Dr Farah Karim-Cooper is Head of Higher Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe. Farah is the author of several books and a well-respected scholar in the field of Shakespeare.
In Shakespeare’s King John, Constance’s son Prince Arthur has been taken prisoner and King John orders Hubert to execute him, but Hubert is compassionate and is moved by Arthur’s pleas for his life- sadly the young Arthur dies accidentally. Constance expresses the pain of separation in ways that may resonate with us today as we watch in horror how families are torn apart due to the growing refugee crisis throughout the world, and most recently, so many of us were left reeling from the shock at the US government’s callous response to migrant families seeking asylum or a better life (legally or illegally):
‘O that my tongue were in the thunder’s mouth!
Then with a passion would I shake the world,
And rouse from sleep that fell anatomy
Which cannot hear a lady’s feeble voice,
Which scorns a modern invocation.’
The anguish she feels is compounded by the fact that her voice is powerless; it is why she wishes she could ventriloquise for thunder- the entire world would then shake with her grief. She then personifies grief itself:
‘Greif fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
Then have I reason to be fond of grief.’
Grief is like a phantom of her child; she is haunted by his looks, his words, all of his ‘gracious parts’, his clothing – her grief fills those absences. Between October 2017 and May 2018, there have been over 2,000 children removed from their families at the Southern border of the United States, an average of 45 children a day are being taken away from their mothers and fathers. It has been reported that one father killed himself in a detention cell. This incident illustrates the painful reality of the migrant condition. Imagine a situation so horrible that you would leave your home, take your vulnerable children and travel sometimes on foot, or by boat across perilous waters and susceptible to murder, robbery, rape, kidnapping – just to seek out if not a better, at least a safer life. As an American, I am appalled by what is happening at the US border, though President Trump has signed now an executive order halting the separations; however, there is no robust plan for uniting families who have been separated. Some may never be reunited, especially in the case of tiny babies who cannot speak for themselves.
Why write about this as a Shakespeare scholar? Primarily because it is Refugee week, but also because Shakespeare’s texts and the plays of his contemporaries often provide a resonant mirror for our own times, not just theirs. I am not arguing for a Shakespearean universality, as I think that can be spurious, but I am suggesting that when we have not experienced personally the pain of loss, separation from our children, the indefinite or undetermined absence of loved ones, or the very plight of political refugees- then we can perhaps turn to art, poetry, here- to Shakespeare- who at times passionately demands and at other times gently invites empathy through truthful and devastating expressions of grief.
Last week was Refugee Week, the UK’s largest festival celebrating the contributions, resilience and creativity of refugees. To mark the twentieth anniversary of this work the Globe presented a series of events, workshops and performances.
Image above: King John performed in Armenian by Gabriel Sundukyan National Academic Theatre as part of Globe to Globe Festival, 2012.
Photography: Simon Annand