Brexit: ‘Shakespeare’s view of the world was a European view’

In the Bard’s home town of Stratford-Upon-Avon confusion and uncertainty reign supreme

In Stratford-Upon-Avon people are unsure how they will vote. Photographs: The Irish Times/Getty Images

In Stratford-Upon-Avon people are unsure how they will vote. Photographs: The Irish Times/Getty Images


In the garden of the house in which Shakespeare was born, a costumed actor recites a speech from Henry V. “Some people asked for Henry V ‘with the big Brexit at the end’,” explains Becky Pratt, from the group Shakespeare Aloud. “They were Brexiters. We were a little bit ‘uh?’”

Pratt and her colleagues are for Remain. As actors, being members of the EU makes it easier to travel for work, “and I think we should be listening to the experts who talk about the danger to the economy if we leave . . . People are panicking about immigration and much of it is racist.”

Fellow actor David Hubball references a speech from the Book of Sir Thomas More, believed to have been written by Shakespeare. “It basically says, ‘How would you like it if you went to another country and were treated like that?”

National sovereignty

Many of the people I talk to in Stratford-upon-Avon aren’t sure how they will vote. They say they are confused. A little over half are veering towards Leave. Immigration is almost always the reason.

The first person I meet is a cafe owner who eagerly warns about the scourge of immigration as her eastern European waiter makes my coffee. At a nearby table a retired engineer, Ted Stevens, says he has already voted “out” with a postal vote. National sovereignty is his main concern, but immigration bothers him too. “I’ve always lived with different nationalities,” he says. “We had Poles coming here after the war and, flipping heck, who am I talking to, the Irish . . . But we shouldn’t have an open door.”

Amy Rose isn’t sure how she will vote. Her partner is adamantly pro-Brexit, particularly since Boris Johnson visited his workplace a while back. She’s unsure. “Forty per cent of the workmen there are Polish or Romanian,” she says. “I feel bad for them. It must feel awful listening to us as we’re discussing all this.”

Her friends Darren Dean, who works for a hotel, and Martin Griffin, who works for a coach company, aren’t registered to vote. Dean says, “I couldn’t care either way. I don’t believe one side or the other.”

They don’t seem to feel particularly strongly about immigration. “You can’t tell immigrants from tourists in Stratford anyway,” says Rose.

Christmas shop

Across from Shakespeare’s house there’s a Christmas shop filled with decorations, cards and figurines. Steve Bartlett, who works there, has a very particular take on what over-regulation means. Did you know, for example, that the transportation of snow-globes has been difficult post 9/11, because they contain liquid?

“This town has changed for the worse in the last 40 years,” he says. He going to vote Leave. “I think we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” he says. “I’d prefer to be damned and standing alone.”

Rory Keegan, at the Shakespeare Bookshop, is the only person I meet who describes himself as “European”. “We’ve a duty to contribute and to stand together with our neighbours,” he says. “Our leading Shakespeare scholar, Sir Stanley Wells, he says Shakespeare would definitely be for ‘Remain’ . . . Shakespeare’s view of the world was a European view. He was influenced by culture right across Europe. He was not isolationist.”

Siege mentality

In nearby Kenilworth, a Tory-leaning town of 22,000 people, they are celebrating the 750th anniversary of a siege at Kenilworth Castle. Vince Cable is there trying to convince shoppers not to have siege mentality about Europe. He describes the referendum as “an internal conflict in the Tory party” that was “thrust upon us”.

“Our European identity has always been rather semi-detached and that has been part of the problem,” he says. The Remain campaign has built an almost “apologetic” campaign based on business arguments “so when faced with an emotional argument from the other side it’s quite difficult . . . It’s a bit of a lesson to us . . . We need to build a bigger commitment to the European project.”

Nearby, former MEP Liz Lynne does a little dance as a Romanian man plays on an accordion. She’s more hopeful than before. Previously Remain canvassers were getting a lot of abuse. “It was quite frightening . . . On Sunday a change was palpable.”

No one today is abusive, but some are argumentative. A young canvasser called Harry Hewer listens to a man angry about “Muslims and the London mayor”.

The accordion player Aurel Toader packs up. He’s off to his cleaning job. He’s wearing his uniform – black slacks and a black polo-shirt – beneath his anorak. “I think we’re better together,” he says. “I work hard. I pay tax. I am European. You are European.”

The problem is that many British people do not feel European, even those voting Remain. Oliver Knight, a dapper estate agent, wistfully evokes “the idea of raising the drawbridge and being on our own, masters of our own destiny . . . If we could leave without damaging ourselves, I’d be all for it.”

Fearful of immigration

Around the corner three taxi drivers are having a tea break. What do they expect to happen? “Well, he’ll be gone come Friday,” says Paul Harris, pointing to Albanian driver Sai Murati. Harris is joking. Sort of. He is fearful of immigration. “I hope we come out of [Europe] for my grandchildren’s sake,” he says. “How will schools cope? How will hospitals cope?”

Murati seems slightly irked. “I pay my taxes. I’m a British citizen. Some people come and take benefits . . . I never got benefits.”

Harris continues. “My grandson is in Coventry at a school where they speak 31 languages. What chance does he have?”

“He’ll speak 31 languages,” says Murati. “You can just about speak one.”

“I hope he teaches me to say ‘f**k off’ in Albanian,” says Harris.

Murati tells him to f**k off in Albanian. They laugh.

Is Murati planning to vote? He shakes his head. “I’ll let these f**kers sort it out for themselves.”