I’ve come back to end our course where we began it - at Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. We’ve seen, over the weeks, the story of his life, his works, and his fame. How he went from small-town, grammar school boy to actor, company man, and ultimately, most-admired playwright of the age. We’ve explored a range of his plays, seen his huge variety in comedy, tragedy, and history. And this final week, we’ve explored how Shakespeare’s reputation grew over the centuries. How he went from that humble origin to his status today as the most famous and most performed writer in the history of the world.
We particularly saw how David Garrick’s Jubilee in the 1760s began a genuine international cult of Shakespeare. How Shakespeare became a kind of god. Indeed, there was a way in the 19th century, as traditional religion declined, that Shakespeare did become a sort of secular god. His works became like a kind of holy scripture. Once you have that kind of veneration, then the birthplace becomes a shrine. Visiting the house, perhaps the very room, where Shakespeare was born became, for lovers of literature and drama, akin to going to Bethlehem to see where Jesus might have been born. And so it was that the Shakespeare birthplace house became a place of pilgrimage. And a visitor’s book was opened.
The very first entry is someone who’s come all the way from America– a sign of how the cult of Shakespeare, already at the beginning of the 19th century, was becoming truly global. And on the page I have open here we have a range of people from a variety of places. Londoners are coming down. A couple have come up from Bath. A lord has come from Edinburgh. And here’s a signature, 1817, October the 3rd. He signs himself John Keats. And for his place of abode, he puts “Everywhere.” That’s the poet John Keats visiting Shakespeare’s house. Keats venerated Shakespeare above any other writer. His great aspiration was to be just a little bit like Shakespeare.
You remember how, back at the beginning of the course, we heard the story of the discovery of Shakespeare’s signet ring, and Keats exchanging a letter with fellow romantic artist Benjamin Robert Hayden. The ring was a kind of holy relic. So it’s not surprising that the house meant so much to Keats. He signs his place of abode as “everywhere,” partly because he was a wanderer. He didn’t really have a proper home. But also because he sees the role of the poet to go everywhere, to explore everything. In one of his letters, Keats, thinking of Shakespeare, said, “The poet is everything and nothing. He inhabits every kind of being.”
So I think there’s a sense, when Keats writes here in this visitor’s book, “Place of abode - everywhere,” he’s thinking not only of himself, but also of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s place of abode has become everywhere. And so it was that people came from everywhere, from all over the globe, to visit the Shakespeare birthplace. And they still do today. I can hear below me the sound of excited Chinese tourists about to embark on their walk around the house. And behind me here is the original window from the birthing room - the room where Shakespeare was allegedly born. And on it, in the 19th century - the Victorian era, visitors would scratch their names in the glass.
We see, for example, the name of Henry Irving, that great actor who, as we saw when we examined “The Merchant of Venice,” was so influential in his interpretation of Shylock. And Ellen Terry is there, too - the greatest actress of the age. A reminder of how Shakespeare’s female roles have been so powerful, so influential.
The Shakespeare birthplace remains a tourist site, but it’s also a focus for education. We’ve seen how the works of Shakespeare have been translated, interpreted, and performed all around the world. Truly, he has become a universal figure. Keats’s word, “everywhere” applies precisely to the history of Shakespeare’s reputation.
Every 50 years or so, since Garrick’s Jubilee, there has been a celebration in recognition of a Shakespearean anniversary. The one in 1916, the 300th anniversary of his death, was particularly interesting because it was in the middle of the first World War, and Shakespeare was venerated as much in Germany as he was in England. There was indeed a way in which there was a glimmer of a possibility that Shakespeare might have been a route towards European peace. In the year 2016, it will be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and no doubt there will be global celebrations to mark that.
In thinking about how Shakespeare has been both hugely related to his own time through the kinds of historical connection with his world that we’ve been exploring in this course, but also connected to later times through the way in which he’s been reinterpreted down the ages, you might find it interesting to look at your own culture, your own life, your own experience of Shakespeare, and see the ways in which he has been renamed - reinvented. Whether it’s in science fiction movies like the Forbidden Planet, which is based on Shakespeare’s “Tempest.” Whether it’s in the translation of his works into other cultures, or in music, in opera, in painting - in just about every form of cultural endeavour, Shakespeare is there.
And of course his language has entered common currency. You can hardly pick up a newspaper without finding a famous Shakespearean quotation somewhere in the news headline. Shakespeare is indeed everywhere.