Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)

An English playwright whose work served as dynastic propaganda for the Tudors and who became a staple of British propaganda in the modern world, William Shakespeare was born in Stratford, located in the Midlands. He worked in London under state censorship and regularly performed at court, especially after the accession of King James I (15661625) in 1603, whereupon his company took the name The King’s Men. Elements of dynastic propaganda are most easily discernable in Shakespeare’s history plays. His early play Richard III (c. 1593) constitutes a slander on the last king of the Plantagenet line, who was killed in a battle against Henry VIII, the founder of the Tudor line. The historical tragedy Macbeth (c. 1606) touches on the origins of the Scottish royal house that produced King James. Other plays make political points on the nature of kingship and the danger of civil war.

By the twentieth century Shakespeare had assumed a centrality in English cultural history. The three hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death occurred in April 1916, providing a patriotic windfall for British domestic propaganda during World War I, as well as an opportunity for cultural propaganda in the still neutral United States.

Patriotic speeches extracted from his plays became favorite morale boosters in both world wars, the favorite being John of Gaunt’s death speech in Richard II (c. 1594)—which is even quoted by Sherlock Holmes at the climax of the Hollywood film The Secret Weapon (1942). The most famous wartime use of Shakespeare was Henry V (1944), produced, directed, and acted by Laurence Olivier (1907-1989). Elements in his rhetoric clearly influenced Churchill.

Other countries have adapted Shakespeare to serve their own political ends. Verdi (1813-1901) used Macbeth as a veiled attack on Austria’s misrule of Italy. In Stalin’s Russia a bold company famously staged a production of Hamlet (c. 1602) in which all the characters were drunk, intended as an attack on the decadent monarchical system. For all his international resonance, Shakespeare still figures prominently in British cultural propaganda overseas, from the activities of the British Council and such trans-Atlantic cultural groups as the English-Speaking Union to tours by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

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