‘Where’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?’

Michael Dobson

  • Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603-1707 by John Kerrigan
    Oxford, 599 pp, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 818384 6

We never went on holiday to foreign countries when I was a child. Not to properly foreign ones, anyway. Although we lived on the South Coast, the family Hillman Minx would head not towards a nearby Channel port but westwards, or north-westwards, or just plain north. In perverse flight from the sunlit sandy beaches of Bournemouth – which attracted mere holidaymakers, the kind who were starting to take package trips to Benidorm instead – we, like the rest of the hardy self-improving lower middle classes, were bound for places where farmhouse bed and breakfasts cowered beneath looming ridges of wet, windswept heather, where there were ample supplies of fiddle music, and where every fishing village and handicrafts exhibition promised another souvenir linen tea towel. Sometimes it was Cornwall; sometimes Scotland; sometimes Wales; and sometimes it was the long drive across Wales to Fishguard and the night ferry to Ireland.

My anoraks gradually accumulated shiny stick-on plastic arm badges from each of these misty regions, but whenever I surveyed these trophies I was seized by a nagging doubt. Had I really been abroad, or not? Cornwall and Wales, despite some convincingly bizarre place names, seemed much like my grandparents’ North Yorkshire only more so, being about 110 per cent Methodist. Scotland was unlike Cornwall and Wales in having fewer chapels and bigger mountains, but the ‘Welcome to Scotland’ signs you drove past at the border didn’t seem different in kind from the familiar and palpably insincere ‘Welcome to Hardy Country’ ones with which the Eldridge Pope brewery had adorned so many local roadsides back home. It was just more of the same stuff only a bit further up and with more lakes, except you had to call them lochs.

Ireland, admittedly, was different, if only because you arrived at breakfast time feeling a bit seasick and discovered that all the postboxes and telephone booths had been painted green. But in those pre-euro days the shops still accepted ordinary money, and my mother used to say that what she liked best about the place, apart from the Mary O’Hara records, was that with its bumpy single-track roads and straying donkeys it reminded her of the prewar Dales of her childhood. The only time I remember thinking that something really foreign was happening on one of these family holidays was when we took shelter in a little café-cum-shop somewhere in North Wales and all the other customers were talking in a language I couldn’t understand. Although quite gratified in retrospect by this evidence of authentically local culture, my parents were clearly made uncomfortable by it at the time. I gathered from this incident that one of the special things about the United Kingdom was that you could be a British person drinking a cup of tea somewhere in Britain and still be quite definitely in the wrong country.

I grew up with a strong sense that we British, whoever we collectively and not quite collectively were, inhabited a cluster of variegated islands in quite a lot of cold ocean, some of it managed by Sealink and some by MacBrayne’s. I also developed a strong sense that our family lived in the most banal corner of these islands. Though Wessex might have been a kingdom once upon a time, there was no mistaking it now for anything other than a province, and an unglamorously modern and commercial one at that.

Lamentably short of its own local customs and traditional folk songs, the area around our unenchanted conurbation did at least have some serious and even picturesque history: we were taken on a school trip to Corfe Castle in case we hadn’t noticed. Disappointingly, though, in England even history seemed to be pragmatic rather than glamorously tragic. Whereas ruined castles in Scotland and Ireland and Wales came with stories of heroic chieftains getting burned out of their strongholds, driven into exile, and having to renounce their ancestral languages, in England they just showed that Parliament had sorted out the naughtier aristocrats and established the principle of constitutional monarchy. The history of Scotland and Wales and the top bit of Ireland, I decided, must be the history of their being uncomfortably but necessarily dragged into the modern world by England so as to make up Britain, in order that they too might share in the everyday benefits of non-naughtiness, parliamentary democracy, and our ceremonially and gloriously powerless royal family. Presumably the reason my parents thought that these Celtic regions made such interesting holiday destinations was that the sorry but inevitable business of anglicising them hadn’t quite taken.

Then the Troubles flared up again; and the IRA bombing campaign came to the mainland; and John McGrath wrote The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil; and suddenly it was 1974, and there were two close-run general elections, and not only did the Ulster Unionists matter even in England, but so did a couple of hitherto obscure and eccentric organisations called the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. Perhaps the story that it was natural and inevitable for the peoples of all the islands off the north-west of Europe to unite as a single polity with a common anglophone culture had been untrue all along. Some of the history textbooks I was by now reading at secondary school were looking distinctly unconvincing in places. If it was puzzling to learn that what was still being called the English Civil War had actually been started by the Scots and had been finally resolved, years later, in Ireland when James II, the last Stuart king, was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, it was downright alarming to go home and see TV footage of riots at Orange parades that showed this supposedly definitive and long-past battle was actually still in progress, and that nowadays the people on good King Billy’s side didn’t seem obviously preferable to their opponents. And if the SNP wasn’t actually proposing a restaging of the Battle of Culloden it was certainly trying to demolish what the textbooks regarded as a pillar of modern British statehood just as significant as the Bill of Rights (which William and Mary had accepted before they replaced James II): the Act of Union of 1707. I seem to recall that in the summer of 1974 we went to the Lake District.

Strangely, though, when I left home for university at the end of the decade, the English literature I studied didn’t seem to reflect any of this, and the syllabus was just as provincially southern English as Bournemouth. There was an optional digression on the Scottish Chaucerians, and a special paper where the Anglo-Irish Yeats and Anglo-American Eliot could be kept in quarantine together, and if you took the drama option most of the best English playwrights after Shakespeare turned out to be Irish – though it was success in the West End that mattered, not roots on a westerly island. Some were already criticising this syllabus for its narrowness, and pointing out some of the ideological interests and assumptions it served, but they weren’t usually doing so from a devolutionary perspective. Instead, they argued that the notion of a unitary English literature had been constructed by 18th-century gentlemen as a way of depoliticising Milton, and that it had then been institutionalised as an academic discipline a century or so later in order to fob off disadvantaged groups denied an education in ruling-class Latin, whether they were artisans, or Dissenters, or women, or colonial subjects aspiring to places in the Indian Civil Service. I don’t remember the Scots or the Welsh or the Irish being mentioned in this catalogue of the excluded. Uncomfortable with any nationalism except its own, this English critique of English still seemed to assume that literature in Britain meant anglophone literature published in London, and usually written there too.

Anyone doubting that all this has changed for ever over the course of a generation which has seen the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the founding of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament needs only to feel the weight of John Kerrigan’s important and deeply researched new study, Archipelagic English. Informed by an ever increasing corpus of investigations into the making and unmaking of the British state and the anglocentric literary tradition alike (with more than a hundred pages of endnotes citing work by the likes of Tom Nairn, Robert Crawford and Brian Doyle), this is an examination of the writing produced across these islands during the crucial century between the accession of James VI of Scotland as James I of England in 1603 and the passage of the legislation that at last legally united his two kingdoms in the reign of his great-granddaughter Anne.

Nothing if not ambitious, Archipelagic English seeks to remap a literary period that in the bad old days just about got you from Shakespeare’s tragedies being performed in Southwark and Donne preaching at St Paul’s to Congreve’s comedies being performed in Covent Garden. Instead of staying in London and making the occasional foray out of town – critics have tended to make it only as far as George Herbert’s Bemerton or Andrew Marvell’s Hull in any case – this study largely avoids the English capital, or at least as far as is compatible with still discussing Cymbeline and some minor bits of Milton. For the most part it shifts its formidably knowledgable attention to other centres of literary interest and activity altogether: the Hawthornden of William Drummond; the Dublin of James Shirley; the Wales of Morgan Llwyd, Henry Vaughan and Katherine Philips; the Munster of Roger Boyle; the Edinburgh of Sir George Mackenzie and William Cleland; the Derry of William Philips.

Its historical scope is just as broad. After a final chapter on Daniel Defoe’s activities in Edinburgh in 1706-7, where he intrigued, lobbied and proselytised on behalf of the Union, Kerrigan adds a substantial epilogue exploring the interconnected histories of Britishness, Irishness, Welshness, Scottishness and Englishness, and their ramifications for the notion of an anglophone literary tradition in the century that followed the Act of Union’s passage. As a dense literary and political prehistory of the puzzles in national and cultural identity that haunted my childhood summers, Archipelagic English can’t be beaten. It’s particularly striking to learn that one of the first consequences of the official invention of Britain was the development of a souvenir linen industry. Having helped push through the Act of Union, and noticing that one of its bribes was the creation of favourable terms for the sale of Scottish textiles as compared to Irish, Defoe promptly commissioned a supply of linen tablecloths bearing the new British coat of arms, which he sold at a considerable profit until Anglo-Irish MPs managed to get the protective tariffs repealed.

Kerrigan’s book would hardly make ideal holiday reading, even on the most unnaturally smooth ferry crossing between distant islands, and not only because the topic he addresses is of a complexity that demands ferocious attention to detail. While the devolved nature of Archipelagic English militates against the imposition of a single overarching narrative, it shouldn’t be quite so hard as it is to work out what the book’s main arguments are. It isn’t just that Kerrigan’s prose sometimes loses its momentum in scholarly caveats and qualifications, or that a reader can feel lost among his meticulous close readings of unfamiliar texts, expert as they are. It’s more that in the course of these readings, concerned above all with setting plays, poems and pamphlets into minutely defined local contexts, the categories listed in Kerrigan’s subtitle – literature, history and politics – are in constant danger of collapsing into one another. Literature, read historically, reveals how its writers negotiated conflicts between Puritanism, class loyalty, ethnic identification, the outcome of the battle of Worcester and local attitudes to the Solemn League and Covenant. History, deduced from texts, is all about the way the writers of those texts negotiated conflicts between Puritanism, class loyalty, ethnic identification, the outcome of the battle of Worcester and local attitudes to the Solemn League and Covenant. And politics is the conflict between Puritanism, class loyalty, ethnic identification, the outcome of the battle of Worcester and local attitudes to the Solemn League and Covenant, which we can deduce from literature, when we read it historically. Certainly, if this book really is, as its blurb claims, ‘set to influence present-day arguments about devolution, unionism and nationalism in Britain and Ireland’, it isn’t at all obvious in which direction it hopes its influence will tend. I doubt that many politicians or constitutional theorists will get as far as the end of its unwieldy 90-page introduction; or, even if they do, whether they’ll have been able to work out if Kerrigan is on their side or not.

Anyone hoping for a comprehensive reappraisal of the 17th-century literary canon may be disappointed, too. According to Kerrigan, the historicising tendency in recent literary scholarship ‘has opened up issues that cannot be probed in other ways and equipped us more fully to make judgments about the value of texts’. Such judgments are quite scarce in Archipelagic English, convincing though they usually are when they come. Kerrigan has certainly persuaded me to take a fresh look at the plays and romances of the Earl of Orrery, for instance, and in his epilogue he offers a fine vindication of Scott’s absurdly underrated masterpiece Waverley, a novel without which not only The Thirty-Nine Steps but also War and Peace could never have been written. It is interesting, though, that a critic so alive to Scott’s exquisite irony and good humour should lack a comparable lightness of touch. The only jokes in Kerrigan’s book are made at the expense of the scrupulous, tongue-twisting awkwardness of his book’s title. One comes when he asks rhetorically, of a marginal gloss to a multilingual Anglo-Irish skit on the Aeneid variously called ‘Purgatorium Hibernicum’ and ‘The Fingallian Travesty’ and finally printed in London as The Irish Hudibras (1689), ‘How archipelagic is that?’ The other comes at the close of an early chapter on Macbeth:

Within the play, and going beyond it, one last thing is clear: while actors may be right never to refer to Macbeth by its Folio title, since it brings down broken limbs, empty houses and other misfortunes, their superstitious soubriquet ‘The Scottish Play’ is geopolitically hopeless. What do I propose instead? ‘The British Play’ would be anachronistic, ‘The Anglo-Scottish Play’ too narrow. The title I seem to have arrived at, the last title I shall mention in this chapter, is ‘The Archipelagic Tragedy’. No doubt it will catch on.

With the offstage kerns and gallowglasses of its opening battle sequence, the flight of Donalbain to Ireland after the murder of his father, and the culminating English-backed invasion of a Scotland whose thanes are thereafter to be called earls, Macbeth is indisputably what Kerrigan would call archipelagic, in that it is concerned with the interconnections between different political communities within the archipelago formerly known as the British Isles. He explains that some details in Shakespeare’s play seem to have been responses to anxieties about James I’s desire to centralise the honours system, bringing titles into his own gift which had been hereditary, and thereby upsetting some English and Scottish aristocrats almost as much as Macbeth is unsettled by his unexpected promotion by Duncan to the title of Thane of Cawdor. It’s an indication of the limitations of Kerrigan’s approach, however, not only that he seems content here as elsewhere to move on once he has demonstrated that the text under examination is indeed archipelagic, but that his attention to Macbeth should be confined to its immediate political context. Although he intermittently suggests that the period he surveys made a lasting contribution not just to the political constitution of the archipelago but to the nature of its literary tradition (‘The poetry, drama and prose fiction that was written in archipelagic English during the period 1603-1707 contributed to the creation of a state system that contributed to the state of our literature’), he rarely refers to any given work’s sustained and changing influence over time. When he does, he isn’t always persuasive: the notion that the realist traditions of the English novel begin with Defoe learning to put circumstantial details into his pro-Union pamphlets, for example, is unlikely to set the history of fiction alight, however brilliantly Kerrigan goes on to reread Colonel Jack as a meditation on Jacobitism.

Macbeth, though, would go on mattering to the way its readers and audiences understood Anglo-Scottish relations long after 1606. Rewritten by Sir William Davenant in the 1660s, it was thereafter widely understood as a loyally pro-Stuart play (Charles II’s Catholic mistress Louise de Kerouaille took the entire court to see it in 1680 in an attempt to minimise the profits of a radically Protestant play at a rival theatre, Settle’s The Female Prelate: being the history of the life and death of Pope Joan), and under Anne it even served the state’s transatlantic diplomacy when four Iroquois chieftains, brought to London to ratify a colonial treaty, were taken to a performance in 1710. David Garrick, reviving the play in the 1740s, played Macbeth in the modern red coat of a Georgian general, so that he looked quite like the Duke of Cumberland, known after his treatment of prisoners taken at Culloden as the Butcher of the Scots. The play only became ethnically Scottish in appearance and emphasis when Charles Macklin staged a tartan-clad production in 1773. Before that, Macbeth had helped articulate the anti-Union feelings of John Wilkes and his English radical followers: they nicknamed the hated Scottish prime minister Lord Bute ‘the Northern Thane’ in the 1760s, and even pilloried him as the protagonist of a scurrilous topical travesty called Macboot.

Any study of the way anglophone literary culture negotiated the formation of an archipelagic state system might also want to take into consideration what happened to some older texts that remained in widespread circulation. The 17th-century reception of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 – in which, as Kerrigan briefly notes in his introduction, the map of England is in danger of being torn up from the north by the Percies and their Scottish ally the Douglas, and from the west by Owen Glendower and his Welsh followers – would surely have been worth some attention. Performed in a highly political amateur abbreviation in Kent as early as 1622, still popular on stage in cut form even during the Interregnum and only rarely out of the professional repertory thereafter, it was not only one of the first English plays ever performed professionally in Holyhead in Wales (in 1787) and a favourite for amateur performance in Ascendancy Ireland (at Kilkenny Castle between 1802 and 1821, and by officers garrisoned at Clonmel in 1806), but even inspired a Scottish nationalist counter-play, John Home’s Douglas. (‘Where’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?’ one supporter is supposed to have shouted at its Edinburgh opening in 1756.) A play about a prince of Wales, whose English companion appears to be killed by a Scot, which remained continually in print throughout the 17th century and was performed and debated right through these islands during the 18th: how archipelagic is that?

The strangest near-absence from Archipelagic English, however, is that of the Matter of Britain itself, especially as handled in that most plangently proto-British of pre-1707 literary works, Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. With his family connections stretching from Cornwall to Orkney, and his continual struggle to hold together a quarrelsome pan-British government against enemies both within and without, you’d think King Arthur would merit more of a look-in here, especially since Malory’s masterpiece was reprinted in 1634 (the year of Milton’s Welsh Borders masque Comus, among much else). However, although Kerrigan mentions the interest expressed by some 17th-century Welsh writers in the old stories recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the status and currency of the Arthurian legends across the archipelago during the period leading up to the Union is never explored. The fact that Milton, who drafted his own ‘History of Britain’, once planned to write an epic about the Round Table remains unexplained. Among the archipelago’s tales of legendary warrior heroes, Kerrigan is more interested in James Macpherson’s Ossian (1762-63), which, he laments, ‘has yet to be assimilated to Eng. Lit.’. Long may it remain unassimilated. The last time anyone tried to incorporate Macpherson’s all-too-imitable cod-Gaelic woodnotes wild, they produced The Lord of the Rings. Complete with twee Saxon hobbits, suspiciously Welsh-looking dwarves and intolerably fey Celtic elves, Tolkien’s kitsch epic may well be the most archipelagic work of modern times, comparable only to the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman who go into a pub.

Milton decided in the end to write not a national epic based on Malory but a Christian one founded on the Bible, and the design of Paradise Lost was influenced less by native examples than by classical and Italian ones: Virgil, Dante, Tasso, Ariosto. Perhaps the most serious limitation of Kerrigan’s perspective is that for a great many early modern anglophone writers, the other parts of the archipelago ultimately mattered less than the rest of the civilised world. A list of 17th-century literary texts destined to have a major influence on English-speaking culture would probably rank Don Quixote and the plays of Molière a lot higher than most of the works discussed in Archipelagic English. If, as Kerrigan concludes, ‘the subject can neither be defined, nor anglophone literature be historically understood, along purely national lines,’ then that obliges us to read this period’s literature in at least a European context as well as this finely nuanced offshore one.

Although in the 17th century most people in the richer, more populous southern half of the largest of these islands may have underestimated the immediately neighbouring countries and principalities to the north and west as harmlessly or dangerously archaic margins (much as I did as a young tourist), and set out accordingly to placate or subjugate them as circumstances dictated, what lay across the seas to the south and east was another matter altogether. The border with Scotland could be legally abolished in 1707 because for the English what was really important wasn’t not being Scottish, but not being French or Spanish or Dutch. I sometimes wish I had realised this earlier. My own children, part-Scottish on their mother’s side, have been subjected in their turn to holidays in Scotland, and Wales, and Cornwall, and Ireland: after all, the experience of being English in the other parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland is a vital part of their rich native birthright of discomfort and alienation. But they have also been conscientiously transported to the Continent. As I noticed myself after I finally got a passport and went on a school exchange visit to France in 1975, the enigma, the significance and the embarrassment of being English within Britain are nothing compared to those of being British within Europe.