Shakespeare and War; Shakespeare at War: A Material History by Amy Lidster & Sonia Massai (edd) - review by Felicity Brown

Felicity Brown

Once More unto the Bard

Shakespeare and War

The National Army Museum, London, until 1 September 2024

Shakespeare at War: A Material History


Cambridge University Press 300pp £19.99

Oleksii Hnatkovskyi stands alone as Hamlet, spotlit and swathed in blue and yellow. The scene is from a Ukrainian-­language production of Hamlet, directed by Rostyslav Derzypilskyi, performed in the basement-turned-shelter of the Ivan Franko Theatre in Kyiv on the sixteenth day after Russia’s invasion. One week earlier, in his address to the British Parliament, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky had paraphrased Hamlet to sum up the existential threat faced by his people. ‘The question for us now’, he said, ‘is to be or not to be.’ 

There is no end to war and no end, it would seem, to the uses Shakespeare can be put to in war. So says the ‘Shakespeare and War’ exhibition, tucked away in the National Army Museum in Chelsea. The exhibition’s small size belies its scope, spanning a period from the English Civil War to the early stages of the war in Ukraine. We learn that in the mid-17th century Shakespeare came to be associated with the Royalist cause after King Charles read and annotated his folio of the plays as he awaited trial. According to the staunch Parliamentarian John Milton, Charles drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s villainous Richard III. Next to a copy of Milton’s Eikonoklastes (1649), we find an exhibit dedicated to The Misery of Civil War (1680). An adaptation by John Crowne of Henry VI, Part 2 and Henry VI, Part 3, it was performed after Milton’s republic had collapsed, the monarchy had been restored and the theatres had reopened. The hurly-burly’s never done.

A riot of coloured engravings by Isaac Cruikshank, James Gillray and others depict and debate the incidents and ideologies of the Seven Years’ War, the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. A Prospero-like King George III protects his ‘enchanted isle’ during the Battle of the Nile. The prime minister William Pitt dominates his political enemies in the same guise, while a Calibanised Charles James Fox shivers in a skimpy French flag. And under Prospero’s (adapted) words ‘the great Globe itself and all which it inherit’, Pitt and Napoleon greedily carve up a plum pudding world (this image was luridly reimagined on the cover of the December 2022/January 2023 issue of Literary Review). 

After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the military’s role began to change. Rather than waging major campaigns in continental Europe, it was primarily used to protect Britain’s imperial possessions and promote commerce. A playbill for a performance of The Taming of the Shrew on board HMS Resolute in 1853 offers an arresting glimpse of this change of purpose. The Resolute was one of forty vessels sent to search for Sir John Franklin’s expedition party, which had disappeared on its search for the Northwest Passage. The opening up of the route was supposed to accelerate trade and reassert Britain’s naval power, while thwarting Russian expansionist ambitions. As the temperature reached minus thirty-five on deck, the Resolute’s mariners fought the twin maladies of monotony and nostalgia by bringing Shakespeare to the Arctic on a stage of raked snow. Months after their theatrical antics, news finally reached them of the outbreak of war with Russia, meaning that they could set sail for home. They arrived back in time to celebrate Britain’s victory at the Battle of the Alma.

For much of the 19th century, the army was the poor cousin of the navy. Rather than being put on patriotic parade, Shakespeare here was drafted into various comedies of errors. Lines from The Merchant of Venice – ‘How many cowards whose hearts are all as false/As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins/The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars?’ – caption John Lewis Marks’s engraving of duelling officers, ‘Awful Moments or Monkeys of Honour’ (1823). The conflict with Russia highlighted significant problems with the army’s organisation, while reports of poor conditions led to demands for improvements in its structure and culture. In Major Thomas Seccombe’s Military Misreadings of Shakespere (1880), lofty sentiments from the plays are paired with watercolour depictions of unheroic military episodes, featuring incompetent officers failing to control themselves, their horses and their women.

The First World War provides particularly poignant examples of Shakespeare being used for both inspiration and manipulation. A volume of the playwright’s complete works known as ‘The Kitchener Shakespeare’ was presented as a gift by the League of the Empire to wounded and even blinded soldiers in recognition of their service. Few copies of the edition show any evidence of having been read. Sergeant Frederick Bowman’s pristine copy sits beside items that evoke the passionate affiliation his German adversaries felt with unser Shakespeare (‘our Shakespeare’). Prints and panegyrics were produced as part of the Wilhelmine celebrations in 1916 of the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. In newspapers like the Berliner Tageblatt and the Frankfurter Zeitung, Kulturträger (‘bearers of culture’) observed that Germans were able to reconcile the demands of patriotism with the imperatives of good taste by continuing to read Shakespeare, while the ‘Pharisaic’ Brits – who had cut Beethoven and Wagner from their orchestral repertories at the start of the war – only occasionally watched his works. The playwright Ludwig Fulda went so far as to hope that Shakespeare, who had ‘only accidentally been born in Britain’, would be ceded to Germany in the peace settlement at the end of the war. A haunting black-and-white illustration from the German magazine Simplicissimus (1916) is a reminder of how hard-won peace would prove to be. In it Hamlet, identified as ‘king of Belgium’, stands holding a gaping skull beside a freshly dug trench.

A colour poster for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V presides over the section devoted to the Second World War, contrasting sharply with the grainy grey images of amateur Shakespearean dramatics in prisoner-of-war camps. The final section moves from wordplay, in the parody Queen Margaret; or, Shakespeare Goes to the Falklands (1982), to waterboarding, represented in a video clip of Iqbal Khan’s 2015 production of Othello for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The devastating potential of divisions between not only rival combatants but also military and civilian cultures emerges as a central theme in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

This is just one of the exciting ideas developed in the exhibition’s companion book, Shakespeare at War. In each of the twenty-six essays and interviews, a scholar, actor or military figure uses a particular item from the archive to recover a forgotten history. A cabinet card depicting Shakespeare ‘as youth’ from the papers of the Irish nationalist Michael Davitt leads to a discussion of Shakespeare’s role on both sides of the centuries-long conflict in Ireland. A playbill for a Shakespeare gala performance at the mock-Tudor Shakespeare Hut in Bloomsbury in 1917 gives rise to an examination of Britain’s relationship with New Zealand and the theatrical leadership of women during the First World War. And, according to Major General Jonathan Shaw (quondam Director Special Forces and military adviser on Nicholas Hytner’s 2013 production of Othello at the National Theatre), the exploration on stage of the differences between ‘directive command’ and ‘mission command’ (a more collaborative model of leadership) can all start with a beer (a can of Turkish Efes, to be precise). Rather than just an accompanying catalogue, this accessible collection is a substantial study of the ongoing creative partnership between Shakespeare and war.

A feature of both the exhibition and the book is the engaging presentation of textual evidence. The National Army Museum boasts spectacular uniforms, Captain Siborne’s controversial model of Waterloo and the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse Marengo (recently returned from a makeover at the Natural History Museum), but ‘Shakespeare and War’ really brings documents to life. While the distinction between reproductions and originals could be more clearly signalled, every text on display in the exhibition is animated by concise and compelling labels, as well as evocative images and objects, from mortuary swords and medals to portrait miniatures. 

The final image of the exhibition, from Derzypilskyi’s Hamlet, taps into a history of oppositional readings of that play in Ukraine, and a wider tradition of resistance there to the imposition of Russian translations of Shakespeare. The performance was dedicated to the people of the United Kingdom, in recognition of their ongoing support for Ukraine’s resistance and in memory of the civilians bombed in the Blitz. The bard has, in his time, played many military parts. These raise difficult questions but also inspire answers. Zelensky’s answer to the question ‘to be or not to be?’ was ‘definitely, yes, to be’.

The exhibition runs until September. So stiffen the sinews and, as Lady Macbeth insists on Parliamentary Recruiting Poster No 52, ‘stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once’.

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