When Shakespeare Lured Soldiers to Battle

LONDON — Is Shakespeare a genius or a torment? A bit of both. Let’s deal with the poetry first. The fact that no one has ever surpassed him in the English language is the first headache — for English poets in particular. To discover that the best poetry that could ever be written about man’s miseries and soaring moods of elation and perplexity was composed more than 400 years ago, and you can do precious little about it other than howl into the void, is dispiriting at the very least. Imagine pointing out to a fresh-faced metallurgist of today that there is no point in going on because it has all been discovered long, long ago …

He is also a torment for another, more sinister reason. Though unsurpassingly great, he is also unsurpassingly manipulable by the cunning and the unscrupulous, among them kings, dictators, and heads of the armed forces.

These twin and interlinked thoughts swum into my head as I walked briskly through a very small exhibition devoted to the subject Shakespeare and War yesterday afternoon, confined to a very small gallery indeed on the second floor of the National Army Museum in Chelsea.

It must be said that far too much cramming together of this, that, and the other is in this small show, and a great deal of its content — including objects, snippets of film, propaganda posters, and much else — consists of copies of images, which pales their impact into near insignificance.

One of few objects that bring us up short is a printed book of the plays of Shakespeare once owned by King Charles I, he who lost his head in 1649. This is copy of what is called “The Second Folio.” (“The First Folio” was printed in 1624, exactly 400 years ago, and this fact has been much celebrated throughout the world.) It was published in 1632, and Charles was reading it as he prepared himself for his own execution. 

And not only reading it. He was annotating it, too, in brown ink, in a fine and finicky hand — we can read his words here — doing things like changing the titles of some of the plays. His proposed new title for Twelfth Night, for example, was simply Malvolio, a character who deals in pomposities. Was Charles himself a pompous ass? Pompous or not, mere words, he may well have reflected, would have precious little influence upon his fate now … 

What may interest us, though, is the very fact that he had his Shakespeare with him in such dire circumstances, and clearly regarded this book of resounding words as his precious strength and stay. Shakespeare was a power in the land, and he would become even more so as others deftly plucked quotations from, say, Macbeth or Hamlet and bent them to their own particular ends.  

Field Marshal Lord Kitchener was Britain’s great recruiting sergeant of the First World War. His pointing finger was leveled at manipulable young men throughout the shires of England. A stirring quotation from Macbeth — “Stand Not Upon the Order of Your Going, but Go at Once” — was deftly inserted into a recruitment poster for Kitchener’s New Army, and copies of The Kitchener Shakespeare were given to wounded and disabled soldiers. 

The slippery tactic of using the words of the Bard gave backbone and authority to the appeal. Millions were coaxed to their deaths beneath the stirring banner of the long-dead Bard.

Shakespeare and War continues at the National Army Museum (Royal Hospital Road, London, England) through September 1. The exhibition was curated Amy Lidster (University of Oxford) and Sonia Massai (King’s College London).

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