What about Shakespeare as the national epic?
Several of you have suggested Shakespeare as the national epic, specifically the Henriad. Clayton makes a strong case that the Henriad is a national story from a crucial period in history and remains popular. No argument that RII, HIV, and HV are among Shakespeare’s best work. But I’m not so sure it has quite that level of national importance — we just aren’t Virgilian enough. The Tudors Shakespeare didn’t write about loom far larger as the founders of England, not least the Queen he lived under. As for popularity, Tolkien will win every time. There might be school children who can tell you about Henry V — but none can talk about Henry IV.
Nonetheless, Shakespeare as a whole ought to be on the list. Think of the First Folio as a string of stories like Chaucer but without the framing device. Characters do not literally recur. But I have written before about the way the protean individual was reinvented through Henry IV part II, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. Those four plays, by the way, were written within a year or two of each other. They are all about formative moments. Each hero is an adolescent in some sense. As You Like it is a teenage drama, misread as a gender play. When Rosalind has stopped experimenting with her identity in the playful pastoral mode, she migrates to Denmark and starts playing the antic fool. Hamlet is her dark side. They are opposites and inherently linked. Men are Rosalind when they woo, Hamlet when they become middle-aged.
In fact, Henry IV part II was the start of an extraordinary decade.
Henry IV, Part 2 (1597–1598)
Much Ado About Nothing (1598–1599)
Henry V (1599)
Julius Caesar (1599)
As You Like It (1599–1600)
Twelfth Night (1601)
Troilus and Cressida (1600–1602)
Sir Thomas More (1592–1595; Shakespeare's involvement, 1603–1604)
Measure for Measure (1603–1604)
All's Well That Ends Well (1604–1605)
King Lear (1605–1606)
Timon of Athens (1605–1606)
Antony and Cleopatra (1606)
Which of those would we leave out of the idea of a national epic? Antony and Cleopatra has as much to say about imperial power and anything in the Henriad — in some ways, it was much more topical. King Lear is a vision of pre-Christian England. Macbeth is about the gunpowder plot, but also a Scottish king with an overly strong sense of his right to rule… Is there anything more English than the deep England of the forest of Arden and the country scenes of Henry IV?
So yes, Shakespeare should be on the list. He is our Ovid, our shape shifter, our many formed national figure who conforms to no religion, admits to no politics, and admires the power of pragmatic protean individuals. In poetic terms we think of that as negative capability. In politics, it’s what made England famous as an unprincipled nation happy to grab power where it could.
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