“A priceless book to have out here”: soldiers reading Shakespeare in the first world war

King, Edmund (2014). “A priceless book to have out here”: soldiers reading Shakespeare in the first world war. Shakespeare, 10(3) pp. 230–244.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/17450918.2014.927392


The links between the 1916 Shakespeare tercentenary and the global conflict with which it coincided have been the subject of increasing scholarly attention. Recent work has examined the cultural, political, and military contexts of commemoration events and shown how Shakespeare as cultural symbol was mobilized for war. No systematic work has yet been done, however, on the most basic level of Shakespeare's cultural mobilization: the individual act of reading Shakespeare in the context of wartime. Utilising the methodologies of the new “history of reading”, this article examines the place of Shakespeare's texts in the reading lives of British and Commonwealth soldiers. Drawing upon contemporary letters and diaries, it demonstrates that there are several distinct types of Shakespearean reading practice recoverable from the archives. “Compliant” readers strove to recover conventionally patriotic messages from Shakespeare's texts. “Nostalgic” readers used Shakespeare as a form of escapism or a way of asserting a civilian identity separate from military service. Direct evidence for the reading habits of ordinary soldiers is more difficult to recover from the archives than those of officers. Nevertheless, scattered references to Shakespearean texts in the diaries and correspondence of ordinary-ranking soldiers show that Shakespeare could also function as a symbol of cultural literacy for working-class autodidacts at war.

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