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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: September 2019

The Lion and the Lamb: Hamlet in London during World War II


In Humphrey Jennings’s wartime documentary, A Diary for Timothy (shot between September 1944 and January 1945, eventually released in 1946), Hamlet makes a surprising appearance. Written by E. M. Forster and narrated by Michael Redgrave, the film is addressed to an infant, Timothy James Jenkins, who was born on the fifth anniversary of the beginning of World War II. It depicts the world – more precisely, end-of-the-war Britain – into which little Timothy was born. Towards the middle of the film, after a loud bang of a preventatively exploded landmine, the film’s narrator invites the viewers to visit London: ‘and suppose you went up to London; London in November looks a nice, quiet place, but you’d find things are chancy here, too, and the bad’s so mixed with the good, you never know what’s coming … ’. As an illustration of chancy life in London, we can take a quick glimpse at the façade of the Haymarket Theatre and quickly find ourselves in the midst of Act 5, Scene 1, of a stage production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, as the Gravedigger’s words swim in, ‘ … that day that our last King Hamlet overcame Fortinbras’. Hamlet, played by John Gielgud, enquires, ‘[h]ow long is that since?’; the response, of course, is, ‘[c]annot you tell that? Every fool can tell that.