Fighting over Shakespeare

Commemorating the 1916 Tercentenary in Wartime

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 University of Murcia
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During the 1916 Tercentenary of Shakespeare's death, commemoration of the playwright and his plays was crucially shaped by the First World War. This paper departs from previous studies of the 1916 celebrations in its approach to the 1914-1919 war, which is not regarded here as a mere background influencing Shakespearean reception but as a dynamic presence, directly triggering appropriations of the playwright as cultural icon and of the plays as revered texts. In the course of examining sermons, lectures, and addresses delivered during the Tercentenary, this essay argues that the Great War impaired the celebrations to some extent, but it also fostered the commemoration cult of Shakespeare. The evidence examined shows how Shakespeare was worth fighting for in both local and European terms - how Stratford competed with London in their respective claims to Shakespeare and how England feared German appropriation. It also shows how in France, instead, quoting Shakespeare's words in 1916 was not a belligerent act of appropriation but a gesture meant to erase the memory of Anglo-French enmity at Agincourt and construe a bond between current allies fighting against the same foe in the trenches of the Western Front. Unlike other studies on the 1916 Tercentenary, this paper favours a European approach that integrates the reception of Shakespeare in Britain with his presence in other European countries.

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