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Shakespeare’s Influence on War at the National Army Museum

  • June 29, 2024
  • 3 min read
Shakespeare’s Influence on War at the National Army Museum

Located in a quiet quarter of Chelsea, the National Army Museum on Royal Hospital Road presents an intellectual treasure trove that marries the timeless works of William Shakespeare with the dynamic narrative of military history. The ‘Shakespeare and War’ exhibition offers an incisive exploration of how the Bard’s works have been interwoven with the tumultuous and often tragic theatre of war.

The exhibition opens with the English Civil War, a period steeped in conflict, where Shakespeare’s plays found themselves enmeshed in political machinations. Imagine, if you will, King Charles I’s annotated folio of Shakespeare’s works contrasted with John Milton’s sharp critique. This juxtaposition sets the stage for a deeper exploration of how Shakespeare’s words have been wielded as both instruments of inspiration and tools of critique throughout history.

As you walk through the museum’s galleries, you’re met with colourful engravings from the 18th and 19th centuries, portraying historical figures as Shakespearean characters. These depictions offer a pointed political commentary on events such as the Seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic era, illustrating how Shakespeare’s influence extended far beyond the confines of the theatre.

A particularly captivating display features a playbill for ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ performed aboard HMS Resolute in 1853. This Arctic production, amidst the pursuit of the Northwest Passage, underscores the resilience of Shakespeare’s works in uplifting spirits even in the most inhospitable conditions. The exhibition does not shy away from satire either, presenting 19th-century critiques that employ Shakespearean quotes to lampoon the follies and failures of military leadership, reflecting a period of intense scrutiny and reform within the armed forces.

The World Wars section presents some of the most poignant illustrations of Shakespeare’s military connections. The ‘Kitchener Shakespeare,’ a volume gifted to wounded soldiers, is displayed alongside German tributes to “unser Shakespeare,” highlighting how both sides claimed the Bard’s legacy. This section also delves into modern interpretations, from the Falklands War to contemporary productions addressing issues such as waterboarding.

Complementing the exhibition is ‘Shakespeare at War,’ a collection of essays that look more deeply into the presented themes. This book enriches the experience, exploring Shakespeare’s role in conflicts such as the Irish wars and examining military leadership through the lens of stage productions.

What distinguishes this exhibition is its ability to animate historical documents. Each text on display contributes to a larger narrative, brought to life by related artifacts and images. From mortuary swords to portrait miniatures, these objects create tangible links to the past.

The exhibition ends with a powerful image from a recent Ukrainian production of Hamlet, performed in a Kyiv theatre-turned-shelter. This poignant reminder of Shakespeare’s relevance in contemporary conflicts brings the journey full circle, from historical battles to present-day struggles.

‘Shakespeare and War’ at the National Army Museum on Royal Hospital Road is a must-visit for any who has an interest in military history and literary heritage. It challenges visitors to reflect on how the words of a 16th-century playwright continue to shape our understanding of conflict, heroism, and the human condition in times of war. The exhibition runs until September, so ‘Each Trojan that is master of his heart, let him to field!’.

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