Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09
Wit & Wisdom – Admiring Shakespeare
“The Bible and Shakespeare stand alone on the highest platform.” —WSC, 2 November 1949
Mike Robinson asked for Churchill’s thoughts on Shakespeare, particularly any comment on Laurence Olivier’s performances. Darrell Holley’s Churchill’s Literary Allusions (1987) says there “is no English author whom Churchill alludes to as often as William Shakespeare. Both by formal quotations, some quite lengthy, and by well-known phrases almost hidden in his text, Churchill makes allusion to many of Shakespeare’s plays.
“Somewhat surprisingly, he makes no reference to any of the sonnets. It is certainly not surprising, however, that Churchill should allude often to the histories and tragedies, King John, Richard III, and Hamlet being referred to most.
“Churchill uses Shakespeare in various capacities: as illustrations in his history of England, as embellishments in his other historical works, and as support in speeches to Parliament. In various ways he borrows the artist’s words to ornament his own ideas.”
Holley includes forty-six Shakespeare references and quotes deployed by Churchill in books and speeches. Here are some examples:
“To defend them or not to defend them—that was the question.” (Hamlet, in Lord Randolph Churchill).
“Age cannot wither her nor custom stale / Her infinite variety…” (Antony and Cleopatra, in Thoughts and Adventures).
“To commit the Navy irrevocably to oil was indeed ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles’” (Hamlet, in The World Crisis).
“Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war” (Julius Caesar, in The Story of the Malakand Field Force).
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more / Or close the wall up with our English dead” (Henry V, in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples).
“…they might easily be induced to throw in their lot with us and ‘make assurance double sure’” (Macbeth, in Blood Sweat and Tears / Into Battle).
“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings” (Richard II, in The Gathering Storm).
Darrell Holley’s book is a treasure trove, but he does not claim to be definitive. There are many more Shakespeare quotes in Churchill’s canon.
CHURCHILL AND OLIVIER
Two of Martin Gilbert’s volumes in the Official Biography tell us that in October 1944 WSC saw Olivier in Richard III; fourteen months later in December 1945 he saw Olivier as Mr. Justice Shadow in Henry IV. Also according to Gilbert, in November, 1944 “Churchill, his wife, and their daughter Sarah, Marian Holmes, Elizabeth Layton [secretaries], and others of the Chequers entourage, saw Henry V in Technicolor. ‘The PM went into ecstasies about it,’ Colville noted.”
In 1951 Lord and Lady Olivier (Vivien Leigh) stayed at Chartwell. Olivier had played Nelson and Vivien Leigh had played Emma Hamilton in the 1941 Alexander Korda movie Lady Hamilton (That Hamilton Woman in America). In 1955 Olivier received the supreme honour when Churchill put him up for membership in the Other Club.
In his Confessions of an Actor, Laurence Olivier recalled a droll experience at a Bernard Shaw play:
“The first time we realized that he was honouring us was at a performance of Caesar and Cleopatra. In the interval, I was hovering about in my dressing-room, wondering what the great man was thinking of us, when my door opened and that immortal head with the wonderful blue eyes came round it. I was too much taken aback to say anything, but he said at once, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I was looking for a corner.’ Realizing his need, I took him back through the outer office, and indicated to him exactly where to go and how to get himself down the stairs again, where there would be someone waiting to take him back through the pass-door to his seat. He always allowed himself the extravagance of buying three seats, one for himself, one for his much loved daughter Mary, and one for his hat and coat; I thought this one of the most sensible extravagances I had ever heard of. A little later Mary told me that, returning to his seat and sitting himself next to her, he had said, ‘I was looking for a luloo, and who d’you think I ran into? Juloo.’”
Apparently Churchill frequently wandered about in search of public conveniences between acts. Kay Halle’s Irrepressible Churchill (World Publishing, 1966), 95-96, contains a similar incident with Richard Burton, who related it on the Jack Paar Show in the 1953-54 season.
The Director of London’s Old Vic Theatre had advised Burton before a performance of Hamlet, “Do be good tonight because the Old Man’s out there in the front row.” In Britain, Burton said, “the Old Man is only one person, and that’s Churchill. I panicked. But I went onstage and started to play Hamlet. I heard a dull rumble from the front row of the stalls. It was Churchill speaking the lines with me, and I could not shake him off. I tried going fast; I tried going slow; we did cuts. Every time there was a cut, an explosion occurred. He knew the play absolutely backward; he knows perhaps a dozen Shakespeare plays intimately. Generally you can’t keep him for more than one act. When the first curtain came down I looked through the spyhole. He got up from his seat and I thought: That’s it; we’ve lost him. But a few minutes later he appeared in my dressing room, saying, ‘My Lord Hamlet, may I use your lavatory?’ And he did.”
—PHC, JRL, RML