Curator's Insights: Churchill's Shakespeare

A Lifelong Connection with Shakespeare

Churchill's Shakespeare is about "his oratory and the power of speech to move people." It's also about Shakespeare's influence on Churchill's language and ideas, says Georgianna Ziegler, the exhibition curator. But "one of the things that may surprise people," she says, "is that Churchill was so involved with Shakespeare and what Shakespeare meant to him."

Ziegler is the Folger's Associate Librarian and Head of Reference Emerita and she, too, has been surprised by the number of Shakespeare associations as she created this exhibition. "This was eye-opening," she says, from references to Shakespeare in Churchill's schoolboy letters to his use of Shakespeare's lines in his published books and many other connections.

Some of his great speeches "were typed out in short lines, like Shakespeare's verse," she says. "It helped him in rehearsing them. He often gave them in the House of Commons, and it helped him to think of them as dramatic speeches." The exhibition includes some of those typescripts, along with many other materials from the Churchill Archives Centre and Chartwell, his home, which is now part of the National Trust.

Sh-Ball-Souvenir-Cover-Fi157993.jpg

View Image Assets
Shakespeare Memorial Souvenir of the Shakespeare Ball. London; New York, 1911. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Item Title: 
Shakespeare memorial souvenir of the Shakespeare Ball / edited by Mrs. George Cornwallis-West.
Item Call Number: 
ART Vol. f231
Item Date: 
[1911?]

In researching Churchill and his family's connections to Shakespeare, Ziegler found a remarkable item in the Folger collection from the years just before World War I—a "beautiful, vellum-covered book for a fantastic costume ball" that Churchill's mother put on in 1911 to raise money for a National Theatre.

"The people who went to the ball would have purchased it," she says. "The ball was kind of like Downton Abbey, one of the last big social events before the war. They were in furs and gowns and dressed up like characters in Shakespeare's plays"—including Churchill's mother, who came as Countess Olivia from Twelfth Night.

 


"Churchill liked the theater from an early age."


WebbStageFront-158061.jpg

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Webb’s New Stage Front. Lithograph, [c. 1880?]. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Item Title: 
Webb’s New Stage Front [graphic].
Item Call Number: 
ART 265172 (size M)
Item Date: 
[c. 1880?]

"Churchill liked the theater from an early age," says Ziegler. "He played with toy theaters and toy soldiers. In each case, you're setting up scenes and acting them out. It's not surprising that he would conflate theater and war in his mind."

In his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), Churchill suggests that most soldiers "aspire to be good actors in the play," a theatrical image that recalls Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man speech: "All the world's a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players." Ziegler has found the same idea in some of his World War II speeches as well.

Among all the subjects of the exhibition, it is Churchill's speeches during World War II that take center stage. The exhibition explores the Shakespearean influences on them, especially focusing on Henry V. "Today, his speeches sound old-fashioned, because they are long. They're very oratorical, using figures of speech," says Ziegler. Yet these speeches "kept people going in very dark and difficult times, almost through sheer willpower on his part," in a persuasive melding of oratory and leadership. "People would turn on their radios to hear him, and it gave them hope. If you ask older British people, or those whose parents lived through it, they will tell you that."