Churchill’s Shakespeare: Quoting “Romeo and Juliet”

Churchill’s Shakespeare: Quoting “Romeo and Juliet”

Text from “Churchill’s Shake­speare: Romeo and Juli­et,” co-authored with Valerie Lilling­ton for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en to any­one and always remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Q: Did Churchill ever quote from Romeo and Juliet?

“I knew that Sir Win­ston Churchill was an avid Shake­speare read­er and quot­er. But can some­one tell me if he ever quot­ed from Romeo and Juli­et?”

A: Once, perhaps twice…

Dar­rell Holley’s excel­lent book, Churchill’s Lit­er­ary Allu­sions, offers only one ref­er­ence to Romeo and Juli­et. The Churchill Project’s dig­i­tal resource of Churchill’s eighty mil­lion pub­lished words by and about Churchill offers anoth­er, but his pri­vate sec­re­tary thought it was bogus. We are not so sure. Read on and decide for yourself.

Holley’s book is one Churchill schol­ars should keep at their desks. Long out of print and pricey, it is an out­stand­ing spe­cial­ty study deserv­ing reis­sue, even as an e-book. We have tried to find the author with­out suc­cess. (Read­er assis­tance welcome.)

Mr. Hol­ley devotes an entire chap­ter to Shake­speare, cit­ing near­ly fifty Churchill allu­sions to the Bard in his writ­ings and speech­es. To no oth­er Eng­lish author, he writes, does Churchill allude so often:

Both by for­mal quo­ta­tions, some quite lengthy, and by well-known phras­es almost hid­den in his text, Churchill makes allu­sion to many of Shakespeare’s plays. Some­what sur­pris­ing­ly, he makes no ref­er­ence to any of the son­nets. It is cer­tain­ly not sur­pris­ing, how­ev­er, that Churchill should allude often to the his­to­ries and tragedies, King John, Richard III, and Ham­let being referred to most.

“Yoke of inauspicious stars”

Churchill’s Lit­er­ary Allu­sions offers one cita­tion from Romeo and Juli­et. In his biog­ra­phy of his father, Lord Ran­dolph Churchill, Sir Win­ston writes: “Would he, under the many rid­dles the future had reserved for such as he, snapped the tie of sen­ti­ment that bound him to his par­ty, resolved at last to ‘shake the yoke of inaus­pi­cious stars’….?”

As so often in that bet­ter-read age, Churchill didn’t both­er to cite the play, assum­ing most of his read­ers would know the source.

Dar­rell Hol­ley found this allu­sion in Romeo and Juli­et, Act 5, Sc. 3, almost at the end of the play, where Romeo slays Count Paris and lays him in his tomb before tak­ing his own fatal draught:

Depart again: here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy cham­ber-maids; O, here
Will I set up my ever­last­ing rest,
And shake the yoke of inaus­pi­cious stars
From this world-wea­ried flesh. Eyes, look your last!

“In three long hours…”

On 18 June 1940, Churchill’s pri­vate sec­re­tary Jock Colville records anoth­er allu­sion to Romeo and Juli­et. Colville felt cer­tain this was not accurate:

I asked him if he would see Gen­er­al Siko­rs­ki tomor­row. “I will see him,” he said, “at noon,” and then went on to quote some entire­ly bogus quo­ta­tion about that time of day, which he pre­tend­ed was spo­ken by the Nurse in Romeo and Juli­et.

It wasn’t a good idea to chal­lenge Churchill’s recall of Shake­speare. And so we won­dered, re-read­ing the play, whether Churchill had the quote right but not the speak­er? The answer is: quite pos­si­bly. In Act 2 Juli­et, talk­ing to her­self, says:

The clock struck nine when I did send the Nurse.
In half an hour she promised to return….
Now is the sun upon the high­most hill
Of this day’s jour­ney, and from nine till twelve
Is three long hours, yet she is not come.

So, the Nurse was due back at 9:30 but she’s been gone three hours and it is noon. That is the time Churchill spec­i­fied for meet­ing Gen­er­al Siko­rs­ki. If he repeat­ed those words of Juliet’s ascrib­ing them to the Nurse, he had the quote right but the speak­er wrong.

A note on my co-author

Valerie Lilling­ton, born in Eng­land in 1932, lived in Trinidad and Cana­da before emi­grat­ing to Aus­tralia in 1962, where she taught high school Eng­lish and dra­ma for almost thir­ty years. That includ­ed a year’s teacher exchange to Amer­i­ca. Twice a can­di­date for Par­lia­ment, she enjoys an active life of trav­el, act­ing and direct­ing. Cur­rent­ly she runs fort­night­ly ses­sions on Shake­speare in the local library, where Romeo and Juli­et was a recent top­ic. She also writes and talks copi­ous­ly on Charles Dick­ens. Valerie writes:

I saw Churchill once in Lon­don, and remem­ber gath­er­ing round the wire­less, as we called it then, to hear him speak. I was almost sev­en when the war start­ed, over twelve when it fin­ished. As mem­bers of our fam­i­ly, became involved, it became urgent to hear any­thing we could. Two of my uncles were killed and anoth­er seri­ous­ly wound­ed. There wasn’t any­one in my class at school who did not have sim­i­lar sto­ries to tell.

More Churchill and Shakespeare

“Churchill’s Mem­o­rable Allu­sions to Shakespeare’s Richard II,” 2019.

“The Pool of Eng­land: How Hen­ry V Inspired Churchill’s Words,” 2019.

“The Bur­ton-Churchill Erup­tion: Com­ing Soon in Your Neigh­bor­hood,” 2016.

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