Last month at the National Churchill Library and Center in Washington, D.C., historian Andrew Roberts recommended that everyone pay a visit to the Folger Shakespeare Library to see its latest exhibition. He summed up the significance of Churchill’s Shakespeare when he said, “It concentrates on the extent to which [Winston] Churchill’s love of Shakespeare and his learning of the great reams of Shakespeare affected Churchill’s rhetorical technique.”
What is the Folger?
Curious about Roberts’ assessment, I ventured over to the Folger Shakespeare Library on December 2. I was excited about my first visit, because it contains the largest collection of all things Shakespeare. Since its opening in 1932 in Washington, D.C., the Folger has been a leader in scholarship on the Bard and his works. The complex also houses the Folger Theater, where performances, readings, and talks are given year-round. You’ll want to block off a full day to take in an exhibition, a play, and of course, a visit to the gift shop nook.
The exhibitions are always located at the Great Hall. Don’t be alarmed if you see people in costume lingering at the end of the chamber. They’ll be actors waiting for their cue to go back into the theater, which is situated at that section of the Folger complex. I highly recommend that you respect the actors and resist the temptation to say hello and ask for an autograph. You’ll have plenty of time after a performance!
A Well-Rounded Exhibit
Churchill’s Shakespeare is a fine exhibition executed by the Folger’s very own curator, Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, in cooperation with The Churchill Archives Centre’s director, Allen Packwood, and other Centre staff. The major sections focus on Churchill’s life (1874-1965) and how he was influenced by Shakespeare’s works. In his capacity as a statesman and U.K. Prime Minister, he helped shape the rhetoric that many remember most about World War II.
It’s remarkable how much content devoted to Churchill’s time as a boy and young man is exhibited here in one space. The early photos run as a nice counterpoint to those from his years as Prime Minister, which are more recognizable from history books and news articles. Visitors can study his messy schoolboy scrawl in a letter to his mother, apologizing for not writing as much as he should have because he was busy competing for a Shakespeare prize. Lady Churchill herself was known for her parties, organizing a Shakespeare Ball in 1911. My favorite piece from those early years is a letter from playwright George Bernard Shaw, asking Lady Churchill to bring “the marvellous boy!”
Letters and photographs also illustrate wonderfully the relationship between Churchill and his wife, Clementine. He quoted Shakespeare in his letters to her, while she recounted how much the children loved hearing her read to them. Rather than just reading the item caption, a mere summary of the letter, visitors should read the letters in their entirety. They shift in topics from Shakespeare to things amusing and commonplace. For example, on a page from 1922, Clementine urges her husband to sign and return a check she enclosed.
A lot of attention is dedicated to World War II, particularly the “finest hour” speech and others that Churchill wrote and delivered. Posters thoroughly explain which plays he drew from, with his text marked in blue and Shakespeare’s in red. As Prime Minister, not only was he heavily engaged with War Cabinet meetings and other affairs of state, he also enlisted the aid of esteemed actors in the war effort. There’s plenty to see about his friendship with Sir Laurence Olivier, who did a film of Henry V in 1944 to keep morale high. Another noteworthy set of WWII items are the political cartoons from Punch and other periodicals, which feature caricatures of Churchill and other world leaders as characters from Shakespeare’s works. For example, Churchill is humorously depicted as an intoxicated Falstaff in one cartoon, while Adolf Hitler is King Lear in another.
Now and then if a performance is on you can hear shouts and music emanating from the Folger Theater. When the plays go to intermission, theatergoers will often mill around in the Great Hall, because that’s where the concession stand is. The liveliness of the nearby theater experience provides a nice ambiance as you peruse the exhibit. Other intriguing sights and sounds include the large monitors, which play files from Churchill’s speeches, an Olivier performance, and interviews with individuals such as historian Andrew Roberts and actor Richard Burton.
Churchill’s Shakespeare is a family-friendly exhibition with something for everyone to enjoy. The Folger is encouraging people to share their experiences on social media with the hashtag #WinstonandWill as they check out the items and the special interactive stations. On the left side, there is a hat station, where you can try on a variety of Elizabethan hats or even a bowler hat and do your best selfie. On the right side, try your hand on an old typewriter, draft an amazing speech, and read it at a 1940s-style microphone. Near the typewriter station, take a look at the bookshelf, hold your own storytime, and read books like War Dogs: Churchill & Rufus with the little ones.
Verdict: Add the Folger to your travel list
This review merely skims the surface of the wealth of information you can mine from Churchill’s Shakespeare. Don’t hesitate to engage with one of the friendly docents making rounds and learn even more from them. The exhibition runs through January 6, 2019, and admission is free. If you aren’t able to make the trip this year, there are still plenty of excellent resources on the Folger website. Start with the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series exploring the unique places where Shakespeare has turned up in our global culture. Among the 100+ episodes, you can access Folger’s interviews with esteemed individuals in the arts such as director Phyllida Lloyd and actors John Lithgow, Sir Anthony Sher, and Sir Derek Jacobi.
The Folger Shakespeare Library has long been on my list of places to visit. It’s definitely one of my new favorites in the D.C. area and I can’t wait to go back.