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Shakespeare Quarterly 52.4 (2001) 456-478

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Remembering Shakespeare Imperially:
The 1916 Tercentenary

Coppélia Kahn


IN JULY 1914, about a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, a few weeks before Britain declared war on the Central Powers, a group of distinguished men met to plan a celebration of Shakespeare commemorating the three-hundredth anniversary of his death, two years in the future. They were convened by Lord Bryce, president of the British Academy, most recently ambassador to the United States, and soon-to-be chair of the Bryce Commission, whose report on alleged German "atrocities" during the invasion of Belgium would shortly be used to justify England's unprecedented mobilization for World War I. These men gathered to create "some fitting memorial to symbolize the intellectual fraternity of mankind in the universal homage accorded to the genius of the greatest Englishman." 1 The implicit contradiction between a "universal homage" and the poet they called "the greatest Englishman" (especially during a world war), a contradiction perhaps too easily legible to us in this era of postcolonial discourse, did not exist for them. They lived in the British Empire or in its shadow.

The memorial they produced was a volume titled A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, edited by Sir Israel Gollancz, the first Jewish professor of English literature in England (at Kings College, London) and Honorary Secretary of the Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee. As the major English observance of the tercentenary, it was a handsome folio bound in white leather and embossed with gold lettering and a version of Shakespeare's coat of arms with its motto, "Non sanz [End Page 456] droict." 2 Its 557 pages contain 166 tributes to Shakespeare by scholars, novelists, poets, literati, and public figures from both sides of the Atlantic and around the globe. The originators had planned to limit the tributes to one hundred, but the British Empire alone, Gollancz remarks in a preface to the book, "could not well be represented by less than one hundred contributors." 3 Tributes written in twenty-three languages back up the idea of"a universal homage": in addition to the major European tongues (with the conspicuous omission, owing to the war, of German), one may read of Shakespeare in Chinese, Japanese, Armenian, Setswana, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Pali, Burmese, and Arabic.

In this essay, I will interpret A Book of Homage to Shakespeare as a "cultural performance," appropriating this term from Joseph Roach. 4 He argues that cultural performances enact a kind of communal identity signified through myths of origin. Such myths follow two "axes of possibility: the diasporic, which features migration, and the autochthonous, which claims indigenous roots deeper than memory itself." 5 I interpret the Shakespeare summoned up by Homage to be the signifier of an autochthonous English identity, an Englishness that is self-authorized and racially pure. In these pages, English society "performs" a certain past with Shakespeare in the lead role. As the 166 tributes accrue, however, this bardic version of English imperial history--a history in all probability envisioned by those distinguished men as the controlling narrative of the book--shifts from the autochthonous to the diasporic. To borrow the title of a well-known anthology, the empire writes back, and some altogether surprising multicultural Shakespeares emerge that--always respectfully but in any case ironically--stage the contradictions of empire. The poet of Englishness, readily accessible to any imperial subject educated in "the English-speaking tradition," is blithely enlisted in support of agendas to unseat that very tradition. [End Page 457]

Shakespeare's England

The book was published in 1916 in an edition of 1,250 copies, and reviews appeared in May. Ninteen-hundred-and-sixteen was widely considered the moment when public faith in the rightness of the fight withered into appalled realization of its staggering human cost. By the end of 1915, the first zeppelin raids on London had taken their toll: sixty thousand Allied soldiers had died in the first gas attack, and the Lusitania had been sunk. The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916; before year...


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