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Commemorating Shakespeare 1916-2016

Professor Gordon McMullan reflects on the ways in which we remember Shakespeare, in particular the work of one man, Professor Sir Israel Gollancz.
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By way of conclusion, I’d like to reflect briefly on the ways in which we remember Shakespeare 400 years on, and on the effects that such remembering can have. To do so, I want to look back one century, to 1916, the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. Two years earlier, the outbreak of the First World War had meant that many of the plans that had been in motion for an international celebration of Shakespeare in 1916 could not now take place. But one man found ways to mark the tercentenary nonetheless, and this was Professor, later Sir, Israel Gollancz, Professor of English at King’s College London from 1903 to 1930. He was a fascinating man, genial and determined, a medievalist and a Shakespearean.
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And he had what we would now call a global vision for Shakespeare. He was an editor too, general editor of a series of editions of Shakespeare’s plays called The Temple Shakespeare. And he had a strong belief in the need to sustain and develop Shakespeare in performance. Gollancz was Honorary Secretary of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee, which had been formed in the build up to the tercentenary to serve two purposes, to commemorate 300 years of Shakespeare and to raise funds for and build a National Theatre with Shakespeare at the centre of its repertory. War had intervened and Gollancz had to adapt his plans. He did so in two ways.
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Firstly, by editing a huge commemorative book called A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, which has recently been reissued by Oxford University Press and which contains more than 150 essays, poems, and dialogues from all around the world in scores of languages from Sanskrit to Setswana from Irish Gaelic to Hindi. Through its range, its worldwide reach, and its political eclecticism, it marks in many ways the end of imperial Shakespeare and the beginnings of what we know as global Shakespeare.
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Secondly, Gollancz worked with the YMCA to create a curious building known as the Shakespeare Hut on the site in Bloomsbury in central London, which the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee had acquired as the site for the theatre they hoped to build, but which was not going to be possible during wartime. The Shakespeare Hut was more than a simple hut. It was a substantial, if temporary, building designed to house thousands of soldiers on furlough from the trenches, specifically New Zealanders and Australians of the Anzac forces.
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And crucially, it included a performance space, a stage on which some of the best known Shakespearean actors of the day, Ellen Terry, Johnston Forbes Robertson, and others performed scenes from Shakespeare exclusively for the resident soldiers. Thus Gollancz and his committee managed to sustain Shakespearean performance throughout the war on the site on which they hoped eventually to build a National Theatre. After the war, the hut was rented for a few years to the Indian YMCA and the committee used the rent to support a new acting company based in Stratford-upon-Avon, but with a commitment to touring and to performing in London, a forerunner of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
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After that, there was drift in the project and it was not till much later, 1963, that the National Theatre began performing at The Old Vic, and not till 1976 before the new National Theatre building was finally opened. But what matters is that it may never have been created at all if it hadn’t been for the determination of Gollancz and his committee to remember Shakespeare in the way they believed he should most appropriately be remembered, in the theatre, in performance.
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Remembering Shakespeare is an active process, in remembering him and his work, in sustaining Shakespeare in print and in performance, we continue to encourage people around the world to read, and above all, perform and see performed some of the most astonishing words that anyone has ever written, words that embrace love and death, society and aesthetics, politics and domesticity, gender and class, words that both bring to life for us an earlier time and that continue to be so important in informing how we understand the world today.

Professor Gordon McMullan reflects on the ways in which we remember Shakespeare, in particular the work of one man, Professor Sir Israel Gollancz, professor of English at King’s College London from 1903 to 1930.

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Shakespeare: Print and Performance

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