The Game’s Afoot

For all the football fanatics out there it’s like Christmas come early at the moment with the World Cup dominating the global stage. Those who are less enamoured are counting down the days to the closing ceremony when football can be firmly put aside again at least for another 4 years. Among those who aren’t fans of this football frenzy seem to me, and I realise I am making a huge generalisation, to be academics. Fine, I realised a ball being kicked round a pitch isn’t nearly as exciting as say discovering that Shakespeare might not have written 2HenryVI or something equally revolutionary, but it does grip the world and try as you might you can’t ignore it. In fact Shakespeare and football aren’t as different as you might think. Teams rise and fall like the reputation of plays.

Take the 2012 Olympics a couple of years ago. Shakespeare was a prominent player, a sportsman if you will in the festivities although he didn’t have to compete. Branagh gave him an airing in the opening ceremony as we put him forward as an emblem of England but for reasons which strike me as most bizarre the organising committee chose Caliban’s lines. Not those which immediately spring to mind ringing of patriotism (yes I’m talking about Henry V and his cries for England and St George) but perhaps that was the point. The focus was on the British isles not the England of the Plantagenet’s. Fine. But Shakespeare and sport were proudly presented together on the Olympic stage. Sport-loathing Shakespearians were forced to reconsider. Actually, there’s something fairly comical in the hatred some Shakespeare lovers express towards football. Who would want to crowd around in a big arena and watch some people play around in action you’ve seen before with the kids down the street? And then see it re-played again and again. Think about it. Fans of football and the stage aren’t really that different. The play’s the thing.

Rik Mayall, someone we perhaps best remember from The Young Ones hit the headlines last week twice. Once with his death and then later in the week with his return to the charts.

Here he is in all his glory.

Yes, when I first heard this yesterday I thought oh goodness what has happened to Shakespeare, but after careful consideration I think that’s the beauty of him. Sure he can be deified and placed on a high pedestal in all his renaissance glory, but where does that really get us? The reason he’s lasted is thanks to people like Mayall and Tate before him adapting. Taking the bits they liked and discarding the rest. Not once did I think when reading Henry V this would make a great football anthem. But the patriotism is written all over it, especially the scene Mayall adapts for his song. You can almost picture Olivier or Branagh singing along as they cry for England first wanting victory and then later when we inevitably exit the world cup before the final like true sportsmen..

The song is a fairly simple mash-up with Shakespearean lyrics and the gradual rising chants to “come on you Eng-er-land, you noble Englishmen” as the camera darts back and forth from a face painted with disinterest at the surrounding fans and an image of Henry 5-a-side. It all kicks off at the pub, like any good match I hear.

A quick look at the lyrics and they’re not that different from their Shakespeare source.. Now that’s the kind of plagiarism Shakespeare would approve of.

Can you spot the difference?

Once more onto the pitch dear friends once more
to raise up these walls with our English cheer.
When the whistle blast blows in our ears
then imitate the ashen of the tiger
stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood
disguise fair nature with hard favoured force
Then lend the eye a skillful aspect
Set the teeth, oh gentle men in England
bend up every spirit to its full height
On, on you noble English Those men of grosser blood, teach them how to play
you good players whose limbs were made in England
Show us here the mettle of your footwork
Let us swear that you are worth your breeding
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips
Straining upon the start, the game’s afoot
Follow your spirit upon this charge
Cry God and win for England and St George.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Ok fine, perhaps the Shakespearean language gives away which one is Henry V. But the main point is, if comic artists can take Shakespeare and rehash it into something as popular as a football chant, released as a single which has again hit the top ten this can only be a good thing for Shakespeare scholars. Yes, musically the song isn’t any Mozart but that’s besides the point. It is unashamedly a pop song and no worse than many of the songs churned out today by much more serious artists than Mayall. The song with it’s Shakespeare snippets puts Shakespeare firmly back in the heart of popular culture, where he really ought to be anyway not stored up with the old theatre tickets of the upper class mother who took young Johnny to see Titus Andronicus at the Globe because it would be improving for him (she really hadn’t thought about how bloody it might be..).


The games are afoot folks, so no matter who you’re supporting have a sing along with Shakespeare or at least don’t leave him out of the festivities. He’s a poet for all times for a reason.


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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