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Leslie Howard’s Pimpernel Smith seeks to clarify cultural differences between the British and the Nazis by way of Shakespeare—a task complicated by German claims of the playwright’s putatively Nordic nature. This struggle over Shakespeare’s national identity is mirrored, first, in the film’s persistent emphasis on doubles; and, second, in its apparent advocacy for the notion that Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Just as Oxford appears in the film as Shakespeare’s doppelganger, Hamlet shadows both Horatio Smith (played by Howard) and Howard’s screen personae as a cerebral hero. Howard’s willingness to countenance arguments about Shakespeare’s Germanness, as well as entertain Oxfordianism, proves to be central to the film’s propaganda objectives. By contrasting Nazi intolerance for dissent with Smith’s apparent acceptance of heterodox ideas, Pimpernel Smith expresses Britain’s cultural superiority not only by way of Shakespeare, but also through Oxfordian challenges to the playwright’s identity.
In this coda, I demonstrate how the model of British national identity associated with Shakespeare could jar with other wartime configurations of national collectivity. I situate Laurence Olivier’s Henry V alongside two films made by the same studio— Nöel Coward and David Lean’s In Which We Serve and Carol Reed’s The Way Ahead—that develop their own models of national collectivity and social reform. From there, I show how the apparent ur-text of national unity, Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, jars with the late-war collectivist ethos in ways that Olivier has to compensate for through formal means. If, as the wartime politician and future prime minister Anthony Eden said, we see “our history … enacted” in Shakespeare, that history proves to be at odds with the visions of the postwar future on display in both In Which We Serve and The Way Ahead
In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, Shakespeare plays contradictory roles. On the one hand, he emblematizes the cultural inheritance Britain shares with the United States; on the other, he serves as the vehicle by which to assert British artistic superiority. The tensions between these roles is explored in a scene in which American service men and women, under the direction of a British vicar, rehearse episodes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Through this scene, Powell and Pressburger both mock American movies and betray their anxieties about the British film industry’s postwar future. At the same time, they make the case for the imaginative primacy of British cinema—and, indeed, of their own films—over Hollywood. The chapter concludes by considering links between A Matter of Life and Death and Powell’s unrealized adaptation of The Tempest, in which Prospero stands in for the filmmaker in exile.
Leslie Arliss’s The Man in Grey features a Regency-period staging of Othello’s murder of Desdemona, with a white Jamaican named Swinton Rokeby (played by Stewart Granger) blacked up for the title role. Partly through Othello, the film suggests a racial fantasy in which Rokeby reaffirms his whiteness by violently reclaiming his island home from emancipated black slaves. In this way, the film captures anxieties about race, sexuality and colonial participation that are activated by the migration to Britain of black West Indians to aid in the war effort; to put it differently, The Man in Grey appropriates Othello in order to explore how racial difference reveals the limits of a coherent British identity. The film also collapses the distinction between Shakespearean tragedy and costume melodrama, thereby mocking the canons of taste (and the view of the Bard) generally shared by film companies, period critics and government propagandists
While most adaptation studies are organized around literary works, this book takes as its starting point British film production during World War Two. It situates four cinematic appropriations and one adaptation of Shakespeare—Leslie Howard’s Pimpernel Smith, Humphrey Jennings’s Fires Were Started, Leslie Arliss’s The Man in Grey, Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V—within wartime culture. The Introduction describes the book’s method, which is to develop a synchronic film history centered upon the “wartime Shakespeare topos” (or WST), a flexible cultural trope that links Shakespeare to national identity. While the WST was deployed to articulate what binds the British people together, it was also often used in period film to register social and cultural differences within the nation. In this regard, British cinema gives us a Shakespeare who simultaneously undergirds national identity and traces the fault lines within it.
The great documentarian Humphrey Jennings is credited with helping to create the iconography of “the people’s war,” a period concept that emphasized how people of all social positions pulled together for the collective good. In Fires Were Started, which focuses on a day in the life of an Auxiliary Fire Service substation, a weary and grief-stricken fireman reads aloud from Macbeth’s speech to Banquo’s murderers. Whereas these lines have (somewhat bizarrely) been taken as evidence of Shakespeare’s status as an emblem of national unity, they articulate a strong sense of class grievance as well as skepticism about the collective ideal of the “people’s war.” In this way, Jennings mobilizes Shakespeare to explore the limits of the model of unity with which the playwright was associated. In doing so, Jennings contends that such unity is not given but in constant need of re-attainment.
During World War Two, many British writers and thinkers turned to Shakespeare in order to articulate the values for which their nation was fighting. Yet the cinema presented moviegoers with a more multifaceted Shakespeare, one who signalled division as well as unity. Shakespeare and British World War Two Film models a synchronic approach to adaptation that, by situating the Shakespeare movie within histories of film and society, avoids the familiar impasse in which the playwright's works are the beginning, middle and end of critical study. Through close analysis of works by Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Humphrey Jennings, and the partners Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, among others, this study demonstrates how Shakespeare served as a powerful imaginative resource for filmmakers seeking to think through some of the most pressing issues and problems that beset wartime British society.
This chapter argues that, while Shakespeare was deployed in World War II Britain for propaganda purposes, references to the playwright or his works also exposed rifts or contradictions within the national culture he was called upon to embody. It focuses on three major media in which Shakespeare was performed, adapted, or appropriated: the theater, the radio, and the cinema. Whereas state intervention fostered the performance of Shakespearean drama throughout the nation, the BBC underwent dramatic changes that meant that, while Britain’s national poet remained central to its mission, he was also associated with an elitist model of broadcasting whose hegemony was overturned during the war years. As for film, wartime Shakespearean appropriations show that the playwright could trouble propaganda imperatives as well as support them. In sum, while Shakespeare was a cornerstone of British wartime nationalism, he additionally served as a register of cultural, regional, and social difference.
Garrett Sullivan explores the changing impact of Aristotelian conceptions of vitality and humanness on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature before and after the rise of Descartes. Aristotle's tripartite soul is usually considered in relation to concepts of psychology and physiology. However, Sullivan argues that its significance is much greater, constituting a theory of vitality that simultaneously distinguishes man from, and connects him to, other forms of life. He contends that, in works such as Sidney's Old Arcadia, Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V, Spenser's Faerie Queene, Milton's Paradise Lost and Dryden's All for Love, the genres of epic and romance, whose operations are informed by Aristotle's theory, provide the raw materials for exploring different models of humanness; and that sleep is the vehicle for such exploration as it blurs distinctions among man, plant and animal.