Churchill’s Memorable Allusions to Shakespeare’s Richard II

Churchill’s Memorable Allusions to Shakespeare’s Richard II

“Allu­sions to Richard II” is extract­ed from an arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal text, click here.

Richard II and “This Sceptr’d Isle.”

We are asked: “Churchill quot­ed Shakespeare’s famous lines, ‘This scepter’d isle,’ in one of his speech­es. They are the words of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lan­cast­er, from Richard II, Act 2, sc. 1. Could you direct me to the speech?”

Churchill knew his Shake­speare and had a near-pho­to­graph­ic mem­o­ry. Dar­rell Holley’s Churchill’s Lit­er­ary Allu­sions tells us he alludes to Shake­speare more than any oth­er Eng­lish author. King John, Richard III and Ham­let are his most fre­quent ref­er­ences. Hen­ry V also moved and inspired him. He also close­ly read Richard II, gen­er­al­ly accept­ing Shakespeare’s por­tray­al of his cru­el­ty and vin­dic­tive­ness. (Alas, Holley’s book enjoyed only one brief print­ing and is now rare and expen­sive. It is a stan­dard work and rich­ly deserves reprinting.)

“Let’s Boost Britain”

Churchill quot­ed the “Scepter’d Isle” pas­sage in part, but not in whole. It first appeared in his arti­cle, “Let’s Boost Britain,” in the week­ly Answers, for 28 April 1934. (His top­ic has con­sid­er­able rel­e­vance at present.) Answers was one of the most obscure peri­od­i­cals to which Churchill con­tributed. For­tu­nate­ly, the late Michael Wolff, one of Ran­dolph Churchill’s assis­tants on the offi­cial biog­ra­phy, scoured its pages to com­pile The Col­lect­ed Essays of Sir Win­ston Churchill (1975). The essay, thus reap­peared, is in vol­ume IV, Churchill at Large. It begins:

This week we cel­e­brate St. George’s Day, which is also Shakespeare’s Day, who wrote the noblest trib­ute ever penned to this Eng­land of ours:

This roy­al throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This oth­er Eden, demi-paradise …
This hap­py breed of men, this lit­tle world;
This pre­cious stone set in the sil­ver sea …

“Time-honoured Lancaster”

Churchill how­ev­er was not fin­ished with John of Gaunt, famous scion of the House of Lan­cast­er. Ulti­mate­ly, he and oth­ers deposed Richard II and installed Gaunt’s son Hen­ry IV. Anoth­er quo­ta­tion occurs in The Birth of Britainthe first vol­ume of Churchill’s His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples. Writ­ing of Gaunt’s death, Churchill refers to him as “time-hon­oured Lan­cast­er.” That phrase is from Richard II, Act 1, sc. 1.

“Some love, but little policy”

How close­ly Churchill read and absorbed Richard II is sug­gest­ed by anoth­er death­less line he deployed at least twice. In nego­ti­at­ing her husband’s exile, Queen Isabel begs leave to go to France. Know­ing they might then raise an army and return, the Earl of Northum­ber­land exclaims: “That were some love, but lit­tle pol­i­cy.” (Richard II, Act V, sc. 2.)

Churchill remem­bered that turn of phrase. In 1916, dis­graced over the Dar­d­anelles, he was fight­ing at the front. His wife Clemen­tine, and his friend Archibald Sin­clair, urged him to stay there until the time was ripe for his return to pol­i­tics. Anx­ious to be back in the thick of debate, Churchill wrote Sin­clair: “I can almost hear you and Clem­mie arriv­ing by the most noble of argu­ments at the con­clu­sion that I must inevitably stay here till the day of Judge­ment: NO NO – ‘That were some love, but lit­tle policy.’”

Twen­ty years lat­er, writ­ing his Life of Marl­bor­ough, Churchill described one of Marlborough’s ene­mies: “Why, then, should he give up his weapon and the chance of set­ting a hos­tile House of Com­mons loose upon him? ‘That were some love, but lit­tle policy.’”

Inter­est­ing­ly, in both cas­es, Churchill put Shakespeare’s words in quotes but did not cite the author. That was a time when every Eng­lish school child knew Shake­speare thor­ough­ly. He sim­ply didn’t have to.

“Death of Kings” 

Churchill’s best-known line from Richard II comes in The Gath­er­ing Storm, his first vol­ume of Sec­ond World War mem­oirs. He writes of his vis­it to the fleet after becom­ing First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty in 1939 for the sec­ond time, Unique­ly, he had last held that office almost exact­ly twen­ty-five years earlier…

My thoughts went back a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry to that oth­er Sep­tem­ber when I had last vis­it­ed Sir John Jel­li­coe and his cap­tains in this very bay, and had found them with their long lines of bat­tle­ships and cruis­ers drawn out at anchor, a prey to the same uncer­tain­ties as now afflict­ed us. Most of the cap­tains and admi­rals of those days were dead, or had long passed into retire­ment… It was a strange expe­ri­ence, like sud­den­ly resum­ing a pre­vi­ous incar­na­tion. It seemed that I was all that sur­vived in the same posi­tion I had held so long ago …. I motored from Loch Ewe to Inver­ness, where our train await­ed us. We had a pic­nic lunch on the way by a stream, sparkling in hot sun­shine. I felt odd­ly oppressed with my memories.

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad sto­ries of the death of kings.”

Once again, Churchill didn’t both­er to reveal the source of his quo­ta­tion. In that time a gram­mar school edu­ca­tion was tru­ly com­pre­hen­sive, and not only in Britain. Churchill sim­ply assumed that all his read­ers would know. 

Further Reading

“Churchill, Lin­coln and Shake­speare,” by Lewis E. Lehrman

“Churchill and Shake­speare,” by Richard M. Langworth

“Churchill, Shake­speare and Agin­court,” by Justin D. Lyons

“Mir­rored in the Pool of Eng­land,” lec­ture by Richard M. Langworth

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