The 2010s witnessed a fresh crisis in the national identity of the UK in general and English national identity in particular. Of the thousand shocks that British politics was heir to in that decade, the 2015 general election might well be its political crux. It divided the country in advance of Brexit, more or less establishing the battle lines along which the Remain and Leave barricades would sunder the nation from within a year later. 2015 was also the year the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V—the most ‘English’ of all Shakespeare’s works. Across cultural and political discourse that is, there was a focus on English national identity unmatched in the twenty-first century.
This essay doesn’t bother posing the question ‘What is Englishness?’ Rather, it deconstructs two of the plays the RSC serendipitously performed in 2015: Richard II and Henry V. Both are key because, of all Shakespeare’s works, these are the plays that politicians, jingoists, and nationalists return to in the hope of fixing an illusory national identity. At the beginning of a century in which nationalism seems once again on the rise, both in the UK and across Europe, this essay will see just how ‘National’ that most national of poets really is.
Philip Schwyzer says that ‘Henry V is traditionally regarded as the most English of the English histories, and hence all of Shakespeare’s works,’ pointing out that ‘the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ resound through the play, occurring more than one hundred times’. He adds that Richard II contains ‘the most well-known celebration of ‘England’ found in Elizabethan literature’ – referring to John of Gaunt’s famous ‘this scept’red isle’ speech (II.i.40-50). Both plays are vital to Shakespeare’s project of dramatizing the English nation across the tetralogies. In noting that ‘‘England’ and ‘English’ resound through the play’, Schwyzer also connects language and national identity suggesting that the former is in some sense constitutive of the latter, that it is language that makes Richard II ‘the most English of the English histories’.
Yet, Schwyzer never fully realises a reading of either play which is properly alive to the productive effect of language on national identity. Schwyzer focusses on the differences between Gaunt’s literary ‘England’ and England as an extra-discursive fact, emphasising the ‘historical’ inaccuracies of Gaunt’s panegyric as it appropriates ‘a version of Britishness that served English interests’. It’s a strong point, but it ignores the way in which identity, including English national identity, is a product of language, and especially of dramatic language. Charles R. Forker, editor of the third Arden edition of the play, sees Gaunt’s speech as ‘griev[ing] for his country and its reputation’. Like Schwyzer, Forker implies a stable, extra-discursive Englishness, a national identity which is the object of Gaunt’s verbal ‘grie[f]’. Peter Burke sees Gaunt’s speech as determined by the spectre of the Spanish armada, which he affirms as ‘the context in which we should read Shakespeare’s famous verses’. Burke locates a ‘positive national consciousness’ – England as a stable fact – anchored against a historical backdrop of the Spanish armada, which is re-presented in Richard II. Likewise, for Herbert Grabes, Henry V and its eponymous king stand, simply, ‘as England’. What connects Schwyzer, Forker, Burke and Grabes is the assumption that Shakespeare’s histories capture or represent an England ‘out there’. The assumption is that Gaunt’s literary England can be disentangled from a geographical, historical and political ‘reality’ or that Henry is a dramatic version of an external, ‘historical’ English identity. In so doing, all three ignore the way in which identity is merely a presence that exists within language, and not something in the world which language, as nomenclature, points to. The idea, of course, was popularised by Ferdinand de Saussure, who noted that ‘in language there are only differences, without positive terms’, meaning that linguistic signifiers, such as ‘England’, do not point to anything in the world but make sense only in relation to other signifiers. After Saussure, post-structuralism, and especially in the work of Jacques Derrida, realised the consequences of this way of thinking about language for our understanding of identity:
What is it that Saussure in particular reminded us of? That ‘language [which consists only of differences] is not a function of the speaking subject’. This implies that the subject or even conscious of self-identity, self-conscious is inscribed in the language, that he is a function of language.
In other words, for Derrida language constructs, defines and regulates all forms of identity. For Shakespeare’s history plays, the implication is that these plays function less as representations of ‘England’ as a ‘historical’ fact and more as imaginative cultural productions seeking to encode a stable and discrete English national identity in dramatic language. Jacques Lacan has also theorised the connection between language and identity. In Lacanian theory, aphanisis is the term used to describe the necessary eclipsing of presence of the named by the signifier used to posit or predicate it. Lacan says ‘when the subject appears somewhere as meaning, he is manifested elsewhere as “fading”, as disappearance…aphanisis“. Combing Derrida and Lacan, we can say that language, the signifier which posits identity (and identity, for Derrida, is synonymous with ‘presence,’ the word used by Lacan) always-already contains within in the threat of undoing the very identity and presence it makes possible. Schwyzer, Forker and others overlook how, in the equivocating structure of language, Shakespeare’s drama radically destabilises the notion of Englishness even as it makes that identity legible. Richard II meditates profoundly on English national identity, seeking to manifest a concrete Englishness in the imagery and verbal techniques of dramatic language, producing a linguistic mapping of national identity which apes the strategies Elizabethan cartography. In the end, however, the ‘play of signification’ overturns that fragile English identity. Likewise, in Henry V, the attempt to fix English identity against French linguistic otherness is undermined because dramatic language, even as it posits difference, discloses enduring connections between English identity and its French autre. Combining Derrida and Lacan, I will show how the ‘play of signification’ which language invariably propagates leads to an aphanitic ‘fading’ of the English national identity Richard II and Henry V supposedly ground.
Mapping England: Richard II
Since the early seventeenth century, Gaunt’s panegyric on ‘this scep’tred isle’ (II.i.40) has represented English nationhood. Robert Allott used an excerpt in Englands Parnassus: or the choysest flowers of our moderne poets (1600). Under Allot’s heading, ‘Of Albion’, the passage claims a coherent Englishness in the same way Grabes argues Henry V stands, dramatically, ‘as England’. The stability of Englishness is anchored in a time before the conquest of Britain when, as Geoffrey of Monmouth recounted, ‘the island was named Albion’. Just as Gaunt’s speech is elegiac, concerned with the past, so Allot’s heading ‘Of Albion’ harks back to a mythical Britain. That Allot uses poetry to codify Englishness points to the centrality of language in general and the sensitivity of poetic language in particular for constructing national identity. Margaret Tudeau-Clayton says Gaunt’s speech harks back to a ‘homogenous ‘happy breed of men’ inhabiting a bounded totality’. Yet, the relationship between language and identity—where the ‘play of signification’ radically undermines identity as a ‘bounded totality’ even as it posits it—is overlooked in Tudeau-Clayton’s account. Close attention to the language of Gaunt’s speech reveals the strategies for inscribing English identity in language:
This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England… (II.i.40-50)
Gaunt’s speech affirms what Derrida calls ‘the determination of being as presence’, the view that immediacy, presence and being are markers of truth, in this meaning case the unequivocal truth of ‘this England’. The repetition of ‘this’ seeks to bring language into immediate contact with its objects through deixis – ‘this earth’ (my emphasis) – employing language to situate ‘England’ as fully present to the utterance which describes it. In Derridean parlance, Gaunt’s oration ‘determin[e]s [English] being as presence’ through deictic language which invokes immediacy. That rhetorical strategy mimics the imagery in the speech, which turns on a succession of apparently concrete, material objects: ‘throne’ ‘earth’, ‘fortress’, ‘stone’, ‘wall’ and ‘house’. These objects function to conjure the materiality of Englishness in order to supplement the idealism of other terms in the speech: ‘majesty’ ‘happy’ and ‘precious’. This rhetorical scheme reaches a climax as Gaunt says ‘this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’, doubling steady number of ‘this’-usgaes in the previous lines. ‘This’, then, represents the deictic signifier used by Gaunt to ‘determine’ the presence of England and therefore to manifest the English national identity in language.
This preoccupation with rendering England unequivocally present, however, is undermined by what Derrida calls the ‘play of signification’. The result is that Gaunt’s language betrays ‘England’ as unstable, a far cry from the ideal ‘fortress’ mapped out in his oration. Gaunt’s strategy mimics Elizabethan cartography, another discourse concerned with national identity, and a comparison with map-making illuminates how Gaunt’ speech ultimately discloses the fragility of his idealised England. Richard Helgerson has noted the importance of cartography to national identity in his discussion of Christopher Saxton’s maps, published in 1579. These documents encode England as Queen Elizabeth’s sole possession, a single territory with a discrete identity linked to and by the monarch: ‘these maps proclaim royal sovereignty over the kingdom as a whole and over each of its provinces’ explains Helgerson. Saxton’s maps visualize a discrete, unified territory, a ‘whole’ England whose multiple ‘provinces’ all constitute Elizabeth’s singular domain. What Saxton did visually for English national identity, Shakespeare’s play does linguistically. Gaunt’s is an imaginative, literary ‘mapping’ which seeks to verbalise a discrete entity in the same way Saxton’s maps attempt to visualize England ‘as a whole’. Saxton’s cartographical rendering of England’s trees, hills, valleys, carts and and ships—the conspicuous material details absent from contemporary mapping—aim at materialising English identity through concrete objects. Gaunt’s speech likewise ‘points’ at English identity using a cache of concrete material images: ‘throne’ ‘earth’, ‘fortress’, ‘stone’, ‘wall’ and ‘house’. Yet ‘the needs of cartographic representation are such that, for it to be successful, information concerning such matters as royal patronage or sovereignty must be pushed to the side’. Symbols of royal power, which undergird the ‘whole[ness]’ of English national identity, are necessarily marginalised: the frontispiece depicting Elizabeth and the Royal Seals which appear in the corners of the individual provincial maps are marginal and separate, paratextual and paracartographic entities which are altogether apart from the images with which they are supposed to exist in plenitude.
Helgerson does not employ a Lacanian framework, but what he describes is certainly aphanisis because Saxton’s maps, the signifiers used to posit the indomitable presence of Elizabeth and her royal sovereignty, actually cause a ‘fading’ or marginalisation of that presence. The result is that English identity loses its royal foundation and cannot be thought of ‘as a whole’, since it was only ever royal power which underwrote that ‘whole[ness]’ in the first place. In Derridean terms, ‘in the absence of a centre or origin, everything becomes discourse’ resulting in an equivocating ‘play of signification’. The loss of a royal ‘centre’ in Saxton’s cartography undermines the notion of ‘England’ as something fully present, discrete and ‘whole’.
In the same way, textual signifiers and their equivocating meanings undermine Gaunt’s intention, causing a ‘fading’ of the literary ideal of English national identity. Gaunt insists that England is ‘eden[ic]’, but the prefix to that praise is ‘this other Eden’ (II.i.42 – my emphasis), and so Gaunt actually differentiates England from perfection. The coupling of ‘this [and] other’ verbalises the differential equivocation Derrida says invades the heart of every presence, the otherness in every identity. It also flags up the fragility of the ‘England’ Gaunt idealises in language because ‘this’ loses its deictic immediacy (or presence) and English identity is ‘other[ed]’ and deferred. For Roland Barthes, textual language ‘practices the infinite post-ponement of the signified’. The signified which Gaunt reaches for is ‘England’, but with ‘this other Eden’, the attempt at perfection fails to mask the deferral of English national identity caused by the incursion of the ‘other’.
Likewise ‘demi-paradise’ (II.i.42) for all its positive connotation, also brings with it separation and difference. The OED defines ‘demi-‘ when used a prefix, as ‘half, half-sized, partial(ly), curtailed, inferior’. In the same way Saxton’s map ultimately precludes England ‘as a whole’, Gaunt’s literary map of England is split by the equivocations of language itself, and that wholeness is fatally ‘curtailed,’ split by the ‘play of signification’ in the very dramatic language which appears to make English national identity legible. Just as Saxton’s maps are royal commissions which ultimately marginalise monarchical power and presence, so Gaunt’s speech effects an aphanitic elision of the presence of English national identity. Gaunt’s intended boast of England’s former military might —‘this seat of Mars’—discloses the internal conflict which alienates England from itself. Indeed Gaunt suggests the equivocating status of Englishness when he shifts the demonstrative pronoun from ‘this to ‘that England that was wont to conquer others,/Has made a shameful conquest of itself’ (II.i). Gaunt is referring to political tensions in the realm but, taken as an idea, ‘shameful conquest of itself’ delineates the way in which England is fundamentally divided and not, as Tudeau-Clayton suggests, ‘a bounded totality’. Ultimately the ‘play of signification’ in Gaunt’s dramatic language leads to an aphanitic ‘fading’ of the very presence it was designed to secure.
English Selves and French Others: Henry V
If Gaunt’s speech looks inwards to inscribe English national identity in dramatic language, Henry V looks outwards, positing an ideal, English deployment of language in opposition to the French. Henry orders ‘none of the French [be] upbraided or abused in disdainful language’ (III.vii.95-96) and later says ‘Yet forgive me, God,/That I do brag thus. This is your air of France/Hath blown that vice in me. I must repent’ (III.vii.133-135). The play constructs a clear opposition between English and French discourse in order to define England against its autre. The English show restraint and humility in language and action compared with the arrogant French:
Constable: Tut, I have the best armour of the world! Would it were day.
Orléans: You have an excellent armour, but let my horse have his due.
Constable: It is the best horse in Europe.
French bravado, emphasised in the ludicrous repetitions of ‘would it were day’ (III.viii.1-2), ‘what a long night is this!’ (III.viii.11) and ‘Will it never be day?’ (III.viii.72-73) throws Henry’s humility into bright relief: ‘We would not seek a battle as we are,/Nor as we are we say we will not shun it’ (III.vii.146-147). The play polarises English and French identities in different modes of discourse, the one brash, arrogant and laughable; the other humble and virtuous but brave and Godly: ‘We are in God’s hand, brother, not in theirs’ (III.vii.151).
Indeed, the play is framed by a prologue which places England and France in direct opposition, as ‘two mighty monarchies/Whose high upreared and abutting fronts/The perilous narrow ocean parts asudner’ (‘Prologue’ 20-22). England is a stable entity posited against France as a threatening other. Michael Quinn has noted that Shakespeare’s plays carry over many of the historiographical motivations of their sources, in particular ‘demonstrat[ing] the glory of the nation’. The desire to constitute Englishness as totality, as wholeness, as ‘the nation’, reaches its high watermark in Lawrence Olivier’s 1944 film production. The famous ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’ (III.i.1) war-cry takes place in perfect sunshine, with Henry’s armour pristine, betraying no hint of the fighting which has gone before. The ground discloses no bloodshed and Henry’s white horse, heavy-handedly signifying purity, links England to a spotlessness that is the cousin of wholeness and unity. What Olivier’s adaptation does, then, is to present English national identity as a unified and stable fact. The carefully arranged on-screen markers of perfection and wholeness—the armour, the horse, the clear blue skies, the green spotless battleground ground, the barely-out-of-breath soldiers—are yoked together into a single image of England.
Yet, that same ‘narrow ocean’ also connects England and France, and is all the more ‘perilous’ for doing so, since it threatens to undo the opposition between England and France on which the play depends to present a coherent English identity. The language-learning scene (III.iv) can be read as a comic mocking of the French language, asserting English as superior since the watching audience is placed in a position of authority over Katherine’s child-like attempts at speaking English. Karen Newman goes further, insisting the play as a whole and particularly the scenes with Katherine speaking English ‘domesticate [her] difference’ with the result that ‘Katherine is not only ‘Englished’ but silenced as well’. This implies an unproblematic sublation of French by English: Henry conquers Katherine and her French language the same way his soldiers vanquish the Dauphin’s forces.
In fact, the intersection of French and English language in Katherine’s language-learning scene discloses the fundamental equivocation at the heart of audible language, as homonyms undermine both the intended meaning of the speaker and the strict opposition of languages Newman affirms. Just as Gaunt tries to concretise England and Englishness in language with his materialist literary mapping, so too does Katherine seek to apply language to immediate presences in order to map the body. In Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 production, Emma Thompson as Katherine pointedly looks at and addresses her hands as she learns the English names. However, undergirding this apparently immediate relationship between words and things is the reminder that the ‘play of signification’ exceeds spoken language. The idea, which Derrida calls différance, describes how written language is an essential supplement to spoken language, and cannot be contained by speech. Shakespeare puns on the English ‘foot’ and ‘count’, eliciting the French ‘foutre’ and ‘con’ for comic effect through their similarity to English swear words. The difference between English and French is radically unsettled, since the watching English audience can interpret these foreign words and make sense of them. This demonstrates how language—whether employed to name a hand or set fingers, the presence of a speaker, or to dramatise the totality of a national identity against foreign opposition—always undermines or fades the presence it attempts to anchor. The opposition the play sets up between England and France relies on a difference between two languages. Yet the English language is ‘French-ed’ just as much as Katherine is ‘Englished’. Insofar as this scene is supposed to manifest English national identity against French opposition, the uncertainty it actually discloses, and the affinity it implies between the two make it aphanitic, much in the same way Gaunt’s dramatic language cannot help but destabilise, even as it inscribes, English national identity.
Shakespeare’s history plays, then, demonstrate the process of aphanisis on a national scale. Just as Lacan says that ‘when the subject appears somewhere as meaning, he is manifested elsewhere as ‘fading’, as disappearance’, so the patriotic signifiers in ‘the most English of the English histories’ and the play containing ‘the most well-known celebration of “England” found in Elizabethan literature’ undermine the very identity they make legible. The more powerfully the idea of England is represented, the more the stability of that idea fades, and it is the ‘play of signification’ which causes that equivocation, that aphanisis. In other words, not much has changed: English national identity is as unstable and divided now as it has always been. The cultural jingoists who would co-opt Shakespeare in the name of an English or British nationalism should would do well to register the fundamental instability of all nationalisms that he lays bare.
Josh Mcloughlin is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of New Critique.
Allot, Roger. Englands Parnassus: or the choysest flowers of our moderne poets (London: 1600) [found online at Early English Books Online http://goo.gl/GgX3wf accessed 19/04/15]
Baskin, Wade (trans.) de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics (London: Mcgraw, 1959).
Branagh, Kenneth. Henry V (1989).
Burke, Peter. ‘Nationalisms and Vernaculars: 1500-1800’ in Bruielly, John. (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of The History of Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Faletra, Michael A. (trans & ed) Monmouth, Geoffrey. The History of the Kings of Britain (London: Broadview, 2008).
Forker, Charles R. (ed.) King Richard II (London: Methuen, 2002).
Grabes, Herbert. (ed.) Writing the Early Modern English Nation: The Transformation of National Identity in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001).
Gurr, Andrew. (ed.) King Henry V (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Helgerson, Richard. Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (London: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Howard, Richard. (trans.) Barthes, Roland. The Rustle of Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).
Maley, Willy and Tudeau-Clayton, Margaret. (eds.) This England, That Shakespeare: New Angles on Englishness and the Bard (London: Ashgate, 2010).
Newman, Katherine. ‘Englishing the Other: ‘le tiers exclu’ and Shakespeare’s Henry V,’ Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
Olivier, Lawrence. Henry V (1944).
Quinn, Micheal. (ed.) Shakespeare: Henry V (London: Macmillan, 1969).
Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. (eds.) Literary Theory: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
Saxton, Christopher. Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales (London: 1580) [found at Early Modern English Books Online http://goo.gl/L21sgw accessed 19/04/15].
Schwyzer, Phillip. Literature, Nationalism and Memory in Early Modern England and Wales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Sheridan, Alan. (trans.) Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (London: Norton, 1998).
Spivak, Gayatri. (trans.) Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).
Spivak, Gayatri. (trans.) Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).
 Philip Schwyzer, Literature, Nationalism and Memory in Early Modern England and Wales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p.126
 Schwyzer, p.4 All line references are to Charles R. Forker (ed.), King Richard II (London: Methuen, 2002)
 Schwyzer, p.5-6
 Forker, ‘Introduction’ in King Richard II (London: Methuen, 2002)
 Peter Burke, ‘Nationalisms and Vernaculars: 1500-1800’ in, John Bruielly (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of The History of Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp.21-36, p.24.
 Burke, p.25
 Herbert Grabes, ‘Introduction: Writing the Nation in a Literal Sense’ in, Herbert Grabes (ed.) Writing the Early Modern English Nation: The Transformation of National Identity in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001), pp.ix-xv, p.xiii
 Wade Baskin (trans.) Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (London: Mcgraw, 1959), p.120
 Gayatri Spivak (trans.) Jacques Derrida, ‘Différance’, in Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (eds.) Literary Theory: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp.278-299, p.290
 Alan Sheridan (trans.), Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (London: Norton, 1998), p.218
 Gayatri Spivak (trans.) Jacques Derrida, ‘Structure, Sign and Play’ in Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp.278-294, p.280. Derrida says, ‘all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated the constant of a presence—eidos, arché, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia, transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, man, and so forth (my emphasis).
 Derrida, ‘Structure, Sign and Play’, p.278
 Derrida, ‘Structure, Sign and Play’, p.278
 Grabes, p.xiii
 Michael A. Faletra (trans & ed), Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain (London: Broadview, 2008), p.56
 Margaret Tudeau-Clayton, ‘The ‘trueborn Englishman’: Richard II, The Merchant of Venice and the Future History of (the) English’, in Willy Maley and Margaret Tudeau-Clayton (eds.) This England, That Shakespeare: New Angles on Englishness and the Bard (London: Ashgate, 2010), pp.67-83, p.85.
 Derrida, ‘Structure, Sign and Play’, p.279
 Richard Helgerson, ‘The Land Speaks’ in, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp.105-146, p.112
 Helgerson, p.112
 Helgerson, p.112
 Lacan, p.218
 Helgerson, p.113
 Derrida, ‘Structure, Sign and Play’, p.280
 Richard Howard (trans.) Roland Barthes, ‘From Work to text’ in The Rustle of Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), pp.56-64, p.59
 OED Online, ‘demi-‘ (prefix)
 Lacan, p.218
 Tudeau-Clayton, p.85
 All line references are to Andrew Gurr (ed.) King Henry V (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
 Michael Quinn, ‘Introduction’ in Michael Quinn (ed.) Shakespeare: Henry V (London: Macmillan, 1969), pp.1-25, p.13.
 Lawrence Olivier, Henry V (1944)
 Katherine Newman, ‘Englishing the Other: ‘le tiers exclu’ and Shakespeare’s Henry V ’, Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp.95-108, p.104
 Gayatri Spivak (trans.) Jacques Derrida, ‘That Dangerous Supplement’, in Of Grammatology, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp.186-200, p.187.
 Lacan, p.218 Schwyzer, p.126