From national heritage to global icon: Shakespeare400

When Shakespeare Centre’s Gordon McMullan, professor of English at King’s College London (KCL), began building a consortium of partners to mark the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, he was clear that it had to embrace more than just drama. Cue the award-winning Shakespeare400, a programme that embraces everything from rap, to opera, to archives, to botany. Here he tells IAM how it all fell into place.

The fact is that we’re all facilitating, not dictating, when it comes to Shakespeare


Gordon McMullan @ Bronac McNeill
Gordon McMullan @ Bronac McNeill

How did it all begin?
Building the consortium was surprisingly easy and it all slotted into place quite nicely. For example, Patrick Spottiswoode at the Globe introduced me to the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) and showed me some research that suggested there were elements of their audience that attend classical music concerts infrequently, but do go see Shakespeare.

So LPO could see commercial and audience value in creating a Shakespeare season. And pretty soon I realised that 14 years of student cohorts that I had taught on the Shakespeare MA at the Globe had gone off to work for arts organisations across London.

It turned out that many planned to do something in 2016 to mark the event, but most wondered who would provide an umbrella organisation. I would have loved to have had the chance to encourage wider participation across the country, and not just London, but it was very, very clear from the outset that all the partners would join voluntarily: KCL did not have a million pound creative fund. Instead, our contribution would be to facilitate the organisation of the consortium across the website, publicity, marketing, communications and so forth.

Has there been an element in 2016 of ‘cashing in’ on Shakespeare?
As an academic, not so much. KCL does not intend to make money directly out of running Shakespeare400, though it has raised our profile and that of the London Shakespeare Centre. Likewise, some places already had their pro- gramme organised: it turned out that Glyndebourne had plans for two Shakespeare operas as their lead times are as much as six years.

However other partners, like The British Library, had a sense they wanted to do an exhibition but hadn’t decided how, and the same was true of The National Archives. The result of the latter conversation is a co-curated exhibition in partnership with The National Archives in the KCL part of Somerset House. It worked out beautifully: we benefitted from their curation expertise, and they made use of our expertise for writing the accompanying material.

Did it all turn out as planned?
To tell the truth, when I originally thought up the idea I imagined a much more layered consortium, but then all the top-level institutions said yes and we soon had 26 of them. It quickly became a substantial idea without government funding, and so my plans to further democratise Shakespeare400 had to be shelved.

There is always a negotiation between what you hope to achieve, and what you can actually achieve without a national-level budget. There was also a danger with Shakespeare400 that because we are a London university we would be seen as a London university telling the whole country what to do. I come from the Wirral and spent the first five years working in Newcastle, so I know how sick to death you can get about everything being about London. I also didn’t want it to look like we were encroaching on the West Midlands, home to Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare Institute and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

The compromise was made with the website: here the main partners, smaller partners and relevant organisations got in touch. If their event was appropriate we added it to the website. The hashtag #Shakespeare400 carries the conversation to Twitter. It was important for us to move away from the Shakespeare ‘British heritage’ thing and provoke spikier and more challenging creativity; in the end, what we’ve seen are programmes that are in some cases arguably a little more conservative than perhaps would have been ideal. The truth is that for many arts organisations, no matter how enthusiastic they are, commercial reality tends to take charge.

How do you feel about experimental adaptations of Shakespeare? Here in the UK, we perceive him as a very British ‘Bard’: if Shakespeare’s brand is to prevail, is it necessary to stay true to his text and form?
The problem all the way through is that Shakespeare was constructed in a certain way in the early 19th century by the Romantics, who had absorbed their German philosophy and made the playwright and poet into a bard. And that brings with it the romantic idea that Shakespeare was a lone genius in the attic. Nonsense: he was a commercial playwright writing for commercial audiences. He was writing to make money in a staggeringly active, collaborative and competitive environment.

The key about Shakespeare is that he is an adapter: Romeo & Juliet is a story that he inherited. He read seven or eight different versions that went back two centuries or more, and then wrote his version of it… and on it goes. No one should have the sense that Shakespeare was the originator of all this stuff, or that when he’d done it, it was over. That’s not how Shakespeare understood his creativity. I think if someone had sat him down and said these plays were expressions of your inner self he’d laugh and think it was a completely unacceptable idea. And so trying to explain Shakespeare as some icon of Britishness is missing the point.

Hamlet – Globe 2 Globe
Hamlet – Globe 2 Globe


Shakespeare is distinctly a global playwright now. You could already see this back in 1916 when Israel Gollancz produced a massive volume for the tercentenary called A Book of Homage to Shakespeare. It contained 160 entries from around the world, in 30 different languages, including some fascinating things you wouldn’t expect; amongst the imperialistic and jingoistic poetry is a hilariously subversive piece by a future president of the Irish Republic (all very poignant given the book was published in Easter 1916). The only anonymous piece was written by a very early Black South-African ANC activist, so this volume, published a century ago, was already demonstrating that Shakespearean politics didn’t adhere to an imperialist line tied up in British heritage. How does this relate to language?

Which is more important: language or story?
I think what is fascinating is that in English the language is paramount and it is the beauty of the language that draws us in. People go to a production thinking ‘I’m not going to understand a word of this’ and 10 minutes in they are absorbed. The expressions of the actors, combined with these amazing words, becomes translated by the action.

But I also think the working assumption of ‘proper Shakespeare’ is overly limiting. Don’t get me wrong: someone like Mark Rylands is a staggeringly wonderful actor, and no one can command that Globe stage the way he does, but for some people that’s a turn off.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Kings of War at the Barbican (22 April – 1 May, in Dutch with English surtitles) is a special performance. Director Ivo van Hove is a Belgian that does the most magnificent contemporary productions; the sort of work that is just not happening in the UK.

Often, non-British productions are so much more imaginative. When someone who isn’t tied to the British understanding of Shakespeare tackles it without all those preconceptions, they push the boundaries further. At the Shakespeare Centre at King’s we like that kind of risk-taking and reinvention. We want to see more of it.

The fact is that we’re all facilitating, not dictating, when it comes to Shakespeare.