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Wondering About Those Isles: Why Shakespeare Is Bad For The Olympics

by Josina Reaves on July 28, 2012
Tower Bridge up 1

In the early part of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, actor Kenneth Branagh read Caliban’s speech from Act 3, scene 2, of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It goes a little something like this:

Be not affeard, the Isle is full of noyses,
Sounds, and sweet aires, that giue delight and hurt not:
Sometimes a thousand twangling Instruments
Will hum about mine eares; and sometime voices,
That if I then had wak’d after long sleepe,
Will make me sleepe againe, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and shew riches
Ready to drop vpon me, that when I wak’d
I cri’de to dreame againe.

It is, without question, a beautiful and heart-rending speech. Caliban, Prospero’s slave, is tortured daily with pains and pinches, and this music is the only joy and beauty he has found in many years. But even that joy is a torture, he says, because it is so evanescent.

Why was that the note to start on? Why introduce us to the wonder of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales by suggesting that here was beauty that would torture our souls? And weirder, why do it moments before rending the scene with the introduction of the industrial revolution?

Too prosaic a question? Too literal? Should I, instead, just take the poetry as it is and enjoy it?

Well, how about this: why introduce us to the wonder of Great Britain through the voice of Caliban, a slave so maligned that he is driven to murder by his own shame, pain, and indignation? Why, more importantly, invite the athletes and dignitaries of former and current colonies and commonwealths to England through the voice of a slave? That can’t be right.

Danny Boyle is known for telling stories that focus the best of the human spirit through the lens of the worst human behavior, so perhaps that moment was his wink and nod to his country’s troubled past. If so, it seems a rather inappropriate time to make such a statement.

The opening ceremony of the Olympics should be a celebration of the host country’s art and history, its best and finest, but this note suggests that Boyle did not want to offer an open England, full of joy, but rather a contrite England, perhaps one full of shame at its past misdeeds. Or perhaps a bold England, glorying in its ability to make beauty out of brutality. I can barely suggest such a thing, but then, I saw Slumdog Millionaire, too.

Or maybe this was just a wrong-headed choice of text. That is frequently the case when England chooses Shakespeare for its patriotic moments. Usually, we get John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II, you know the one:

This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England….

That bit of text has been used in every tourism video I have ever seen, and more than a few lager commercials besides, but it is always a poor choice. As laudatory and patriotic as it sounds, it ends with Gaunt’s blunt statement that that England “Is now leas’d out–I die pronouncing it–/Like to a tenement or pelting farm…. That England, that was wont to conquer others,/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.” So, not so proud. But the better part of the speech gets a lot of airtime, despite its inappropriate context.

Now, apparently, we’ll be getting Caliban’s dream out of context, too. No worry about this shackled and abused boy being used as the spokesman for the games; instead, we’ll cheer and champion the verse and ignore the context, as we do.

Now that is heart-rending.

I think it might be time for England to admit that as much as they love their Shakespeare, his verse is not full of great slogans. Shakespeare did not write in a patriotic age—I don’t think you could pull much pro-England verse from Jonson or Marlowe either, though I could be wrong—and his strongest language criticizes his nation rather than lauding it. So move on, England. Find another great cheerleader. I’m sure John Betjeman’s got a line or two!

3 Comments Leave one →
  1. Heidi Ostendarp permalink

    And why did Boyle give Caliban’s speech to a character who appears to be an affluent Victorian reader (perhaps a wealthy industrialist)? (Branagh doesn’t really need the book!) Later, this educated Victorian looks on with approbation as workers raise the smokestacks. He seems to have appropriated these lines for his own purposes. It’s still not clear to me to what extent Boyle’s vision reflects ambivalence and to what extent it reflects thoughtlessness. With dancing hospitalized children, a giant creepy baby, and all the grim effects of industrialization, this was not the most celebratory pageant I’ve ever seen. It might have been the strangest.

    • Josina Reaves permalink

      Your question about whether Boyle’s choice reflects ambivalence or thoughtlessness is perfect, Heidi! It’s as though he took the opportunity of having control of the world’s largest stage to make political statements. Funnily enough, the Brits I’ve spoken to seem to have been the ones most pleased with the whole thing. Odd.

  2. John of Gaunt’s “England Speech” is remarkable due to the fact that William Shakespeare could not possibly have known that centuries after his death his words now bear such a telling truth. That truth being that “England” and by extension the United Kingdom, has been leased out; for that is EXACTLY describes that unlawful and unconstitutional situation that now exists for the country’s membership of the European Union, especially post Lisbon Treaty. It is therefore one of the most eloquent and beautiful of damning indictments of the politicians (or all three main parties) that govern us.

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