Reference: Hendley, Matthew C.
‘Cultural mobilization and British responses to cultural transfer in total war: the Shakespeare tercentenary of 1916’
First World War Studies, 3:1 (2012), p. 25-49
This article examines the important role William Shakespeare played in Britain’s experience of total war during the First World War. In the first two years of the war, individual scholars, cultural critics and a rich array of associations in Britain helped rally British public opinion in support of the war. As a cultural symbol of Englishness, William Shakespeare was a perfect vehicle for this self-mobilization process. The coincidence of the three hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1916 and the demands of total war led to differing uses of Shakespeare as a vehicle for cultural self-mobilization in Britain. What makes Shakespeare an especially fascinating example of the role of culture in wartime is that his universality as a cultural symbol also made him a key figure for cultural transfer between Britain and other nations. Using insights from scholars such as Christiane Eisenberg and David Blackbourn, this article will also show how the British reaction to the cultural transfer of a figure like William Shakespeare re-inforced Britain’s cultural self-mobilization. This article is of historical significance for three reasons. First, it analyses how Shakespeare played a vital role in British cultural self-mobilization in total war as a symbol of Englishness. The 1916 Tercentenary and the British government’s relatively limited role in organizing it meant that individual scholars, cultural critics and Shakespeare enthusiasts (and the associations they were linked to) freely articulated their vision of Shakespeare and his link to Englishness. Though not directed to do so by the British government, the narrowest and most nationalistic definition of Englishness would prevail amongst Tercentenary celebrants. Second, it shows how the cultural transfer of Shakespeare to the United States was warmly received by the British public. This aided Britain’s cultural self-mobilization by helping inspire confidence in the apparent cultural ties between Britain and the United States which it was hoped would blossom into military alliance. Third, it shows how the cultural transfer of Shakespeare to Germany was harshly criticized. This cultural transfer was seen as illegitimate and critics argued that British culture had become corrupted after being received by the Germans. In addition, this reaction to cultural transfer also aided cultural self-mobilization by increasing enmity against Britain’s leading enemy. This reaction also helped provide a cultural justification for the war by pointing to the cultural flaws and limited cultural understandings of Germany. The article will also show that such a negative reaction to a cultural transfer, belied the notion occasionally expressed by more liberally minded cultural critics that Shakespeare could be claimed by any nation without reservation as part of a universal culture. In these ways, the memory of a poet and playwright who had died 300 years before the battle of the Somme began was a vital force for Britain’s self-mobilization in a total war, especially before the rise of the Lloyd George coalition in December 1916 and the more systematic approach to government propaganda taken by Lloyd George’s government from 1917 onwards.