The World’s Love of Shakespeare

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Our Chairman, and world’s leading Shakespeare expert, Professor Stanley Wells C.B.E., was invited to toast the Worldwide Appreciation of Shakespeare at the Birthday lunch. We thought you’d like to see what he said….

‘Ladies and gentlemen, this ceremony today, and the traditions that belong to it, provide ample testimony to the fact that Shakespeare is indeed celebrated worldwide. Here in Stratford the Shakespeare Institute, where I enrolled as a student in 1958 and where I taught for many years, has provided intellectual stimulus and satisfaction for generations of graduate students from many different countries. In the fullness of time they have gone back home to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with their own students. The Royal Shakespeare Company, whose 50th anniversary we are currently celebrating, welcomes annually a hugely international range of theatre goers. In the extraordinary Complete Works festival of 2006-2007 it provided a platform for a wide range of international theatre companies in Stratford playing places, and next year, which sees the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen, the RSC will host the World Shakespeare Festival as part of the Olympic year. At the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust we bring a wide range of educational practices to bear in our attempts to increase the worldwide appreciation of Shakespeare. We stand up for him, we speak up for him, and we sit down for him; we teach him at all levels, we study his theatrical and cultural context, and we make our extraordinary collections of books and archives, including those of the Royal Shakespeare Company which we curate, freely accessible to Shakespeare enthusiasts of all levels of ambition and accomplishment.

As a professional Shakespeare scholar, teacher, and lecturer for well over half a century, I have enjoyed many first-hand opportunities to observe and to participate in the worldwide appreciation of Shakespeare, at conferences on both sides of the Atlantic, in Spain and France, the Netherlands and Germany, Russia and Romania, Hungary and Scandinavia (though still not in Wales). Some of my travels have brought vividly home to me the fact that a country’s appreciation of Shakespeare can be inextricably intertwined with its sense of its political identity. Strikingly, Pakistan – represented here today by its High Commissioner – chose to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its independence with a conference devoted not to its own national poet, Dr Sir Mohamed Iqbal, but to Shakespeare. On my visit to Pakistan to deliver the opening address of that conference it was touching to see performances of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays given by local students. Invited to lecture in Grahamstown in South Africa at a time when apartheid still operated I had scruples about the ethics of attending. The organizers, assuring me that the conference would be open to all comers, pleaded that it was only through the church and the theatre that protest could make itself felt, a fact that was clearly demonstrated in our President Janet Suzman’s courageously politicized production of Othello at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, which offered the first black Othello in South Africa. In 1987 I was one of a group of English scholars invited to Moscow for the first international conference to be held there since the inception of the Communist regime; the conference itself had political significance. During its course we saw a production of Hamlet that was clearly subversive in intent, and learnt of other productions in which the voice of dissidence had made itself heard.

And in1989 I visited Czechoslovakia at the invitation of its senior Shakespeare scholar Zdenek Stribrny, who for a quarter of a century had been forbidden to teach because of his liberal opinions. I landed at Prague airport on 19 November 1989, a date that has gone down in history as the first day of the Bloodless, or ‘Velvet’ Revolution. My lecture to the Czech Academy on the following day was punctuated by the chanting of the vast procession of protesters winding their way from Wenceslaus Square to the Presidential Palace. Afterwards I stood with members of my loyal audience on a balcony to witness the seemingly endless procession stream by, the walkers waving up to the tall plate-glass windows of the National Theatre whose actors, along with the students, had been prime movers in the protest. I still have the badge bearing the image of the president and playwright Vaclav Havel which was thrown down to me from a window as I made my way to Wenceslaus Square for the vast assembly addressed by Havel and Dubcek in which, I have learnt only recently, another playwright, one whom the RSC is celebrating this year – Harold Pinter – and his wife were also present. I look forward to returning to Prague for the World Shakespeare Congress, hosted by the International Shakespeare along with the University of Prague and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, in July of this year, at which the speakers will include both Vaclav Havel and Tom Stoppard.

Ladies and gentlemen, the worldwide appreciation of Shakespeare has been exponentially enhanced even in recent months by the development of digital media of communication. As I call up my 906 Twitter followers on my i-phone I can make immediate contact with Shakespeare enthusiasts all over the world, and they with me. Blogs put up by my colleagues at the Trust, which I was proud recently to hear described as the World’s leading organization in the digital democratization of Shakespeare. Rare books and unique manuscripts and theatrical archives in the Stratford collections which previously were accessible only to visitors to the town are now digitally accessible worldwide. Some of the statistics are astonishing. I am told for instance that each year several million students in China alone study The Merchant of Venice, and so may wish to benefit from our resources. How prophetic was Shakespeare when he made Cassius in Julius Caesar speak of a time when his ‘lofty scene’ should ‘be acted over /In states unborn and accents yet unknown’.

Ladies and gentlemen, Stratford-upon-Avon is the town that gave birth to William Shakespeare. At our grammar school he received the rigorous education in, especially, classical literature and rhetoric that lies behind the texts that he wrote. In this town and its surrounding countryside his creative powers developed. Here in Henley Street and in New Place his family lived, in Holy Trinity Church he and they worshipped and are buried. Let no one be in doubt of this. There is, if I may allude to the title of a forthcoming film, nothing in the least bit ‘anonymous’ about William Shakespeare. Like anyone else he was a product of the society and the educational system of his time, but it is his personal genius, his intelligence and imagination, his ever deepening understanding of the ways of humanity, his ceaseless questioning of the place of man in relation to the universe, and his constantly developing mastery both of language and of the arts of theatrical expression that we celebrate today and that embolden me to ask you to rise and drink to the worldwide appreciation of William Shakespeare.’

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Gadsooks

    A lovely article from Prof Wells full of interest and humanity. “The world’s leading organisation in the digital democratization of Shakespeare” What a wonderful phrase and a tribute to the work done by so many at SBT

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