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"Cannons are Heard but Muses are Not Silent": 'Shakespeare at War' at the National Army Museum

Photo Courtesy of National Army Museum

Two years into the First World War, John CC Taylor wrote a letter to John Hodgeson, his friend and employer, from “about four meters behind the firing line” somewhere on the Western Front. In his letter, the young private describes how he missed his books, and spends several pages comparing the plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, commenting on “how near [Marlowe] might have approached Shakespeare as a writer of historical plays.’ But Marlowe was killed before he had a chance. As a soldier in the midst of a grueling war, it is clear why the notion of Christopher Marlowe’s death struck a chord with Taylor, who himself could meet the same tragic fate as Marlowe: dead before he had the chance to fulfill his full potential.

This letter is currently on display as part of the new exhibit, Shakespeare and War, at the National Army Museum in Chelsea. On October 18th curators Amy Lidster, Lecturer at Oxford University, and Sonia Massai, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London, hosted a discussion with a small panel of fellow Shakespeareans to celebrate their exhibit at the NAM as well as the release of their new book titled Shakespeare at War: a Material History.

This project is, as Massai put it, a “pandemic project finally realized” after five years of research and planning. Like the exhibit, Shakespeare at War sheds a new light on the relationship between Shakespeare’s works and war. Rather than search within the texts to decipher Shakespeare’s representations of war, Lidster and Massai instead chose to examine how Shakespeare’s plays and poetry have been “mobilized” during times of conflict to, in Lidster’s words, “motivate troops, to reflect on the suffering of war, to influence political opinion, and to provoke through satire and propaganda.” Massai shared that “before working on this project, I knew how Shakespeare represents war in his works, but I had little sense of how consistently and how diversely Shakespeare has been mobilized at times of war, on stage and on the page, by civilians on the home front and by soldiers on the battlefield.” After sifting through letters, photographs, theater programs, and other miscellaneous items such as a seventeenth-century English mortuary sword, the pair have pieced together a tapestry of materials dating from the English Civil War to the current conflict in Ukraine–much of which is on view at the NAM. Both curators are “delighted that we’re able to bring some of these stories to life within this exhibition and accompanying book.” Massai described her experience exploring the archives: “Some findings shocked me, others amused me, but all the material objects included in the exhibition and discussed in the accompanying book invariably moved me, because they fundamentally show us how Shakespeare has offered a space where the experience of being at war can be processed and those involved in it can begin to heal.”

Image published by Bemrose & Sons Ltd., 1915 (licensed under public domain)

Lidster and Massai’s research unveiled much about the complexities of wartime propaganda. As Lidster explained, “every use of William Shakespeare is a constellation of competing agendas and aids,” which consequently leads to many of Shakespeare’s words being partially or fully given new meaning when placed into new wartime contexts. As an example, Lidster walked us through an iconic recruitment poster from World War I that repurposes a line from Macbeth: “Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once.” Shakespeare fanatics might recognize this line from Act 3, Scene 4, when Lady Macbeth sends away her dinner party guests after her husband starts seeing ghosts. Within this new patriotic context, the meaning of this line is completely reversed: instead of sending people away, it now invites them to enlist in the war efforts. In their book as well as the exhibit, Lidster and Massai highlight many items like this poster, which remove elements of Shakespeare’s works from their context in such a way that fully displaces the original meaning with a new, patriotic beckoning to the glory and honor of serving one’s country.

In addition to state-issued propaganda, the evening’s discussion also touched upon the many ways that individuals have looked to Shakespeare’s works to help them make sense of war, or to offer solace amid the uncertainty and violence experienced during times of conflict. These themes were explored in-depth by the panel of speakers who each offered a sampling of their own thinking on the subject of Shakespeare and war. The panel, quite appropriately, included an actor, a soldier, and a Shakespearean scholar currently living in a war-ridden country. Each individual shared their research and personal experiences, discussing topics such as theatrical productions that have given Shakespeare a fresh political edge, the vices and virtues of portraying soldiers onstage, and how the sense of community that soldiers experience parallels that of the tight-knit theatrical troupes of Shakespeare’s time.

Hugh Quarshie, an actor, discussed his experience in the RSC’s 2015 production of Othello in which he played the titular role, who Quarshie reminded us is a war hero returning home after battle. Quarshie suggested that Othello is best understood as the story of a soldier reentering society while also suffering the effects of PTSD–something that recent productions of the play have explored. Although Quarshie felt confident speaking about the role of war within the play, he confessed that he — as an actor who has “only ever played at being a soldier”— is not confident in his ability to speak accurately on the topic. He went on to challenge the idea of trying to understand the nature of war by looking at Shakespeare’s works, even though he is one of the most respected English writers to feature war in his works (and quite extensively too). The next speaker, Tim Collins, a soldier who served with the Royal Irish Regiment and the Special Air Service Regiment, responded to Quarshie by defending Shakespeare’s portrayals of war in his works. He reminded us that it is quite possible that Shakespeare (like many of his contemporaries) had some experience as a soldier himself, or at least was in close enough proximity to soldiers to get a sense for the nature of war through hearing about their experiences. Collins drew upon his own personal experiences in battle, which he touches upon in the essay he contributed to Shakespeare at War titled “Henry V and the Invasion of Iraq.” Collins explained that Shakespeare covered “bits of everything,” which allows us — whether we be the audience or the actors — to pick through and find the gems that help us make sense of the nature of humans and society.

The final speaker, Nataliya Torkut, founder of the Ukrainian Shakespeare Center, joined the conversation via Zoom from her home in Ukraine. Since the start of the Russian invasion in 2022, Torkut has dedicated much of her research to Shakespeare’s presence in her country and the ongoing war, and reported that he has aided people in countless ways. In schools, for example, his plays are used in performances meant to help children and young adults recover from PTSD. Many classrooms throughout Ukraine have incorporated Shakespeare into their curriculums not just for literary study, but to give the students tools to help them make sense of the violent conflict they’re currently living through. A poster hangs in many of these classrooms which features the slogan “cannons are heard, but muses are NOT silent” beneath a picture of William Shakespeare, promoting the importance of literature and art in the midst of unrest.

Torkut also discussed some significant performances of Shakespeare’s plays by Ukrainian theater companies, such as one heavily political production of Hamlet that premiered just before the Russian invasion. The play was set against the backdrop of what was, at the time, only tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Hamlet, of course, ends with the foreign Prince Fortinbras invading the court of Elsinor. Unfortunately, this scene was soon parallelled by reality when, shortly after the play’s debut, Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Russian aggression prompted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to British Parliament in March 2022 in which he invoked the Bard, quoting one of his most famous lines: “The question for us now is to be or not to be. Oh no, this Shakespearean question. For 13 days this question could have been asked but now I can give you a definitive answer. It’s definitely yes, to be.”

Torkut offered very personal, recent examples of the themes that Lidster and Massai highlight in both the “Shakespeare and War” exhibit and their book, Shakespeare at War: a Material History. In Lidster’s words, “Shakespeare doesn’t tell us what to think about war. Rather, we use Shakespeare to give our wartime experiences meaning.” The stories discussed this evening, as well as those on view in the “Shakespeare and War” exhibit at the National Army Museum, display the influence that Shakespeare’s works have had on our perception of war as well as our collective ability to process the horrors experienced by all those impacted by conflict.

The exhibit “Shakespeare and War” is on view at the National Army Museum until 31 March 2024.

Shakespeare at War: a Material History, a collection of essays edited by Amy Lidster and Sonia Massai,is available through the Cambridge University Press.


Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor


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