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Thursday, August 12, 2021

Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, and British Nationalism

British nationalism became the driving force of British politics and culture during the reign of the Protestant monarch, Elizabeth I. Her rivalry with Catholic Spain, and other Catholic powers of Europe, including the Papacy, made the masses in her island nation realize, probably for the first time, that they were a distinct people, that they were not just Christians, they were British Christians, and that the Catholics of mainland Europe were their enemies.

As the British united to defend their island nation against the invasion of the Catholic powers, they developed a sense of their unique history and culture. When England defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, British nationalism had a new flowering. This nationalistic spirit had consequences which went far beyond the war with Catholic Europe. Nationalism would eventually inspire the British to unleash the Industrial Revolution, build a Navy that would rule the sea, and conquer the world’s biggest imperialist empire which would climax with Pax Britannica.

Shakespeare has written about people from all over the world—Cleopatra of Egypt, Caesar and Antony of Rome, Hamlet of Denmark, and Othello, the Moorish general of Venice. In 1595, when he wrote Richard II, he was probably influenced by the spirit of nationalism that was sweeping England after the success of British Navy against the Spanish Armada. This play has his most famous nationalistic lines, spoken by the character John of Gaunt:

“This royal throne of kings, this sceptered 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.”

Such extreme nationalist sentiment was unknown in British literature before the reign of Elizabeth I. A century earlier Sir Thomas More had written the book called Utopia, but he did not present Britain as the utopian paradise. More’s utopia is located on an imaginary island. Queen Elizabeth’s reign can be seen as the fountainhead of British nationalism.

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