Picking a dark/middle age setting for a mock Shakespeare play?
August 18, 2016 7:07 AM   Subscribe

I want to find a dark/middle age kingdom in which to set a mock Shakespeare play. I don't know enough history which is where you come in. Specific parameters inside. TW: Brexit

I have an overly ambitious idea to reimagine the story of Brexit as a cod-Shakespeare tragedy play. I don't want to slavishly follow the actual Brexit details. Just use it as a plot frame in the same way Hamlet is based on a "real" Danish Prince.

I want to set this play somewhere conceivably Shakespearean but I'm stuck on exactly where. I need help from people with a good overview of dark/middle age history. I also imagine taking great liberties with the setting. I just want something to hang names and maybe stereotypes off.

Here are what I have decided the parameters are:
- Somewhere Shakespeare would have conceivably known about
- But also foreign from Elizabethan England
- A small (impoverished?) Kingdom with a monarchy which is part of a larger empire or kingdom with some possibility of leaving
- Leaving should however be irrational - the empire is much more powerful and lends great benefits
- Maybe some idea of a glorious independent past
- A parliament/diet/etc which is powerful enough to be given big decisions
- Maybe some reason to have a foreigner in the Royal family

Here is my current shortlist:
- Kievan Rus (given that "Boris" is a Slavic name)
- Iceland during the period of Norwegian rule
- Roman Britain (when or where I'm unsure)
- Anglo-Saxon Britain (but that might make "Leave" too natural a position)

I'm hoping this sparks "I have the perfect idea" in someone.
posted by Erberus to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd give a few hours to reading about Roman era Britain, particularly the late era. I don't recall many details, but there were a number of brexits and attempts.
posted by wotsac at 7:25 AM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Alamannia/Alemannia under the Carolingians, for the dramatic possibilities of the Council of Cannstatt.
posted by notquitemaryann at 7:26 AM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anywhere under the Holy Roman Empire during the middle ages, early renaissance.
Also, France before the unification seems very fascinating, but I'm not sure it works for you. See the film, La Reine Margot, for atmosphere
posted by mumimor at 7:28 AM on August 18, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers! Just to add very specific kingdoms/kings would help as well as your reasoning behind the choice.
posted by Erberus at 7:52 AM on August 18, 2016

The Isle of Man immediately comes to mind, is that foreign enough?

Not super familiar with this chunk of history but a bunch of the British Crown Dependencies and various "European microstates" seem to have gone through some version of tiny-monarchy-big-empire at some point.
posted by yeahlikethat at 7:57 AM on August 18, 2016

The Gallic Empire. 'The Gallic Empire (Latin: Imperium Galliarum[note 1]) is the modern name for a breakaway part of the Roman Empire that functioned de facto as a separate state from 260 to 274.[note 2] It originated during the Crisis of the Third Century.
It was established by Postumus in 260 in the wake of barbarian invasions and instability in Rome, and at its height included the territories of Germania, Gaul, Britannia, and (for a time) Hispania. '

In the Middle East/Asia Minor at roughly the same time, there was the Palmyrene Empire (maybe you could make this topical too, e.g. Erdogan).

A few years later, the Carausian Revolt. 'The Carausian Revolt (AD 286–296) was an episode in Roman history, during which a Roman naval commander, Carausius, declared himself emperor over Britain and northern Gaul. His Gallic territories were retaken by the western Caesar Constantius Chlorus in 293, after which Carausius was assassinated by his subordinate Allectus. Britain was regained by Constantius and his subordinate Asclepiodotus in 296.'
posted by plep at 8:19 AM on August 18, 2016

The Welsh revolt in the early 15th century is perfect. The events of Henry IV Part 1 take place during the revolt and depicts its leader, Owen Glendower, so you'd even have a direct Shakespearean source. Glendower was a father of Welsh nationalism and the last native Prince of Wales. Leaving England was always a long shot and the Welsh lost after fifteen years of painful war.
posted by vathek at 8:41 AM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hmm. "Being part of the empire lends great benefits" is kind of the sticking point. It's very hard to think of places that have been conquered who are happy about it. In basically every example I can think of, and many examples listed so far, your audience would side with the "leave" party if they knew the historical facts, which really undermines the point you're trying to make. I would consider going totally fictional with this one.
posted by phoenixy at 8:45 AM on August 18, 2016

one of the lesser Merovingian subkingdoms decides to strike out on its own?
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:01 AM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you do decide to go fictional how about the classy Ruritania?
posted by johngoren at 9:26 AM on August 18, 2016

Late era Roman Britain could be interesting; Magnus Maximus and Constantine III were both acclaimed in Britain as great saviours from horrid invading other Europeans... and both promptly took either the entire or the majority of the armed forces of Britain and pissed off over the channel to pursue their ambitions, leaving the Romano-Britons to swing in the wind.

But aside from that phoenixy has a very good point - people will side with 'leave'. To take the example immediately above it, don't even think about dissing Owain Glyn Dŵr in a Welsh-speaking area. Trying to claim that leaving would have been 'irrational' would be... unwise, shall we say. And that happened 600 years ago.

Then there are other political hot potatoes. I wouldn't touch Kievan Rus as a setting for your politcal allegory with a ten foot pole, as both Russia and Ukraine claim to be the One True Descendants of the Kievan Rus and are, you know, currently at war.

In general the 'Dark Ages' is a very bad place to set political allegories. One of the points made in Christopher Wickham's exellent "Framing the Early Middle Ages" is that the early medieval period is when you have the first glimmerings of familiar nation-states in Europe; for anyone of a patriotic/nationalistic bent, this is where things are born. As such, it is probably the most intensely politicised period of European history (obviously individual areas have other 'hot spots' of history, but this is the part that is very politicised for the whole of Europe). This makes it fascinating, but dangerous waters to use as your personal political paddling pool. I'm thinking "chairs thrown at the actors" sort of poor choice, by the way. These are historical things, but for a lot of people they are also very much current.
posted by Vortisaur at 12:50 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Trying to claim that leaving would have been 'irrational' would be... unwise, shall we say

This is a good point.

'Irrational' is probably the wrong word. "Doomed to fail" might be better - the empire is much more powerful than the kingdom. I sort of don't mind if the audience sympathises with leave as long as it's clear that it's a dangerous path.

For me the expressions of Johnson & Gove on the morning of their victory, where they look distraught in realising they have actually done, makes great tragedy.

The other aspect which is important is having some sort of body to vote on the issue.

I also want to relay a comment by a friend on fb:

"Tbh I think Shakespeare would have been wary of using a British setting for a drama about secession, given the current-affairs regional instability within which he was working. Unless the message was firmly that secession was a Bad Thing.
The Kingdom of Sicily under Spanish rule (13th century) might be a setting that would have appealed to him. Historically there was a bloody revolt (the Sicilian Vespers), but there were enough loopy monarchical types around the island and in Span to make for a great court-based drama."
posted by Erberus at 3:20 AM on August 19, 2016

I'm not sure what regional instability your friend is talking about, Erberus. The sixteenth century had seen Britain become much more securely unified under the Tudors after nearly a century of true instability, perpetual war, and weak central government under the House of York. With James' accession, the entire island was now under one government. Unlike his predecessors, there was no crowd of rival claimants to the throne trying to gin up support. The Main Plot was extinguished in the first year of James' reign, and though Arbella Stuart continued to be a thorn in James' side, she had nothing like the following that some of the Tudor period claimants had. James also had a much more conciliatory foreign policy than Elizabeth did. He quickly ended the Anglo-Spanish War and kept England largely aloof from continental fights. It's true that the English saw themselves as beset by Jesuit conspiracies, but on the whole Shakespeare lived in a time of nearly unprecedented regional stability. Nobody in Jacobean England would have predicted that the country would soon be riven by civil war.

At any rate, nearly all of Shakespeare's plays set in Britain are about dynastic instability. Lear, King John, Richard II, Richard III, Macbeth, both Henry IV plays, and the Henry VI plays all feature serious domestic strife and rebellion. The subject was hardly taboo.

One of the biggest problems in finding the perfect historical allegory is that what failure meant in medieval context and what it means for Brexit seem entirely different. Brexit isn't a failed rebellion. Britain will be weaker and poorer when severed from the EU, but its sovereignty is unchallenged.

While I still think the Welsh revolt is a pretty good fit and the most plausibly Shakespearean subject matter suggested, you might look at the Investiture Controversy. The church, like the EU, was a pan-European international organization which had a limited power over temporal sovereigns. One could portray the pope's limited interference in imperial sovereignty as akin to the EU's limited encroachment on British self-determination. Unlike most of the other suggestions, the moral rightness of the Leave side is much more dubious, in that Henry IV sought to preserve the corrupt practice of simony.

But you seem committed to making this historically plausible in the sense that Shakespeare could have conceivably written such a play, so I should point out that most early modern Brits who wrote on the subject were decidedly on Henry IV's side of the Investiture Controversy and saw the pope's interference in Henry IV's affairs as Romish overreach. The pope's encouraged Henry IV's subjects to depose him in a way analogous to the pope's saber-rattling in the wake of the institution of the Oath of Allegiance. No Jacobean playwright would dare to suggest that the pope could rightly exercise power over temporal sovereigns.
posted by vathek at 9:42 AM on August 19, 2016

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