“Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.” – Hamlet. Powerful words particularly in November which is a month of memories and remembering, first up is the 5th of November and Guy Fawkes night and some bright spark many years ago, concerned at appalling memories made up a handy rhyme, it’s not all just about fireworks you know.
Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
There are many variations on this theme, and this school down in Kent has a good stack of them here, but it’s the other kind of remembering where the bangs are usually reserved, at least in this country, to the sound of a cannon or gunshot to open a remembrance service or the two minutes silence, that I want to turn to. The memory marked by poppies and quietness, not destructive fire and loud bangs (not that I don’t enjoy Fireworks night, honest). This year is particularly special as we remember the centenary of WWI remembrance day and remembrance Sunday are even more marked on the calendar than ever. Possibly the most poignant and powerful image of this is to be found at the Tower of London, if you can squeeze your way through the crowd to see it. It captures the magnitude of the loss and the anonymity of soldiers who die for their country, at once a number and a person, the latter of course being the most important of all.
I’ll never forget the first time I learnt, and I mean really understood, what war was and why we had to be quiet on the 11th and the Sunday closest to it. I’m sure I’d be told about it many times before, but we were doing a project at primary school, I must have been seven or so, and we had to interview someone who’d lived in the war about what it was like (now I’m not old enough to have met anyone who was about when WWI was happening – the focus of this project was WWII) I learnt all about war life both on the battlefield and back home, about this time I think it was I remember my parents telling me that my great-granddad (that’s my mum’s dad’s dad) went off to fight in WWII and sadly never came back, like many men and boys. But the reason it stuck with me most of all was because the news of his death only reached my great-grandma around the time of armistice day. I couldn’t get the complicated image out of my mind and remember thinking about it for days afterwards, how everyone must have been crying with joy at the news that war was over while my great-grandma silently mourned her loss. The tragic juxtaposition made a clear impression on me. Probably helped by the tales she used to tell of the war, I remember once going to have tea one afternoon and hiding under the thick wooden dining table because she told me that’s where they used to hide in the war when there was an air raid.
The arrival of the missing presumed dead letter of my great-granddad resonates with another tragic loss at war, Wilfred Owen who, in a slightly Shakespearean manner has been placed on a pedestal as an emblem of the doomed youth sent to fight in gross battles. Boys barely fresh from the nursery, Rupert Brooke of course is another. But like my great-granddad, Owen’s family only received the news of his death on the day the war was declared to be over. I am sure there are many such tales, and I share mine only really to explain my first grappling’s with war as a child.
The great-grandfather I never knew was of course the father of my Grandad and I asked if he would share with me his thoughts on Remembrance day.Like the memorial at the Tower of London where there is one poppy for every soldier that died in WWI, a big part of remembrance day for me is the honouring of those who can, if not, sadly remain a statistic. Each solider has a family and their memories are also to be treasured:
Remembrance Sunday and this time in November is for me, and many other people, a sad time when we think of love ones lost in war.
My Dad was killed right at the end of the Second World War in May 1945 – it must have been awful for my Mum. I was nearly 6 years old.
At the time people all around were celebrating victory and the end of 6 years of war, but for her it brought only sadness at the loss of a husband and Father to me. She never really talked about it. It was probably too painful and also I’m sure she wanted to protect me.
As a result I still find remembrance, though very important , something quite difficult to cope with. But, we should always remember how futile war is and that there are no real winners. This is borne out by the fact that the world is probably a less peaceful place than it was before both world wars.
– J. Buttifant
Not long after I understood what remembrance day was really all about I hungrily read any book which might have a tale relating to war – any war – fiction, history anything I could find. I continue to be interested in history and tales set in conflict ridden periods particularly the WWI and WWII narratives, and the poetry too. (I realise I probably sound like I have an unhealthy obsession with war). On a related note, I remember reading a couple of mouse comics (Maus I and II) set in Nazi Germany and a concentration camp. The intrigue led me eventually on a trip to Berlin, and a study of history right up until I hit university because the history I encounter now, is mainly (though not solely) filtered through literature not through a textbook or teacher.
Many forms of media and their depictions of war and suffering are powerful, and this can be seen in the wide variety of resources and publications appearing in the wake of remembrance day 2014.
It was this intrigue which prompted me, as I skimmed over the titles of articles in the 1992 Shakespeare Survey, on a research day, to flick over to ‘Shakespeare in the Trenches’, only a brief article and not related in the slightest to anything I am currently researching not that that usually stops me she says looking over at the ever growing stack of ‘to read’ books and the small collection of Sci-Fi volumes I picked up from the library earlier. I was admittedly greeted by looks of horror by the librarian when I reassured her that they are my pleasure reading material for the next few days. Anyway, I thought I’d check it out, Shakespeare, war, trenches – well it seemed to be ticking all the right boxes and I thought it would be good bedtime material, short enough to read before my eyes gave into sleep.
Engler’s article ‘Shakespeare in the Trenches’ (1992) considers the 1916 tercentenary celebrations of Shakespeare’s death in England and Germany while both nations were at war. Shakespeare became a patriotic emblem for both countries (though England angrily protested that they had better claim to him than their enemy – he was English after all).There was plenty of quoting Henry V (of course) and a memorial programme even included a section of ‘notes on Shakespeare the Patriot’. Over in Germany Shakespeare was being performed far and wide before WWI, unlike his homeland. But during 1916 the celebrations were more modest in Germany. No Shakespeare Week, but a revival of Reinhart’s cycle of Shakespeare plays. However, two years before in 1914 Shakespeare’s 350th birthday had been widely celebrated and the celebrations were international. Because, after all, “Shakespeare gehort der ganzen Welt” (Shakespeare belongs to the world!) It is, of course, “the context in which we perceive Shakespeare and his works, how we use them, that determines their meaning.”
However, with both nations at war two years down the line the picture was very different.
Nevertheless, both nations found Shakespeare had something favourable to say about their position in the war. Brotanek in Germany found that they were adhering to:
Notions of duty which Shakespeare laid down 300 years ago in his works, those statues of free and noble humanity. We are pleased that in our statesmen the feeling of fellowship with the people and of responsibility towards God is still so strong as in the soul of Henry V
You know it’s good patriotic stuff when they whip out Henry V (unless they’re subverting it of course) and want to be like the victor at the battle of Bosworth in Richard III.
War imagery infused the most unlikely of scenes, as with the lines Feste was forced to speak in England in 1914 which ended with the unsettling “Thou wonderful and noble land, remain thou Shakespeare’s one and only home” – sounds almost like Blake’s “and did those feet in ancient times..” Germany’s claim to Shakespeare as their own and a supporter of their cause was even more problematic though it was of course possible to claim that the values Shakespeare represented has been forgotten by his home nation but upheld by Germans and thus he could be considered among their great playwrights. So it was that “Hamlet along with Faust, became one of the great myths of German culture.” While in England Shakespeare was associated with Englishness and empire, so he “was both universal, and as such representative of what placed England above nationalism, and of what made his country different from others and placed it beside them.” This challenge of ownership surely only solidifies the universal appeal and claim to Shakespeare despite the war.
On both sides, soldiers were sent into battle with the same slogans from Shakespeare
However, Shakespeare was at once unifying and divisive and, as Engler concludes, this Shakespeare struggle left deep scars in Shakespeare studies, though nothing like the mass destruction and human loss caused by WWI.
Shakespeare in wartime has been seen both as an encouragement and an escape, contributing to the war effort. As WWII approached at the annual Shakespeare Conference in Stratford-upon-Avon, Harrison responded to the claim that Shakespeare was an unnecessary indulgence (as though in fear Shakespeare might be rationed),
Should we not rather be occupying ourselves with something more heroic – reading the newspapers or telephoning our friends? The answer is “no.” If we believe that art and things of the spirit have a value, then their value is greater – and not less – at times of stress and anxiety. Indeed, it is by their assistance that we achieve and preserve sanity. I would recommend anyone who cannot sleep at nights to try a mixed cure of Shakespeare’s plays. The tragedies will purge him of ignoble fears, the comedies will give him back sanity and laughter, and the histories will show him that it has all happened before
– Banbury Guardian, 31st August 1939
You see, Shakespeare is great for your sanity! But away from Shakespeare during the war, and our memories of him, and back to the real soldiers whose lives we honour on remembrance day, at the eleventh hour,
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Perhaps the most well-known war poem of recent years – In Flanders Fields – the poet urges us to never forget the sacrifice. So, like the ghost in Hamlet we “remember remember remember” as we bid “adieu” to their lives but not the memory of them.