He forged a language that has shaped how the English – and British – see themselves, and set the terms for our imagination
Shelley's famous claim that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of mankind" rings oddly in the case of Shakespeare. He has always been acclaimed, his words constantly appropriated by those seeking to change the world. The great writers and thinkers who re-imagined Germany at the end of the 18th century were profuse in their admiration for his work. And at the end of the British Museum's current exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World sits the Robben Island Bible – the copy of Shakespeare's complete works disguised as a Hindu text and smuggled into the prison where anti-apartheid leaders were held captive. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others have each marked the passage of Shakespeare that inspired them in their struggle. All knew his work. All found nourishment in it. This is acknowledgement of a high order from people who went on to change their country and their continent.
But how far can we go with this? Did Shakespeare actually change the course of history? This would be a big claim for someone who didn't found an empire, reform a faith or directly challenge the structures of society. It is easy to say, at once: yes, he did; but harder to explain quite how.
In a very literal way, of course, Shakespeare did change the course of history: when it didn't fit the plot he had in mind, he simply rewrote it. His English histories play fast and loose with chronology and fact to achieve the desired dramatic effect, re-ordering history even as it was then understood. Cordelia ought to survive, and Lear should regain his throne; at the real battle of Shrewsbury Hotspur was 40 and Prince Hal 16, not the youthful oppositional contemporaries we all know from Henry IV Part 1. Shakespeare had to backtrack hastily over that play when the descendants of Sir John Oldcastle reacted badly to his version of their revered ancestor; and so Falstaff was born.
It is not at all clear what he himself believed, what his own views of politics, religion and society might have been. He has been seen as everything from the poet champion of accepted social hierarchy and the Elizabethan political settlement to a closet radical and secret Catholic. His caution and ambiguity in political matters and his range and empathy as a dramatic writer make it happily impossible to pin down his intentions. But we can be a bit bolder in considering his effect.
The British Museum's exhibition uses objects from his own time to examine how Shakespeare conjured up an entire world, past and present, before his original audience, the women and men who paid their silver pennies to see his plays at the Rose and the Curtain, the Swan and the Globe. Did Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the theatre change this audience's world and their attitudes to it? Unquestionably. The idea of a public, commercial theatre with an audience that included all social classes was new. For the first time, a whole city – a whole society – could see itself, laugh at itself, think about what it was and what it might become. An unceasing turnover of repertory provided a new arena for the expansion of knowledge, belief and debate, and the arena could be a national one, as the playing companies took this repertory around the country. Shakespeare was a star writer, his name a draw. He was acclaimed by his peers and honoured with a volume of collected works, reinforcing his status and spreading his reach from the theatre to the study.
He gave England new confidence in its own language and culture: at last there was a writer in English who was the equal of the greatest of the ancients, of "insolent Greece, or haughtie Rome", or indeed of any Italian, Spanish or French contemporary. As Ben Jonson wrote in the First Folio:
Triumph, my Britaine, thou hast one to showe,
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age, but for all time!
Cultural cringe was a thing of the past. And it wasn't just cultural: it was political as well, for Shakespeare forged a language that has certainly shaped how the English (and to some extent the British) see themselves even today in relation to the world. He set the terms in which we imagine our history.
His generation was the first for which England stopped at Dover. Mary Tudor's loss of Calais in 1558 meant that for the first time in 500 years England did not continue into France. This island had to be reimagined, treasured as the precious jewel set in the silver sea, and its people had to be recast, brought together in opposition to a hostile continent. The fantasy world of Henry V, of a nation united against the common foe, had little to do with Henry, much to do with the Armada, and even more to do with a rhetoric for concerted action against the "rebels" in Ireland.
This was poetry that has changed – and is still changing – the course of history, as it was repurposed by Churchill in 1940 and still shapes the language in which to craft a proper place for the UK in relation to the European Union.
The high poetic patriotism of the English history plays becomes subdued after the Stuart succession, the more measured Britishness of Lear and Cymbeline perhaps echoing the difficulty the English found in being merely part of the larger polity ruled by James VI and I.
Did Shakespeare ever manage a language of Britishness as powerful as the English celebrations of Richard II and Henry V? Not many would argue that he did. But then it is not clear that anybody has ever found the right rhetorical expression of the new reality. The flag designs with which James I sought to bring his two countries together show just how tough a challenge to the imagination that was and still is.
At the end of Cymbeline, Shakespeare conjures a confident, united Britain on happy terms with the continental superpower. We have still to find out how far his writing may shape the course of future events.
• A British Museum/Guardian panel discussion, 'The drama of nation building: did Shakespeare change the course of history?', will take place at the British Museum on 24 October