Shakespeare and the Anzacs

Today is a significant day of commemoration in Australia and New Zealand. For these nations, the memory of the Anzac’s - their sacrifice and loyalty to each other and their countries - has become legendary, and has come to be a part of the fabric of national identity.

In 1916, the year of the first Anzacs, England was celebrating the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. Though the British Empire was at war, the English were keen to commemorate their most enduring playwright. It was this year that the Shakespeare Hut was built in Bloomsbury, London; a tudor-style building intended to provide a place of rest and entertainment for Anzac soldiers before heading to the battlefield.

Advertisement for the opening of Shakespeare Hut in August 1916

Advertisement for the opening of Shakespeare Hut in August 1916

The Shakespeare Hut became a place of commemoration and memory, for a group of soldiers from the other side of the globe who would in turn be commemorated and become part of the national memory of Australia and New Zealand. In the words of Shakespeare that were performed in this comfortable space, the Anzac’s found and expressed their patriotism to Britain. History plays, tragedies and comedies alike all represented the nation from which their colonies had sprung, and gave them a fresh sense of what it meant to be part of the Commonwealth.

The influence of the Shakespeare Hut on the Anzacs might best be seen in an account from an evening in 1919, when 400 Anzacs were returned to England and gathered to see a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. One account describes this large group of men cheering on the immortal words of King Henry (during the show), “God for Harry, England and Saint George!”[1] as though they too, were back on the line of duty, cheering on their mates.

This account shows how over the years of the Anzac involvement in the first World War, the Shakespeare Hut and the plays that were performed there came to be a vehicle for remembrance of the soldiers who were killed in battle, paralleled on the stage in the plays that were then already more than 300 years old. You can read more about this in Alisa Ferguson’s article from 2014 on the Shakespeare Hut, located here (with academic journal access).

The words and actions of Shakespeare’s characters have become immortalised in the English language, and the constant reproduction of his plays on the stages of the English speaking world indicate their enduring relevance in many contexts through our history. This instance of the Anzac’s finding respite in the words of Henry V is just one such occasion. The Shakespeare Hut is now being commemorated in a project to resurrect its memory.

It brings to mind the question of memorial today in 2016, when we are now celebrating the quaternary of Shakespeare’s death and the 100 year legacy of the Anzacs. Shakespeare’s plays continue to have the ability to transcend time and place in the world of representation. As we continue to experience new performances together, we can reflect on people who died in wars such as those being represented on stage. Wars continue to happen and affect many nations today, but theatre will always bring people together.

Photograph of Shakespeare Hut, c. 1917

Photograph of Shakespeare Hut, c. 1917

[1] Fabia Drake in Alisa Ferguson (2014), “When Wasteful War Shall Statues Overturn”: Forgetting the Shakespeare Hut’, Shakespeare 10(3), p. 277.