A major exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library explores the influence of Shakespeare on Churchill’s writing and ideas.

Silhouettes of Churchill and Shakespeare

“… he mobilised the English language and sent it into battle. The incandescent quality of his words illuminated the courage of his countrymen.” — President John F. Kennedy, as he made Winston Churchill an honorary US citizen.

Winston Churchill and William Shakespeare continue to exert a popular fascination matched by few other Britons: their politics are still debated, their views often challenged, but it is their powerful use of words, written and spoken, which has allowed them to transcend time and space. Churchill’s Shakespeare, opening in October 2018 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, explores the influence of Shakespeare’s plays on Churchill’s writing and ideas, and puts the eloquent language of both men centre stage.

The Churchill Archives Centre has lent a range of documents, photographs, and rare books to the exhibition, where they are displayed together with contemporary rare books, theatre programmes, posters, and artefacts from the collections of the Folger Shakespeare Library, as well as iconic personal objects from the Churchills’ family home, Chartwell (National Trust), and private collections. The exhibition also gives visitors the chance to hear original recordings of Churchill alongside clips from films such as Henry V (1944) and performances by Shakespearean actors, illuminating the passages which influenced some of Churchill’s most famous wartime speeches and raised morale on both sides of the Atlantic.

Churchill’s Shakespeare is the first major exhibition to reveal the wealth of connections between three generations of the Churchill family and the British theatrical world. Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, played an important role in raising support for a National Theatre in Britain. As a young boy, Winston had played with a toy theatre and twice competed for his school’s Shakespeare Prize, while as a father he inspired his own children’s passion for the Bard and saw his daughter Sarah take to the stage herself as a Shakespearean actress.

Among the loans from Churchill’s own private library of Shakespeare’s works is a miniature six-volume set of plays presented to him, at the very start of his political career, by the doyenne of fin-de-siècle Shakespearean drama, Maud Beerbohm Tree. The exhibition features a number of the original manuscripts from which Churchill later delivered broadcasts as Prime Minister during the darkest hours of the Second World War — prepared, like Shakespeare’s plays, in a blank verse format.

Churchill’s writing was animated by theatrical allusions and often consciously echoed Shakespeare’s words and rhythms — from the dispatches he penned while embedded in late-Victorian imperial campaigns as a war correspondent and soldier, to his epic histories of Britain, published at the end of empire and dawn of a new Elizabethan era. Churchill’s Shakespeare celebrates the English language as it echoes through the ages, and asks why powerful oratory remains so important to us today.

— Heidi Egginton, Archives Assistant

The exhibition is open from 6th October 2018 — 6th January 2019.

Logo for the Folger Shakespeare Library. The tagline reads "Advancing knowledge and the arts"

A Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition in partnership with The International Churchill Society.

‘Churchill’s Shakespeare’ at the Folger Library

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