Much ado: Shakespeare’s quatercentennial celebrations

Amid all the events to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Peter J. Smith contemplates our appetite for everything – and anything – to do with the Bard

April 21, 2016
William Shakespeare badges on sale, Stratford-upon-Avon
Source: Alamy

Like the indefatigable Manchester United winger of yesteryear, Shakespeare is ubiquitous. ’E’s ’ere, ’e’s there, ’e’s every-fuckin’-where, Gordon Hill, Gordon Hill” – or, as Hamlet has it, Hic et ubique (“here and everywhere”). Sadly the playwright’s name doesn’t scan in the chant – oh, the irony of that stubborn prosody – but, exactly four centuries after his demise, it seems we still cannot get enough of him: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see…Over ’ere, on me ’ed, mate!”

The 2016 World Shakespeare Congress (WSC400) will take place in the altogether unsurprising locations of Stratford-upon-Avon and London; to adapt another football chant, “Shakespeare’s coming home”. But while every delegate with a PhD in Shakespeare studies has either lived or studied in one or both places, previous international conferences in less obvious locations have compelled me roundly to confront Shakespeare’s cultural weight and even (in the word that we strike through every time it appears in an undergraduate essay) relevance across the entire planet.

For instance, in 2011 I found myself pondering a price list for vandalism, displayed on a neat poster pasted to the inside of my hotel-room door: €200 for a smashed chair, €300 for excess vomit, €800 for a broken television, and so on. I was in Prague for the last WSC and, funding being what it is (or rather isn’t) in the humanities, had not booked into the conference hotel but, rather, a cheap dive beloved, it turned out, of drunken English stag parties – hence the menu of mayhem. As I made my way out through the hotel bar, past the stags front-loading dangerously strong and cheap local beer, I couldn’t help wondering how much vomit was “excess” and whose job it was to decide – was it like checking in with easyJet, where excess baggage is determined according to whether it fits into that measuring cage?

All this was in stark contrast to the conference reception at the official residence of the American ambassador to the Czech Republic, Norman Eisen. Wandering up Ronald Reagan Street in my shorts and Crocs flip-flops I was conscious that most (OK, all) of my peers looked as though they were on their way to Ascot racecourse. What had happened to their socialist protestations? What about all the debunking of cultural capital we had argued for so passionately during our insiders’ tour of the local bars just a few hours earlier? I, for one, remained determined not to be cowed by the cultural imperialism of the Great Satan – that is, until Eisen took the microphone to welcome us into his home (his home!) and, quite impromptu, spoke about the importance of Shakespeare and how honoured he was to be able to host us. Now, obviously, this fella is a professional ambassador, trained and experienced at brown-nosing his audiences – that’s what he’s paid for. But as I listened to his passionate and incisive solicitation for more global Shakespeare scholarship and productions, what started out as scowling acceptance melted into reluctant approval and then mystic adoration.

It can’t have hurt that Lindsay Kaplan, his wife, is a professional Shakespeare scholar at Georgetown University in Washington DC, but the truly impressive thing was the fluency and intelligence with which he spoke about what was, for him, an amateur interest. Without the aid of notes, he rattled off quotations, cited recent productions and critical trends and even managed to eclipse the preening egoism of a number of conference delegates for whom (to put it mildly) self-confidence has never been a problem. If ever one needed to convince the utilitarian (for which read philistine) budget-holders to trickle down a drop of two of their largesse to the humanities, a sentence or two of Eisen would have them signing blank cheques.

Jump forward three years to 2014 and pretty much the same crew are gathered in Paris to commemorate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Still in (probably the very same) shorts and Crocs, I am deep in conversation with Sir Peter Ricketts, UK ambassador to France, as he hosts conference delegates amid the Napoleonic excess of the Hôtel de Charost. He is an Oxford graduate in English literature and, again, I have that awful sense (déjà vu, as we say in English) of talking to an amateur enthusiast who knows a good deal more about Shakespeare than I have ever known (or ever will).

My republican zeal quickly drowned in three or four glasses of Dom Perignon (I’ve not had time to front-load at the hotel bar), I listen somewhat dazed as Sir Peter talks of his memories of Stratford-upon-Avon and the early days of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I reflect that as academic redundancy beckons, a career in the senior diplomatic service would not be a bad alternative. But then my bladder calls and, as I make my way to the bottom of Sir Peter’s huge garden to find a corner of that foreign field to baptise forever England, I ponder the relations between cultural and political power. So engaged am I by my intriguing musings that it is not until I am mid-flow that I register the 10 or so surveillance cameras trained on the area. I can do nothing except smile blandly at the nearest one and pray that the security man is himself on a comfort break. Should Sir Peter accost me, I silently rehearse Falstaff’s opening words in Henry IV, Part Two: “What says the doctor to my water?” That’ll charm him, I hope, and avoid a diplomatic incident.

The advantage of the UK setting for WSC400 will undoubtedly be the million and one things to do, see, listen to or attend with the word “Shakespeare” in the title. Some, such as Spymonkey’s staging of The Complete Deaths (“There are 74 onstage deaths in Shakespeare…”) or Forced Entertainment’s Table Top Shakespeare, staged with ketchup bottles and batteries, are charming and irreverent versions of stories that are so well established that they can take the knocks. Lectures, exhibitions, film screenings and tours, not to mention concerts, recitals, opera, dance and theatre, are all in overdrive, verging on meltdown. The Globe will produce The Complete Walk along the Thames, featuring screenings of “37 specially made short films, starring the UK’s best actors and shot in worldwide locations”.

Meantime, in Bardtown, Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC, blandly promises to stage “an incredible range of work by Shakespeare and his contemporaries”. One of these is a touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that locally recruits am-dram actors to play…the am-drams (Bottom and Co) – a sort of takeaway Shakespeare with a bit of local talent thrown in. (To judge by the inaugural performance in Stratford, the amateurs give the pros a damn good run for their money.) Stratford’s King Edward VI School is opening its refurbished Elizabethan classroom to the public, while the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is completely remodelling the site next to Nash’s House in order to recreate the ground plan and the gardens of Shakespeare’s retirement home.

Hogarth Shakespeare is publishing eight novels based on reinterpretations of the works of Shakespeare, including Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name, Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl and Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time. And academic publishing is going crazy: Cambridge University Press’ globally entitled Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare includes 300 contributors and has an editorial team “from North America, Brazil, Netherlands, Scotland and Japan”. To compare great things with small, Yale University Press is publishing The Poet of Them All: William Shakespeare and Miniature Designer Bindings from the Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert: “a unique insight into the world of miniature book collecting”. In pursuit of insufficiency, the wonderful journalist John Crace is collaborating with University College London’s John Sutherland to produce The Incomplete Shakespeare: parodic and truncated retellings of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. At the other extreme, Oxford University Press is publishing its third edition of The Complete Works, which will include a number of the “collaborative” plays that have been deemed heretofore too apocryphal to sit among the canon. And, perhaps most absurdly, while his brother, Jo, is busy banging the final nails into the coffin of UK higher education, Boris Johnson, having banked his £500,000 advance, is sucking his quill and speculating on his new biography of Shakespeare, due out in October.

Can one, as Rosalind asks in As You Like It, “desire too much of a good thing?” What might this cultural avalanche portend? A cynical cashing-in on Brand Shakespeare? The ultimate and sacrilegious reification of our greatest writer’s imaginative creativity? A timely inducement to visit Stratfordupon-Avon and relish its wattle and daub? Another chance to listen to our greatest scholars debate the value and importance of these 400-year-old plays? Or the chance to see their stories cast afresh by some of our most engaging contemporary writers? (And no, I am not including Boris.)

All these and more. But before we get too giddy about what this quatercentennial feeding frenzy says about the Bard’s ongoing popularity and importance, spare a moment to ponder the question posed earlier this year on The Guardian’s website by “plasticbadger”. With the disarming penetration of the little boy who pointed out that the emperor was naked, plasticbadger notes the paucity of comments that articles on the Bard typically attract (his estimate: three to four) and asks: “How relevant is Shakespeare today?” The collective, contemptuous sigh of the tens of thousands of theatre practitioners, arts administrators, publishers, academics, tour guides, museum curators and congress organisers echoes the length of the Shakespeare Way. But the only person to actually respond to the question was one Michael Mooney, who noted: “There are 482 comments on Star Wars Monopoly, and more than 200 on a kitchen gadget review. Definitely time to dump the Bard, and concentrate on tots and pans.”

Perhaps. But in the month before the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the academic masses still flocked to the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual bash in New Orleans. My highlight of the programme? Shakespeare Yoga! Doomsday can’t be far off; as the Bard puts it, “Is this the promised end or image of that horror?”

Peter J. Smith is a trustee of the British Shakespeare Association and reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University. The BSA’s 2016 conference will take place from 8 to 11 September at the University of Hull.

William Shakespeare/Kilroy was here
Alamy/iStock montage

Branding the bard: does the Shakespeare anniversary add value to academic research?

When Benedict Cumberbatch feels compelled to send his personal apologies for his absence, you know you are at an event of some significance.

He was filming elsewhere during the launch of the BBC Shakespeare Festival at London’s Broadcasting House in January, but David Tennant was on hand to tease us with hints of the programme for Shakespeare Live!, a gala event that will be broadcast from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on BBC Two on 23 April to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Tennant was succeeded on stage by director Sam Mendes, Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran and other Shakespeare luminaries, each unveiling an exciting new anniversary initiative. But this is just the tip of the bardolatrous iceberg. It seems we all want a piece of Shakespeare: so much so that he’s even been stripped down to his bones during recent archaeological investigations of his curse-protected grave.

With so much going on, is it any wonder many Shakespeare academics feel pressured to get in on the action? Part of that pressure arises from the demands placed upon universities by the research excellence framework to show that their research has a demonstrable impact on “or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. A small ask for a bookish Shakespeare scholar, then! But wait, there’s hope. A global event on the scale of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary provides opportunities for scholars to venture out of their ivory towers – or so the narrative we academic types like to tell ourselves goes – to form collaborations with the organisations and media outlets that are taking Shakespeare (and hopefully our research) into local communities, non-academic institutions, businesses and even homes. Capitalising on “brand Bard” is one way to facilitate the data collection that forms the basis of the impact case studies required by universities for their REF submissions.

Shakespeare academics were of course undertaking public engagement activities long before the impact element of the REF came into being, committed to the idea that knowledge of the dramatist’s life and work is of real social and cultural value. What is different now, in the new impact-assessment culture, is that we need to prove that our research has effected a tangible change for the better. This means not just talking to the public but getting our audiences and readers to talk back, to tell us how our research is improving their lives or reorienting their perceptions.

It might at first appear that I had scored a tactical victory by sandwiching the release of my research neatly between two Shakespeare anniversaries. My book, Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe, was launched by Penguin for the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014, ensuring that it would be around as a paperback in 2016, which would also – luckily enough – see the publication of the US paperback by Pegasus Books.

In fact, the timing was pure serendipity. Shakespeare and the Countess – the true story of the formidable Elizabeth Russell, the woman who nearly bankrupted Shakespeare’s theatrical troupe and paved the way for the building of the Globe – turned out to be a seven-year labour of love, propelled by my passion for the subject and my conviction that this research needed to be done and would have some wider benefit.

But the timing has certainly secured many public-engagement and impact-measuring opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible: there were television appearances (including BBC One’s The One Show), radio interviews, literary events and reams of coverage in newspapers, magazines and online forums. The Shakespeare anniversaries have given me a platform from which to challenge ingrained views of Shakespeare as a lone genius untouched by gritty local politics and economic pressures, and to re-examine Renaissance women’s roles in ways that chime with our own age’s continuing battle with gender inequality.

If the impact agenda encourages academics to capture, build on and maximise the public benefits of their research, that has got to be a good thing in my book. You don’t need a brand to do that, but it helps.

Chris Laoutaris is a lecturer and Birmingham Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.


Print headline: Much ado (but not about nothing)

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