Winston Churchill used Shakespeare to change the world


Winston Churchill (Library of Congress)

More than any other author, the Stratford poet informed the writings of the imposing British statesman, political leader and Nobel Prize winner.

The most important tribute a human can pay to a poem or piece of prose that they truly love is to learn it by heart. Not by brain, by heart. . . What you know by heart the bastards can’t touch.
—George Steiner

Use your memory! It is these bitter seeds alone that could germinate and grow one day.
—Alexandre Solzhenitsyn

Be ready.
—Motto, Boy Scouts of America

Then the brave Horace spoke,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man on this earth
Death comes sooner or later.
And how can man better die
Than to face terrible odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.

THowever the words of Thomas Babington Macaulay The laity of ancient Rome conjuring up images of a hazy past, clad in robes and pillars, it was the elocution of young Winston Churchill that was electrifying. Standing before the Harrow School Committee, Churchill aptly told the story of Horatius, the noble captain who would physically defend the city against the onslaught of the mighty Etruscan army. At the end of his proud, if not provocative, presentation, a stunned hall roared with applause as Churchill received the declamation award.

From an early age, Churchill was in love with the written and spoken word. If Latin was a certain form of torture for the young Briton, English was essential. The language of his British father and American mother, of his beloved Shakespeare and of the endless empire was a cause for great felicity and solemnity. Churchill reflected:

Naturally, I am biased in favor of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the smarter ones learn Latin for honor and Greek for treat. But the only thing I would whip them for is not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that.

During his military service in India, Churchill found himself enduring hours of excruciating monotony. Not wanting to waste precious time playing cards or taking a nap during the endless and sweltering Indian days, he begged his mother to send him boxes of books, which he immediately devoured. Macaulay’s Twelve Volumes of English Stories and Gibbon’s Eight Volumes The decline and fall of the Roman Empire were meticulously spread over his hours of operation, and soon he was reading Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Plato and Henry Hallam The constitutional history of England. Eager to follow in his Conservative father’s parliamentary footsteps, Churchill even asked 27 volumes of The annual register (dating from Disraeli’s government) from which he could read House of Commons bills, summarize their proposals, and craft compelling written arguments (and votes) for or against. This period of intense self-education Churchill nicknamed “The University of One”. It would solidify his lifelong love of reading. “If you can’t read” all of your books, Churchill purred,

in any case to manipulate them and, so to speak, to caress them. Look at them. Let them open wherever they want. Read the first sentence that catches the eye. Then turn to another. Take a voyage of discovery, taking polls on unfamiliar seas. Put them back on your shelves with your own hands. Arrange them according to your own plan, so that if you don’t know what’s in them, you at least know where they are. If they can’t be your friends, let them be your acquaintances anyway.

In works considering the influence of literature on Churchill (Churchill’s literary allusions, The literary Churchill) as well as according to the findings of eminent Churchill historians Martin Gilbert, William Manchester, Andrew Roberts and Richard Langworth, Churchill had a deep and lasting love for Shakespeare. Shakespeare, in fact, is the foremost English author – bar none – to whom Churchill refers in his essays, books, and speeches. Some of his favorites include Hamlet, Richard III, and king john.

In 1944, as the fate of World War II began to turn for the Allies, Churchill was exuberant to learn that Laurence Olivier and Filippo Del Giudice were teaming up to produce a color Shakespeare feature film. Henri v. The Prime Minister insisted that Henri v was “a glimmer of splendor in the dark and troubled history of medieval England,” adding that “Henry led the nation away from internal discord to foreign conquest. He had the dream and perhaps the prospect of leading all of Western Europe in the high championship of a crusade. On the eve of the top-secret D-Day invasion, what better story than Shakespeare’s Henri v to tell the world about an oppressed British nation in turmoil and uncertainty, faced with the roaring might of a haughty, well-fed and well-funded French army in a historically crucial battle. . . and win? Shakespeare, from Churchill’s point of view, had already predicted the outcome.

Even after the war and in Churchill’s twilight years, the great man cherished Shakespeare. Richard Burton tells the well-known story of his meeting in 1953 with the rowdy Prime Minister and 79-year-old war hero while Burton played Hamlet at the Old Vic in London. “He was there,” Burton recalls,

sitting in the front row, literally at arm’s length. I heard that kind of low, thunderous rumble in the stalls and wondered what it could be. And it was Churchill who spoke every line with me. It was quite confusing so I tried to shake it off. I went fast; I went slowly; I backed up ; I went to the edges, but the old man was catching up with me all the time. And, of course, Hamlet is so long that they cut three quarters of an hour into it. Every time there was a cut there was a huge explosion in the stall [from Churchill] – you would have thought I was Hitler!

“He knew every game absolutely backwards.” Burton will say later. “He knows maybe a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays intimately.”

While Churchill might shiver or cry (and Churchill was a weeper) to the whirlwind of Shakespearean drama, her intimate knowledge of the bard was not just recreational. It was formative. The wit and gall, the agony and ecstasy of human experience told in pristine English has been woven into the fabric of Churchill himself. Certainly, without the great stories written by Macaulay and Gibbon, Churchill would not have offered the same epic style. But without Shakespeare, Churchill would probably never have galvanized the masses with phrases like “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” or “Never in the realm of human conflict, so many people have not owed so much to so little ”, or“ Let us therefore hold on firmly to our duties, and bear in mind that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last a thousand years, men will still say, “It’s was their finest hour. in the aftermath of the war and pressed by his colleagues on how history would treat him, Churchill joked with a twinkle in his eye: “History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it. . ” Soon after, Churchill did just that, writing a masterful six-volume series on World War II.

In 1953, Winston Churchill received the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for his brilliant discourse in the defense of exalted human values”. During the introductory speech, Swedish writer Sigfrid Siwertz of the Nobel Committee declared that “Churchill’s political and literary achievements are of such magnitude that one is tempted to present him as a Caesar who also has the gift of Cicero’s feather. Never before has one of the leading figures in history been so close to us thanks to such an exceptional combination.

A year later, in a crowded Westminster hall to celebrate Churchill’s achievements and his 80th birthday, he unusually diverted the outpouring of praise, noting that the nation

the will was resolute and unrepentant, and as it turned out, invincible. It was incumbent upon me to express it, and if I found the right words, you must remember that I have always made my living by my pen and my tongue. It was a nation and a race living all around the globe that had the heart of a lion. I was lucky enough to be called to give the roar.

Certainly, Winston Churchill was the product of his time, his education and his situation. But he was surely the product of everything he read and embedded in his soul. As he read, Churchill understood the stories. By memorizing, Churchill lived the stories. Loving, Churchill returned the stories to each of us with a scowl and a cigar clenched firmly between his teeth.

Today, more than half a century later, it is up to us to read what critic Matthew Arnold has dubbed “the best that has been thought and said”, so that we too may be wise, trained and prepared. – if the circumstances present themselves – to answer the call of history to give the roar.

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Tod Worner is a physician, writer and editor of Evangelism & Culture, Journal of the Word on Fire Institute. His collected writings can be found at

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