we might conclude, as Shakespeare’s King John concludes, that “Nought shall make us rue, / If England to itself do rest but true!” (5.6.110-118), but we should remember that England is true to itself when it protects the weak and protests against power.

Featured image credit: EU flag. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Theodor Meron is a scholar on the history of European war crimes law. He is Professor at New York University Law School, and a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal. His books have shown that Shakespeare had a strong interest in and a detailed understanding of the history of international war crimes law, as demonstrated in some of his history plays.

  2. Jennifer Feldman

    Gary Watt blended all three topics very well. UK chooses to violate European Union and international law on a significant scale. Brexit has gone viral after the countrywide referendum voted to leave the EU. On the world stage post-Brexit, Britain is affected directly or indirectly.It indirect impacts to lecturers,faculty, readers etc. These impacted on their grants, large portions of their research funding from large EU projects stopped. It means a substantial decrease in the size of research projects and few of paid PhD fellowships available now.
    Over time, Brexit might make the UK a more attractive destination for International students as pound gets cheaper it makes education in Britain more affordable and tourism into Britain can get a leg up and those who want to stay on to work.

  3. George

    To merge these 3 topics with such an ease is not an easy job. It’s really interesting to read such kind of topics. I would really appreciate to read such kind of blogs.

  4. Chad White

    Nothing new under the sun, indeed! Short of dumping the shattered bodies of war casualties on the expansive front lawns of modern policy makers and other relevant powers that be, a solid understanding of the history from whence we came is the only rational way forward.

  5. Ali Zafar

    Merging three different topics is not a easy task, this is going to be very interesting for readers. Really appreciated.

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