From Greek Drama To Shakespearean Tragedy (5 min read)


Shakespeare. You cannot get more British than that. His works are taught in schools across the country, revered by the guardians of British culture and promoted as the quintessential British cultural icon abroad. With the UK’s referendum to leave the European Union, it may be time to fall back on such an icon to help forge a new path for Britishness.

The trouble is that while William Shakespeare was born and bred in England, he was immersed in European culture. He spoke French and Latin. Indeed, one of his biggest influences was the French philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne, who famously remarked “Que sçay-je?” (or “que sais-je?” in modern French and “what do I know?” in English). That uncertainty principle, ahead of its time, imbued the work of Shakespeare.

Then there were the plays. The stories behind the big four tragedies, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello, were in many cases sourced from continental Europe. Hamlet was based in Denmark – the full name of the play is actually The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. It was based on a Norse legend composed by the Danish author, Saxo Gramaticus in the 1200s. Macbeth was thought to be heavily influenced by the tragedies written by the Roman philosopher and dramatist, Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD). More obviously, Othello was certainly sourced from abroad. It was based on the novella Hecatommithi written by the Italian author, Cinthio, in 1565.

But the real power of Shakespeare’s work was not its cosmopolitan foundations, but rather its depiction of the weakness of people and their self-inflicted wounds. (A warning for those who have not read or watched Shakespeare, I give away some key plot points below).

Hamlet was plagued by existential doubt and anger after his father’s death. In a complicated turn of events involving poison, he kills his father’s murderer (his uncle, Claudius), but loses his mother, Gertrude, and his own life in the process. Macbeth is spurred by ambition and engages in a blood-thirsty journey to become king. But on achieving this, he suffers from guilt and insecurity. He ends up dying. King Lear, meanwhile, is fooled by the flattery of two of his daughters, and turns away from the one daughter, Cordelia, who is honest with him. The flattering daughters then turn against Lear, who ends up being saved by Cordelia, who loses her life to save him.

The most appropriate tragedy for the UK decision has to be Othello. That play features a powerful general, Othello, who doesn’t quite fit into the society he is in (he is a Moor and black). This may be a parallel with how the UK often feels about itself in Europe – it is part of it, but doesn’t quite fit in. Othello marries Desdemona, and is eventually called into battle in Cyprus. Unbeknownst to Othello, his ensign Iago, angered for not being promoted, is scheming to undermine him.

Through playing on Othello’s own insecurities about himself, Iago orchestrates events such that Othello ends up believing his beloved Desdemona is having an affair with his lieutenant Cassio. Out of jealousy, Othello kills Desdemona, only to learn the truth too late. In typical Shakespeare fashion, Othello kills himself in horror.

The thread that runs through all of Shakespeare’s plays is that emotions are easily manipulated or reactive and can easily cloud one’s judgement. More often than not, this leads to a worse outcome than expected. Whether the UK is now set on such a path is still uncertain, but the signs do not look good.

Financial markets have given a stark warning that all is not well for the economy in the months and quarters ahead – the pound has plunged, stocks have fallen and the UK’s credit rating has fallen. More worrying is the protracted negotiation process that lies ahead for the UK. The possibility of agreeing a new customised trade relationship with the EU in two years (the time window for the UK to exit the EU once Article 50 is invoked) appears small. The UK would then have to default to WTO rules until the new deal is finalised. The other possibility of joining the EEA (the Norway model) would bring less economic disruption as it is in many ways similar to being a member of the EU, but this also means accepting free movement of labour – the key criticism of the EU promoted by the Brexit campaign.

The latest news from EU leaders does not look positive for the UK. Following meetings between the heads of states of the largest EU countries a consistent message is emerging. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said “I see no way back from the Brexit vote”. French President, Francois Hollande, said “The UK won’t be able to access the single market without applying the rules of the free market”. He added that “The City [of London], which makes its clearing operations in euro, won’t able to do so any more”. The European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker also was keen to impose a time limit on the UK triggering an exit from the EU – between a day and two weeks after the election of a new Prime Minister.

The hardening stance by the EU is understandable. They need to reduce the incentive for other countries to leave the EU. They also realise that the negative impact of Brexit is larger for the UK than for the rest of the EU. For example, most economists are expecting a UK recession, while they expect euro area growth to slow, but not enter a recession. Part of the reason for this is that over 50% of the UK’s international trade is with the European Union, whereas around 15% of the EU’s international trade is with the UK.

As for negotiating style, last year’s Greek drama is instructive. In early January, the “Coalition of the Radical Left” or Syriza was elected as the government of Greece. Its stance was defiantly anti-EU. It attempted to re-negotiate Greece’s bailout terms with the EC/IMF/ECB by taking a brinksmanship approach culminating in calling a referendum on the bailout terms in late June. The public rejected the deal, but the troika didn’t blink. Instead, the Greek economy teetered on the edge, the government missed an IMF payment, and was forced to close its banks and impose capital controls. In July, an emergency EU crisis summit was convened where a new, more stringent, bailout package was agreed and later accepted by the Syriza government.

Such a precedent suggests that negotiations are unlikely to be as straightforward as many expect. Therefore, the UK is headed for hardship on multiple fronts from job insecurity to falling house prices to the broader economic weakness. The exact path is unclear, but as Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night:

“O time, thou must untangle this, not I. It is too hard a knot for me to untie!”


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