Shakespeare and World War I

In the spring of 1916, Shakespeare commemorations were popping up all across America in honor of the 300th anniversary of the Bard’s death, while remembrances in Europe played against the background of the first great World War. The New York Times reported on both. Photographs of soldiers in trenches were juxtaposed with special supplements honoring Shakespeare from February through April, 1916. Articles in the supplements made it clear that countries on both sides that were hammering each other in bloody conflicts were some of the greatest supporters of Shakespeare: England, Germany, France, Russia, and Norway.

Shakespeare Tercentary edition. New York Times. February 20, 1916. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Shakespeare Tercentary edition. New York Times. February 20, 1916. Folger Shakespeare Library.

The US would not enter the war for another year, in spite of German submarine attacks on Atlantic shipping that sank the Lusitania, a British liner with American passengers, in May 1915. In 1916, they also sank a ship coming from Britain that carried a collection of manuscripts from 18th-century Shakespearean actor David Garrick, which Henry Folger was considering for purchase. As Andrea Mays points out in her book, The Millionaire and the Bard, such a setback did not prevent Mr. Folger from purchasing six First Folios during 1916.

The Folger Shakespeare Library has continued what Henry and Emily Folger began: collecting many items relating to the 1916 commemorations. These include the New York Times supplements and materials documenting celebrations in various parts of the country, from a “dramatic tribute” by students at Indiana University in Bloomington and a list of “dramatic performances, exhibitions and festivals” in Philadelphia to catalogs of special Shakespeare exhibitions at the Boston Public and Princeton libraries. Both the Drama League in Washington, DC, and the New York Public Library published suggestions for schools and colleges celebrating Shakespeare. Armond Carroll wrote a masque performed at Piedmont Park, Atlanta, while Isabella Fiske Conant wrote another, performed in Wellesley, Massachusetts. At the University of North Dakota, 20 students wrote and produced an entertainment entitled Book of Shakespeare, the Playmaker, which they performed at the Bankside Theater on their campus. A St. Louis department store displayed “Things curious, instructive and beautiful pertaining to Shakespeare and the stage collected… by Adeline Palmier Wagoner,” president of the Shakespeare Tercentenary Society.

William Winter and actors at Shakespeare scenes performance, Century Theatre. March 14, 1916. White Studio. Folger Shakespeare Library.
William Winter and actors at special Shakespeare scenes performance, Century Theatre. March 14, 1916. White Studio. Folger Shakespeare Library.

One of the largest celebrations took place in New York City under the direction of Percy MacKaye, who wrote a masque entitled Caliban by the Yellow Sands. MacKaye’s idea was to involve many different immigrant groups: German, French, Spanish, Greek, Italian, and so on. Alden and Virginia Vaughan write about this entertainment in their book Shakespeare in America. “For MacKaye, Shakespeare was the great moral teacher who could inspire New York’s non-English speaking immigrants to join their Anglophone neighbors in a new, multiethnic American community.” This focus on Anglo-assimilation seems jarring today, but it should be noted that diverse groups in America adapted, and continue to adapt, Shakespeare themselves into imaginative African American, Native American, Yiddish, Hispanic, and other productions, celebrating their diversity.

Remarkably, in spite of wartime destruction, Europeans also remembered Shakespeare during 1916. Germany published a special issue of Simplicissimus, their weekly political humor magazine, dedicated to both Shakespeare and Cervantes, who also died in 1616. The Folger has recently acquired this issue, which features cartoons showing Sir Winston Churchill as a puffed-up Pistol – “a gull, a fool, a rogue” – from Henry V and President Woodrow Wilson as Hamlet, saying, “The time is out of joint: O, cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right!” Shakespeare was especially admired in Germany, where his work had been performed since the 17th century. The English, of course, and the French, both of whom were fighting against Germany, also remembered Shakespeare. The Folger has the catalog of a special exhibition put on by the Bodleian Library at Oxford, as well as the program of a performance at Drury Lane Theatre in London “humbly offered by the players and their fellow-workers in the kindred arts of music & painting” in May 1916. Also in May, the Comédie Française held a special conference of “Hommage à Shakespeare.”

Simplicissimus. Shakespeare and Cervantes edition. April 18, 1916. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Simplicissimus. Shakespeare and Cervantes edition. April 18, 1916. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Perhaps the greatest Shakespearean tribute was organized by Sir Israel Gollancz, professor of English at King’s College London. Gollancz wrote to many writers and Shakespeare scholars in different countries asking for their thoughts. These he edited and compiled into A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, which was published on April 23, 1916, the day Shakespeare had died 300 years earlier. The Folger Shakespeare Library is fortunate to own the archive of documents that he received, resulting in a remarkable collection in many languages, including Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Urdu. Gollancz’s dream was that “the world’s brotherhood… be demonstrated by its common and united commemoration of Shakespeare,” and he realized part of this goal in spite of the war. As American author and speaker William Lyon Phelps had written in the New York Times: “As a world-conqueror, Shakespeare makes all military heroes seem insignificant.”


Georgianna Ziegler is the curator of the current Folger exhibition Churchill’s Shakespeare, which explores the influence of Shakespeare’s plays on Winston Churchill’s speeches and writing.

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