Ladies and Gentlemen, this week we have been celebrating Shakespeare in Parliament. It has been a strange experience to see his musicality and breadth of moral vision juxtaposed with the narrow foolishness and dreary ranting of so much current political debate.
Shakespeare, almost more than anything, is a poet of politics, large and small—of how we live with each other. And so he is a poet of love, and war, and sorrow and friendship and every aspect of our messy human madness.
He reminds us that words—teem and bubble as they do—are what civilise us, colonise us, and clothe us. That life is an education in what it is to be human; and one where words, and above all his words, are our educators.
Yet, as Parliament shows, there is too a place for the prosaic.
If poets are our unacknowledged legislators, then thank God our legislators are not unacknowledged poets. Or if they are, it’s best that they remain so, for we need their prosy skills, such as they are, and we fear too much persuasion.
The greatest politicians—such as Burke, or Churchill, or Lincoln—have always understood the power of words, and they have drawn on that power without abusing it. But there is collective wisdom too in proper public deliberation: in a Parliament that genuinely parleys.
We revere Burke’s Speech on Conciliation, Churchill’s Finest Hour, Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, and rightly so. These are miracles of language.
But let us not forget such other things as the 1,400 careful words—and they were careful, on pain of death—of the Petition of Right, composed just 12 years after Shakespeare’s death. These words are no miracle of language, to be sure, yet—even more, perhaps, than Magna Carta itself—they mark the moment when the rule of law came of age.
We stand in their shadow, no less than in that of Shakespeare. But in parting celebration of him, and of the London Library, and of a glorious event, here is Prospero to send us on our way tonight:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Thank you very much.