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"Remembrance of things past": Shakespeare and the CWGC

Today, 23rd April, marks National Shakespeare Day. It would have been England’s most famous playwright and poet’s 456th birthday, and exactly 404 years since he died. This week Emma Brill, CWGC Marketing and Foundation Coordinator, explores the use of Shakespeare’s work in commemorating those who died in the two world wars.

The association between Shakespeare and war has long been established: from King Henry V rallying his ‘band of brothers’ in his St Crispin’s Day speech at Agincourt in the eponymous play, to the opening scene of Much Ado About Nothing with the men returning victorious from an unnamed battle.

Shakespeare often wrote about war, but what about his connection to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission? How are the concepts of remembrance and commemoration shown through the eyes of England’s National Poet?

Rumour has it that Shakespeare wrote the epitaph for his own grave in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon. He returned to his hometown after the Globe Theatre burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII in 1613, just three years before he died. The inscription on his grave gives a clear message to the living that ‘…blessed be the man that spares these stones, /And cursed be he that moves my bones.’

After the First and Second World Wars, some families who lost loved ones during these conflicts decided to use the power of Shakespeare’s words to express their grief. The CWGC’s policy, set up in 1917, gave family members the choice of adding a personal inscription to their loved one’s headstone. Initially limited to a maximum of 66 characters, families chose Shakespeare as a way of commemorating their loved one in their final resting place. For this reason, lines from Shakespeare’s plays and poetry can be found all around the world in CWGC sites, from Villers-Bretonneux Cemetery in France to Alexandria (Chatby) Military and War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt, cared for by the CWGC in perpetuity.

There are many Shakespearean personal inscriptions to be found in our sites, but I have explored my two favourites:

‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ - Cymbeline, Act IV, Scene ii

This line is from one of Shakespeare’s final, and often forgotten about, plays, Cymbeline. The play is rarely performed nowadays, but this line forms part of a funeral song, usually chanted or set to music. The song is performed by Guiderius over the bodies of Cloten and Fidele. However, it wouldn’t be a Shakespeare play without a bit of mistaken identity. Not all is as it seems. Fidele is not a boy and is not really dead, but drugged; she is actually Guiderius’ long-lost sister Imogen, heroine of the play and daughter of the King of Britain, disguised as a boy and wandering around the Welsh wilderness.

The meaning of the line is simple: duty done in life, their death has put an end to earthly anxieties and struggles. The hardships of life are not something that troubles them anymore, as ‘home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.’ They have gone back ‘home’ to the earth which bore them, where bad things can no longer befall them. Despite the play’s relative unpopularity with audiences in the twenty-first century, this line was chosen as a personal inscription for many CWGC headstones, including that of Major John Hughston, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who died on 14 September 1918 in Salonika. Mentioned in Despatches and described as ‘a young Australian who freely gave his life when duty called,’ the 26-year-old is buried in Sarigol Military Cemetery in Greece.

‘Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,’ - Macbeth, Act II, Scene ii

The tragedy of Macbeth may seem like a strange choice of play to choose for a headstone inscription. It’s personally my favourite play and, nowadays, we associate it with the supernatural, with the ‘weird sisters’ on the ‘blasted heath,’ with the downfall of a man who treacherously murders the rightful king of Scotland, and an evil ‘fiend-like queen’ who goes mad with guilt. However, Macbeth was a really popular Shakespeare choice for personal inscriptions because of its frequent references to ‘sleep.’ The family of Trooper C Norris chose this inscription for his grave. He served with the 1st Life Guards regiment and died on 11 September 1917. He is buried in Lillers Communal Cemetery, France.

The word ‘sleep’ appears a lot in Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy - 18 times to be exact. The concept of sleep and sleeplessness is key to the play; for Macbeth, ‘sleep’ is a necessity of life and represents his peace of mind and rationality, the ‘…season of all natures.’ Even Lady Macbeth’s guilt reveals itself through her sleepwalking. Immediately after Macbeth killed Duncan, who was sleeping peacefully in his bed, he tells his wife that ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep – the innocent sleep.’ The personal inscription is reminiscent of the Cymbeline quotation above, and many other families chose the similar words, ‘after life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.’ Just as a peaceful sleep, the ‘chief nourisher in life’s feast’ relives the living from ‘the ravell’d sleave’ of daily worries, death puts an end to hardships of life, and the harsh realities of war.

A legacy left in their art, the fallen artists of World War Two
A legacy left in their art, the fallen artists of World War Two
Have you heard of the WAAC? The War Artists Advisory Committee was set up to help document the war through art. To draw and paint the war one had to see it: some 28 artists were given overseas commissions by the WAAC, and of these, three would die while serving. A legacy left in their art, the fallen artists of World War Two
Tags Sarigol Military Cemetery Lillers Communal Cemetery Shakespeare