Edward Clarke considers the aftermath of the first real 'Brexit' and the need for Shakespeare

Lying in the fetal position among my students in a room at Lady Margaret Hall the other afternoon, I was meditating about Brexit. Not the recent Referendum, but the Brexit of all Brexits: Henry VIII’s decision to become Head of the Church in England.

Curled up on the floor, I reflected that although this country lost a great deal of its art in the churches during its Reformation, we did at least get a Bible in English and without that great thing perhaps we wouldn’t have had the works of William Shakespeare or John Milton or William Blake. Out of that rift in the Church came the modern conflict between faith and scepticism, the drama that defines our age. Perhaps the recent ‘Brexit uncertainty’ is only part of our ever-escalating uncertainty in the wake of the Reformation.

Then I drifted off into Swedenborg’s eschatology and his vision of the Church passing through different ages, the last one beginning the year of Blake’s birth in 1757: "As a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty-three years since its advent: the Eternal Hell revives. And lo! Swedenborg is the Angel sitting at the tomb: his writings are the linen clothes folded up", commented Blake in 1790.

I shouldn’t of course have been thinking of the Eternal Hell and its revival at all. I should have been visualising an oasis. For I was supposed to be participating in a relaxation exercise as prelude to an Actors’ Workshop presided over by my assistant, a young actress trained up in something called ‘the Linklater Method’.

I would usually have been teaching Shakespeare on this short summer programme, but on the four hundredth anniversary of his death there weren’t enough senior high school students interested to run the course, so I ended up teaching on the Actor’s Workshop instead.

Had the course run, I wonder if I would have boldly told my students that Shakespeare’s work is contrived not only to entertain us, but to wake us up each time that we hear or read a play, to help deliver that with which his sonnets are pregnant: the unknowable or bottomless ‘One’ that already lives in man. Would I have been radical enough in my literary Protestantism to dare proclaim that Shakespeare’s plays are at the end of all that art can do for anyone on a spiritual journey to his future in God, to make us see that the Divine Human is born, lives and dies in every life?

Tentatively I would have pointed towards what is of the highest spiritual significance in his Complete Works and explained how this mysterious aspect of his art can give each receptive reader’s life its creative meaning, especially in the world today. Certainly I would also have explained in my diligent manner all of the religious, historical and theatrical contexts necessary to an understanding of the plays and that would have brought me back to the Reformation in any case.

I now see that effectively I would have been lying in the fetal position anyway, without my students knowing it, had the Shakespeare course run: in my own grandiose head I would have been explicating Shakespeare like Blake’s Jehovah: "A weeping Infant in the gates of Birth in the midst of Heaven".

In retrospect it’s probably safer that my co-teacher this year is sticking to the Linklater method.