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These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Shakespeare and 'Rule, Brittania!'


"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."


I came across an article that sheds new light on the origins of the England’s great anthem, "Rule, Brittania!"

You would think that this song had nothing to do with Shakespeare and his contemporaries. 

However, the story of how and why the song was created illuminates what Shakespeare was doing with his plays.

Here's the link to the article that I found -- here.




I love this song, with its defiant, strong and proud love of England.

But I never knew the real origin of the song. I thought it was a very rousing piece of music to inspire Englishmen to love their country.

No, it was much more than that. It was a song of revolt.

It was a declaration to all men, including King George II, that Englishmen would not and should not give up its fight for freedom.

King George II

The historian, Oliver Cox, discovered letters written by people who were the first audience who heard this song performed in 1740.

This first audience understood the song as a political message to the king, and his Prime Minister, who were in the audience.

The song was commissioned by Frederick, Prince of Wales — who was the heir to the throne.

Frederick, Prince of Wales

Frederick was not very close to his father, King George, and did not support his government.

Frederick used the song to express the position that England should take a much stronger stand against the nation's enemies, primarily Spain.  

The song was a "call to arms" and a "rallying cry" — to use the British Royal Navy to project power on the seas.

Frederick wanted the song to share his "vision" of his father as "a new type of King".

The song was part of a masque entitled Alfred, based on Alfred the Great’s battles against the Viking invaders.

Here is the entire song, as it was originally written:

1
When Britain first, at Heaven's command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

2
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

3
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

4
Thee haughty tyrants ne'er shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down,
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

5
To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine:
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

6
The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair;
Blest Isle! With matchless beauty crown'd,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

Here is a great video with the song -- I especially love the crowds singing along:




What is interesting to me about this episode from 1740, is that it so closely resembles the situation, in the 1590s, between Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and Queen Elizabeth.

Essex was one of many people who competed to become Elizabeth's heir, and her government broke into two rival factions.

Just as Prince Frederick also wanted this song to serve his interests as far as inheriting the throne, Essex commissioned Shakespeare to write plays to advance his claim to Elizabeth's throne.

Frederick clearly wanted his father to change and become a new kind of king. If his father would not change, then Frederick would be the change that he believed England needed.

If King George could not become as great as King Alfred, then Frederick would be.

Essex's plays with Shakespeare also offer London's audiences a choice between Elizabeth and Essex.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex


Shakespeare's Henry V play is the clearest parallel to Frederick’s Alfred masque. 

In the 1590s, as England continued to face threat of invasion by Spain, Essex wanted this particular play to offer Elizabeth an opportunity to be a new kind of monarch.

If she did not project power, with her land and naval forces, and properly protect England against Spain, and live up to the image of King Henry V, then Essex would be more than happy to take her place.

Shakespeare's Henry V play was also a call to arms and a rallying cry —  Englishman faced enslavement if Spain did succeed in conquering England.

Essex and Shakespeare, and the men who were members of that faction, had very similar fears, hopes, and dreams as Frederick and the men of his faction who designed this Alfred masque. 

Both factions wanted England to be free, and wanted England to be strong in a way that it was not at the time.

I like to think that Frederick knew who and what Essex, Shakespeare, and that faction were about, in regards to Queen Elizabeth.

I like to think that Frederick drew inspiration from Essex’s and Shakespeare’s example.

I like to think that as long as England exists, there are people like them who will defend it and keep England safe and strong — and who will keep their fellow Englishmen free from those who would enslave them.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer