Shakespeare vs Hitler: Henry V and war propaganda in Laurence Olivier’s and Kenneth Branagh’s films

Think OUTSIDE the Box | EFL-Teacher Professional Development 2022-2023

It is perhaps not so well known that the first scholarly Shakespeare Society in the world was neither British nor American but in fact German. In German speaking countries the cult of Shakespeare ran so high that during both world wars the Bard was the object of a cultural tug-of-war between Germany and Britain. In World War II it seemed perfectly natural for the UK that its most ambitious film of war propaganda should be a version of Henry V (1944), directed by the greatest Shakespearean actor, Laurence Olivier. It was nothing new: Shakespeare’s plays had long been used as cultural weapons in real wars on both sides of the Atlantic, or to advance a political or a social cause. More recently, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) was thought to reflect British ambivalence to military expeditions abroad, only a few years after the controversial Falklands conflict.

Arturo Cattaneo is Full Professor of English Literature at the Catholic University of Milan. He did post-graduate research at the Warburg Institute, London, on the influence and transformations of the classics in the English Renaissance.

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