New Exhibition Explores How William Shakespeare Shaped Britain’s Experience Of War 

This is a sponsored article on behalf of the National Army Museum.

The National Army Museum launches a new exhibition delving into how William Shakespeare’s plays have shaped attitudes to war, both past and present.

Though he wasn’t a soldier himself, Shakespeare’s work has contributed both to the military experience and to public opinion of the military, shaping our nation’s history. Performances, quotes and adaptations of his work have been used to inspire soldiers and civilians in times of conflict.

The exhibition begins in the earliest days of the Army, during the English Civil War, continuing through to the major revolutions of the 18th century in America and France. Shakespeare’s plays inspired resistance to tyranny and political corruption, but also those fighting against revolutionary upheaval.

In Victorian times, Shakespeare’s works were used to frame campaigns to expand and protect the British Empire, promoting sentiments of national pride, and deflecting press criticism of soldiers’ working conditions.

During the First World War, the Bard’s plays were performed or quoted in factories, hospitals, and schools, as well as in military, PoW and internment camps overseas, in a bid to raise morale. In the Second World War, British theatre was sponsored by the state for the first time in history. Shakespeare was framed as a symbol of the pre-war cultural past that was under attack by the fascist aims of the Nazi regime, inspiring people to fight back.

Photos, books, video clips and engravings are among the objects on display in the exhibition. See artworks dating back to the 18th century, including a parody of the witches from Macbeth published to mark the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. More recent artefacts include a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, presented in memory of Lord Kitchener to those who were disabled fighting during the First World War, and a photograph of a theatrical performance taking place in Aldwych tube station while it was used as a bomb shelter in 1940.

The exhibition enters the 21st century with a video clip from a production of Henry V at the National Theatre in 2003 — just as the Iraq War was beginning. The production contained many allusions to the conflict, including a visual nod to the controversial dossier commissioned by Tony Blair’s government to support Britain’s intervention.

See all this and more at the National Army Museum, just a few minutes’ walk from Sloane Square tube station.

Shakespeare and War is at the National Army Museum in Chelsea, 6 October 2023-31 March 2024. It’s free to visit, no booking required.

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