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Churchill and Shakespeare without Melodrama: a Response to Jonathan Rose
(1a) A work (such as a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization: ‘an actor with a flair for melodrama.’ (1b) The genre of dramatic literature constituted by such works. (2) Something resembling a melodrama, especially in having a sensational or theatrical quality: ‘The trial turned into a melodrama.’” —Merriam Webster Dictionary
Rose on Churchill
Jonathan Rose shows in The Literary Churchill that Winston Churchill’s literary tastes were dramatic and theatrical.1 This is a well-founded position, which Churchill’s love for Shakespeare could almost prove by itself. Beyond showing that Churchill was dramatic, however, Rose claims that he was melodramatic. In fact, Rose describes melodrama as Churchill’s ruling literary taste. This is a more difficult position to maintain, for it comes up against Churchill’s intimacy with the plays of Shakespeare.
Contrary to Rose’s melodrama thesis, the record shows that Churchill loved Shakespeare preeminently and did not read him as melodrama. Churchill’s rewrite of Julius Caesar shows that he did not wear polarized glasses, only to see melodramatic heroes and villains. Winston Churchill’s literary world was not fundamentally melodramatic, since he gave the chief seat to Shakespeare and read him perceptively.
Rose nevertheless presents Churchill as dominated by melodrama. In the first chapter of The Literary Churchill, he characterizes this genre with a list of conventions: black-and-white moral absolutes, justice, stereotyped characters, defiance of oppression, and certainty—with a hero triumphing magnanimously over a villain.2
From this genre of melodrama, Rose traces a pervasive influence on Churchill’s politics. Taking imperial policy as one example, Churchill was “entirely at home with the clichés of imperial melodrama” and “viewed twentieth century India through the prism of bad nineteenth-century plays.”3
“The melodrama thesis”
Rose says in his preface, before introducing the genre of melodrama in the first chapter, “Many of [Churchill’s] most crucial political decisions were essentially acts of theatre, and some of them only make sense when placed in the context of theatre history.”4 Churchill’s literary tastes, he argues, shed light on his politics: “His political goals and methods were shaped by what he read in books and saw on the stage.”5 For Rose, a melodramatic political Churchill flowed out of a melodramatic literary Churchill. As the culture changed around Churchill, he continued to cherish Victorian melodrama: “Churchill, to the end of his life, never accepted that melodrama was dead: he loved it and constantly performed it in his politics.”6
In Rose’s understanding, melodrama also occupied the principal position in Churchill’s literary world. Indeed, “Churchill’s contemporaries knew [melodramatic] conventions well and saw that he was in thrall to them.”7 This posiion might be called the “melodrama thesis.”
Shakespeare, the ignored counter-example
Rose suggests that Churchill would not be especially attracted to a non-melodramatic author such as Shakespeare. Thus The Literary Churchill does not evaluate Churchill’s intimacy with the Bard. Shakespeare is three times mentioned by name as part of establishing Churchill’s love for the dramatic: Rose recounts a memorization competition from Harrow days, quotations in the theatrical introduction to the Malakand Field Force, and a quotation within a war memo.8 Also, Rose mentions Henry V also as a possible root source for a Churchillian epigram.9 His final mention of Shakespeare as related to Churchill is to critique the methodology of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples: “Churchill did not use theatre history to illuminate English cultural history: there are a few passing allusions to Shakespeare and the Elizabethan stage.”10
All told, Rose actually refers to Shakespeare more in relation to Churchill’s contemporaries than to WSC himself. De Gaulle’s allusions to Macbeth are spot lit. Shakespeare’s comedies are said to be Chamberlain’s escapist literature, read under the pressure of war.11 Every reference to Shakespeare, however, is in passing. Perhaps Shakespeare is not thoroughly considered because, while he can help paint Churchill as dramatic, he does not fit the color scheme of melodrama. There is little room for Shakespeare in the melodrama thesis.
Shakespeare in Churchill’s canon
Rose has missed the whale of Shakespeare for the fish of contemporary melodrama. Shakespeare dominated the sea of Churchill’s literary life. Within the first volume of the History, Darrell Holley counts twelve allusions to or quotations from Shakespeare, stemming from six different plays.12 A rough software program can find an additional three quotations from Richard III.13 Churchill embedded Shakespeare within his story-telling, often as the spoken words of the historical characters, once for a whole twenty lines. Rose is not precise when he dismisses these as “a few passing allusions.”14
Far beyond the History, Churchill filled his writings with Shakespeare. According to Richard Langworth, “There is no English author to whom Churchill alludes as often as to William Shakespeare.”15 The most referenced plays are King John, Richard III, and Hamlet.16 Even the less quoted Julius Caesar produces its share of phrases and allusions. Such phrases as “the work we have in hand” or “will come when it will come” indicate a bent for the Shakespearean, even if they might have been invisible to Churchill when he composed them.17
In the House of Commons, Churchill once said he had come “‘to bury Caesar, not to praise him,’ or to dispraise him.”18 In a public hall outside Manchester, Churchill bantered with voters: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them.”19 His frequent allusion to Shakespeare reflects familiarity and respect. As Churchill said himself, “The Bible and Shakespeare stand alone on the highest platform.”20
Sir Winston’s favorite author
The preceding argument from Churchills public writings does not yet show that Shakespeare was his favorite author. Public words must appeal to the public, but Shakespeare also dominated Churchill’s personal literary life. That he took private pleasure in Shakespeare is indicated by extensive memorization. Examples of this abound.
In the 1950s, at a performance of Hamlet by the actor Richard Burton, Churchill recited the lines from the audience. As Burton recounted it, “I could not shake him off. I tried going fast, I tried going slow; we did cuts. Every time there was a cut an explosion occurred. He knew the play absolutely backwards; he knows perhaps a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays intimately.”
A similar feat of recitation, occurred during a Richard III performance by Sir Laurence Olivier. At dinner with Olivier, Clementine Churchill said her husband had also memorized Henry IV and Henry V.22 Taken together, the four plays Hamlet, Richard III, Henry IV, and Henry V are more than ten times the number of lines that the young Churchill once memorized for a public Shakespeare competition: A letter from the young Churchill to his father tells of memorizing 1000 lines for a competition at Harrow.23
Churchill absorbed Shakespeare into his personal life. Thirty years after Churchill’s death, his daughter Lady Soames would recall: “He was moved by events and tragedies, by people behaving nobly, by poetry…. I’ve seen him recite Shakespeare and his eyes brimming with tears.”24 Churchill referenced Shakespeare more than other authors publicly because Churchill loved Shakespeare more than other authors privately.
But how did Churchill interpret his Shakespeare?
This flood of Shakespeare influences in Churchill’s public and private life challenges the “melodrama thesis.” Still, a determined reader saturated in melodrama could read Shakespeare simply as melodrama. Indeed, Macbeth and Richard III almost fall within that genre of themselves. James Hammersmith classifies Macbeth as tragedy, all things considered, but writes that Richard III contains an unresolved tension of genre, where “tragedy and melodrama vie with each other for pride of place.”25 Given that Churchill referenced and memorized Richard III, it could be that what he liked in Shakespeare was melodrama. It is easy to construct a picture of Churchill savoring the power of Shakespearean language while digesting the plays as melodrama. So the question stands: “Did Churchill read Shakespeare as melodrama, or not?”
The Literary Churchill offers an example of Churchill making a melodramatic allusion to the history related in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Rose tells how Churchill “made his first political speech and fought his first political battle in a theatre.”26 That was at the Empire Theater, London, in 1894. “Prudes on the prowl” erected screens between the bars and the promenade, which young Winston and his companions demolished. From the wreckage rose a Churchill declaiming upon the spot:
You have seen us tear down these barricades to-night; see that you pull down those who are responsible for them at the coming election.” These words were received with rapturous applause, and we all sallied out into the Square brandishing fragments of wood and canvas as trophies or symbols. It reminded me of the death of Julius Caesar when the conspirators rushed forth into the street waving the bloody daggers with which they had slain the tyrant.27
Churchill was “proud of my part in resisting tyranny.”28 His allusion to the murder scene from Julius Caesar identifies the conspirators with the cause of English liberty against tyranny. It was good against bad, hero against villain––a melodramatic interpretation.
Churchill’s penetrating Julius Caesar
An obscure retelling of Julius Caesar by Churchill provides a more perceptive interpretation of the play. In 1933, The Strand magazine asked Churchill to rewrite a Shakespeare play as a short story. Churchill agreed, on condition that the play be Julius Caesar “because he knew it well.”29 He chose, not Richard III, but rather a tragedy where no character looks purely good or bad. His choice indicates a broad intimacy with Shakespeare, as Burton said. It does not indicate a narrow liking for plays that could be more easily read like melodrama.30
Churchill’s retelling of Julius Caesar shows that, contrary to the “melodramatic thesis,” his understanding of the play was complex. He describes the scene of Caesar’s death altogether differently than in his 1894 allusion. The “conspirators” are now “murderers,” whose cries of liberty are sharply juxtaposed to the dismay of the common citizens. Churchill distances the reader from Brutus and Cassius:
If the fastidious Brutus was carried to these excesses, what of the unbalanced and exalted Cassius? Bathing his hands in the wounds, he gloated on the fame that would glorify their deed through all the centuries, ‘in states unborn, and accents yet unknown.’”31
This is bold, vibrant, dramatic––and not melodramatic. Churchill paints with the smoky tone of oil, not with watercolor. He does not transform the senators into freedom-fighters. He does not conform the story to norms of freedom versus tyranny. Nor does he remake the scene as melodrama.
Churchill highlights Brutus’ tragic faults rather than relegating them to the background. A melodramatic frame of mind might crunch Brutus into the mold of a hero of liberty. Churchill, however, focuses on his flaws. In the pivotal scene where Brutus decides to kill Caesar, Churchill describes his plausible logic as sophistry. Brutus in the original says that Caesar would surely turn bad, “as a serpent’s egg / Which hatch’d would as his kind grow mischievous.”32 In order to portray Brutus as heroic, this reasoning might be interpreted positively along the lines of Lord Acton’s dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”33 Churchill makes a different interpretation of his soliloquy:
If arguments for the course Brutus was inwardly bent on did not exist, they must be forged; he gave his mind a violent twist. Ambition, he told himself, inevitably grew with what it fed on; Caesar must not be allowed even the chance of going wrong, the seed of potential tyranny must be killed outright, like a serpent in the egg. One could hear the sigh of relief and release with which he finally persuaded himself to acquiesce in this sophistry.34
This scene defines Brutus’s motives in killing Caesar, and thus how honorable he will appear for the whole play. Churchill makes Brutus’s reasoning futile, his motives blemished. As Shakespeare scholar Sir Stanley Wells has noted, “[Churchill] displays a politician’s shrewdness in his analysis of Brutus’s arguments.”35 Churchill interprets Brutus critically. He does not read the principal character of Julius Caesar as a melodramatic hero.
Ascending from the details of particular scenes and taking a broader view, Churchill does not remake Julius Caesar as melodrama. His retelling violates the characteristics of melodrama laid out by Rose. Moral absolutes are absent, without heroes or villains. Justice is absent for the same reason. Stereotypes do not define the characters, whom Churchill treats as having both good and bad. Liberation is not touted as a theme in the story, even though the killing of a tyrant might have been construed that way.
True, Churchill does add certainty, by making character sketches where Shakespeare gives dialogue. But The Strand’s request for a 4000-word short story required severe cuts.36 True, the story ends as Antony makes a magnanimous speech about the dead Brutus, suggesting a melodramatic hero who “forgives his defeated enemies.”37 But Antony is no hero, Brutus no villain. The speech itself is a quotation from the original. Taken as a whole, Churchill does not push Julius Caesar toward the genre of melodrama.
By writing out his vision of Julius Caesar, Churchill reveals that he interprets Shakespeare seriously. His love is for a three-dimensional Shakespeare, not a two-dimensional melodramatic caricature. Churchill’s in-depth interpretation of Julius Caesar shows that he read, watched and memorized Shakespeare without reducing him to melodrama. All this evidence suggests the need to revise Rose’s melodrama thesis.
* * *
Since Shakespeare takes first place in Churchill’s literary world, melodrama cannot. Still, Shakespeare does not define the totality of Churchill’s taste. He had a broad enough taste to enjoy melodrama. But it seems doubtful that his predominant taste would diverge far from his most quoted, respected, and tearfully beloved author.
Melodrama does not, at least, take the chief seat. So, following Rose’s insight that Churchill’s literary life influenced his political life, we are left with a hard task. To show how Shakespeare affected Churchill’s politics would be as hard as showing how one life experience affects another. Like real life, Shakespeare cannot be superimposed readily onto new situations. Churchill’s perceptive approach to Shakespeare may, nevertheless, be connected to his politics. That a serious view of Shakespeare filled Churchill’s literary world suggests that a serious view of life filled his political world.
1 Jonathan Rose, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 1, Kindle.
2 Rose, Literary Churchill, 7-8.
3 Rose, Literary Churchill, 78, 381.
4 Rose, Literary Churchill, preface, para. 8.
5 Rose, Literary Churchill, preface, para. 5.
6 Rose, Literary Churchill, 13.
7 Rose, Literary Churchill, 7.
8 Rose, Literary Churchill, 2, 40, 356.
9 Rose, Literary Churchill, 333.
10 Rose, Literary Churchill, 421.
11 Rose, Literary Churchill, 352, 354.
12 Darrell Holley, Churchill’s Literary Allusions, (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987), quoted in Richard Langworth, “Churchill and Shakespeare,” The Churchill Project, Hillsdale College, 18 July 2016, https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/churchill-and-shakespeare/
13 (i) Richard III’s servitors say, “My lord, the enemy is past the marsh. / After the battle let George Stanley die.” Shakespeare, Richard III, act 5, scene 6; Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 1, The Birth of Britain (London: Cassell, 1956), 498. (ii) Churchill’s Richard says, “I will not dine until I have his head.” Shakespeare’s says, “Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear, / I will not dine until I see the same.” Holley probably did not catch this quotation because it is closely mixed with others from Thomas More’s account. Compare the equivalent phrase in More: “I will not to dinner till I see thy head off.” Shakespeare, Richard III, act 3, scene 4; Churchill, Birth of Britain, 483; Thomas More, The History of King Richard the Third (Dallas: The Center for Thomas More Studies, c. 1513), 42. (iii) In Churchill, Richmond says, “In the name of God and St. George,” as he prepares for battle. In Shakespeare, Richmond says, “In the name of God, and all these rights,” at the same point. It is possible they are both following the same source, but Churchill would still be aware of Shakespeare’s version. Shakespeare, Richard III, act 5, scene 3; Churchill, Birth of Britain, 496.
14 Rose, Literary Churchill, 421.
15 Langworth, “Churchill and Shakespeare.”
16 Langworth, “Churchill and Shakespeare.”
17 Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 1, scene 3; Martin Gilbert and Larry P. Arnn, eds., The Churchill Documents, vol. 20, Normandy and Beyond, May-December 1944 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2018), 290; Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 2, scene 2; Robert James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1974), II: 2037.
18 Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 2; James, Complete Speeches, V:4610.
19 Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 2; James, Complete Speeches, I:263.
20 Richard Langworth, ed., Churchill by Himself: In His Own Words (London: Ebury Press, 2012), 50.
21 Langworth, Churchill by Himself, 59.
22 Jack Fishman, My Darling Clementine: The Story of Lady Churchill (New York: Avon Books, 1963), 185.
23 Randolph S. Churchill, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 1, Youth, 1874-1900 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2018), 173.
25 James Hammersmith, “The Melodrama of Richard III,” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 70, no. 1 (February 1989): 36, https://0-doi-org.library.hillsdale.edu/10.1080/00138388908598612.
26 Rose, Literary Churchill, 14.
27 Winston Churchill, My Early Life (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1931), 71.
28 Churchill, My Early Life, 72.
29 David Lough, No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money (New York: Picador, 2015), 222. “Julius Caesar” (Cohen C410), No. 2 in “Shakespeare’s Plays as Short Stories,” The Strand, November 1933. Subsequently collected in Six Stories from Shakespeare (London: Newnes, 1934) and in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, Vol. 4, Churchill at Large (London: Library of Imperial History, 1975)..
30 Langworth, Churchill by Himself, 59.
31 Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 1; Churchill, “Julius Caesar,” para. 23.
32 Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 2, scene 1.
34 Churchill, “Julius Caesar,” para. 11.
35 Stanley Wells, Shakespeare on Page and Stage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 39.
36 Lough, Champagne, 222.
37 Rose, Literary Churchill, 8.
Lord Acton, Letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton. Acton-Creighton Correspondence.
Online Library of Liberty. 1887.
Randolph S. Churchill, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 1, Youth, 1874-1900. Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2018.
Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 1, The Birth of Britain. London: Cassell, 1956.
———. “Julius Caesar,” in George Newnes, ed., Shakespeare’s Plays as Short Stories. London: Newnes, 1934.
———, My Early Life. London: Thornton Butterworth, 1930.
Jack Fishman, My Darling Clementine: The Story of Lady Churchill. New York: Avon Books, 1963.
Martin Gilbert & Larry P. Arnn, eds., The Churchill Documents, vol. 20, Normandy and Beyond, May-December 1944. Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2018.
James Hammersmith, “The Melodrama of Richard III.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 70, no. 1 (February 1989): 28-36.
Darrell Holley, Churchill’s Literary Allusions. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987. Quoted in Richard Langworth. “Churchill and Shakespeare,” The Churchill Project, Hillsdale College, 18 July 2016.
Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897-1963, 8 vols., New York: Bowker,1974.
Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill by Himself: In His Own Words. London: Ebury Press, 2012.
———, “Churchill and Shakespeare.” Hillsdale College Churchill Project, published 18 July 2016.
David Lough, No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money. New York: Picador, 2015.
Jonathan Rose, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor. New Haven: Yale University Press, Kindle edition, 2014.
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, in William Wright, ed., Four Great Tragedies by William Shakespeare, 124-98. New York: Washington Square Press, 1962
———, The Life and Death of Richard the Third. Cambridge, Mass.: The Tech, 1993.
Mary Soames, “Life with My Parents: Winston and Clementine.” Interview by Naim Aitallah in Finest Hour 91 (1996): 14-17.
Stanley Wells, Shakespeare on Page and Stage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Mr. Forman is a Churchill Fellow at the Hillsdale College Churchill Project, working in IT prototyping. He is a physics major and avid computer scientist with specialization in machine learning.