Exploring Churchill’s Shakespeare

Churchill's Shakespeare opening. Allen Packwood, Georgianna Ziegler, Robert Costa. (c) Yassine El Mansouri Photography
Churchill’s Shakespeare opening. Allen Packwood, Georgianna Ziegler, Robert Costa. (c) Yassine El Mansouri Photography

Our current exhibition Churchill’s Shakespeare began with a splash, as Washington Post reporter, moderator of Washington Week on PBS, and NBC News and MSNBC political analyst Robert Costa led a spirited onstage discussion about the influence of Shakespeare on Winston Churchill with the exhibition’s curator, Georgianna Ziegler, Associate Librarian and Head of Reference Emerita at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre at the University of Cambridge.

The animated three-way conversation that ensued was part of a memorable Folger evening exploring how Shakespeare influenced Churchill, including some of Churchill’s most famous speeches during World War II. You can listen to the entire recording here:


We’ve also included the first few minutes of the conversation below, with some images from this remarkable exhibition.

Churchill's Shakespeare exhibition, Folger Shakespeare Library

ROBERT COSTA: Good evening. Great to be here, really appreciate the warm welcome. It’s wonderful to have Jennie Churchill here and Laurence Geller and Michael and the whole team at the Folger Library, a special place. It’s special for me to be here with Georgianna and Allen Packwood. I used to bother Allen Packwood when I was a student at Cambridge. I would be the American in the hooded sweatshirt asking too many questions, but who would have thought, 10 years later, we’d be right here.

ALLEN PACKWOOD: And you’re still asking the questions.

COSTA: I am still asking questions. But Georgianna, I thought I’d start with you, because you went over to meet with Allen at Cambridge to help think through this exhibit—which is wonderful, I hope you all get a chance to spend a few minutes there afterward for the reception. And you learned that Jennie Churchill, Churchill’s mother, was part of the inspiration for Winston Churchill and his love of Shakespeare.

GEORGIANNA ZIEGLER: Yes, well, I really had a good time visiting the Churchill Archives. I’d never been there before, until I went over in April of last year. And I was quite taken with the material I was finding about Jennie Churchill. She, of course, was an American, who sort of in a Downton Abbey kind of way married into the British aristocracy. But I was interested in the fact that she was very interested in the theater. She went to the theater. She also supported the idea of putting on, of developing a National Theatre in London, and in order to raise money for that, she sponsored a big extravaganza of a Shakespeare Ball in 1911. Then that was followed up in 1912 by a kind of a Shakespeare Disneyland creation at Earl’s Court in London. And the Folger interestingly has the spectacular program. It’s more than a program, it’s a memorial volume, a souvenir from the ball. But then we also had, in our so-called “black box” collection of odds and ends, some of the little programs from Earl’s Court.

Shakespeare Memorial Souvenir of the Shakespeare Ball. Edited by Mrs. George Cornwallis-West. Prologue with colored photo of Mrs. Cornwallis-West (Churchill's mother's name, following her second marriage) as Countess Olivia. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Shakespeare Memorial Souvenir of the Shakespeare Ball. Edited by Mrs. George Cornwallis-West. Prologue with image of Mrs. Cornwallis-West (Churchill’s mother’s name, following her second marriage) as Countess Olivia. Folger Shakespeare Library.

PACKWOOD: So she would have loved this setting, I think, wouldn’t she? I mean this whole setting could have been there in that Earl’s Court exhibition.

ZIEGLER: Exactly. I mean she… because part of Earl’s, the idea behind Earl’s Court, was to recreate Elizabethan buildings. And, you know, what’s more of an Elizabethan building than the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC?

COSTA [Gesturing to stage set]: This is for which performance? It’s going to be…

ZIEGLER: King John.

Churchill's Shakespeare opening. Allen Packwood, Georgianna Ziegler, Robert Costa. (c) Yassine El Mansouri Photography
Churchill’s Shakespeare opening. Allen Packwood, Georgianna Ziegler, Robert Costa. (c) Yassine El Mansouri Photography

COSTA: And Churchill loved the age of Elizabeth. There’s a… I was looking through some of Churchill’s speeches. In 1946, he visited Richmond, Virginia, and he said, “the light of the Elizabethan age, which Shakespeare, Raleigh, and Grenville adorn, casts its unfading luster upon our scene here and in Williamsburg nearby.” Allen, talk about how Churchill saw the age of Shakespeare, the age of Elizabeth.

PACKWOOD: I think he, Churchill, was consistently and passionately interested in history, even at an early age when he wasn’t interested in very many other school subjects. We have his school reports in the archive from his first school, St. George’s School in Ascot. And they make for hilarious reading. You have things like, “Conduct has been exceedingly bad, cannot be trusted to do any one thing.”

Yet he later admitted in his autobiography, My Early Life, that where his reason, interest, or imagination were not engaged, he would not or he could not learn. And I think that’s the key to it. He only took up those subjects which interested him, and the subjects which interested him at school were English and history. And of course, those two thing come together in the Elizabethan age, and they come together in the works of William Shakespeare. And he enjoyed entering the Shakespeare competitions at school, in Harrow, and he had a very good memory, so he enjoyed learning Shakespeare.

And I think he… This is a man who lived his life on a dramatic plane. You know, he was brought up in Blenheim Palace, surrounded by tapestries featuring his illustrious ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough. He’s aware of his own lineage. And I think, you know, he reads Shakespeare and he thinks, yes, this is what I want to do now.

For the entire discussion, listen to the audio or read the transcript.

Photograph from Laurence Olivier's movie of Henry V: Olivier as Henry V. 1944. United Artists Corp. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Photograph from Laurence Olivier’s movie of Henry V: Olivier as Henry V. 1944. United Artists Corp. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Would you like to learn more about how William Shakespeare’s works influenced Winston Churchill and what he wrote and said—with a special emphasis on such World War II speeches as “Their Finest Hour” and “The Few” (“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”)?

Join us at the Churchill’s Shakespeare exhibition at the Folger to see original materials on Churchill, his family, and Shakespeare, brought together for the first time from the Churchill Archives Centre; Churchill’s home, Chartwell, part of the National Trust; and the Folger Shakespeare Library.

You can also explore the exhibition online, through photos, text, and original videos by Georgianna Ziegler, Allen Packwood, biographer Andrew Roberts, and others; read Georgianna Ziegler’s insights; and try our list of recommended books and recent movies.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)