Report on the Shakespeare
Birthplace Trust

Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K.
July 4-6 2011

Dr. J. Bradford Anderson
Trinity School
New York, NY

Our current academic disciplines are legacies of the nineteenth century. At first they were pragmatic attempts to bundle particular methodologies with specific research agendas; over time, universities, and then secondary and primary schools, lent an institutional force to these disciplines that made them seem inevitable, perhaps even natural. While the traditional disciplines retain much of their relevance (indeed, so many questions of the nineteenth century are still with us), interdisciplinary studies have become increasingly important over the course of the twentieth century as we develop new tools of inquiry and ask new questions.

Shakespeare studies have both benefited and suffered from the institutionalization of the traditional disciplines. When over the course of the nineteenth century “English” replaced Classics as the primary domain for literary studies and language instruction, Shakespeare’s corpus became a – perhaps the – preeminent subject of research in the university and language and literary instruction throughout the curriculum. The phenomenon of “bardolotry” may in part be seen as a by-product of Shakespeare’s disciplinary canonization. While the inclusion of Shakespeare’s works on syllabi throughout the curriculum has no doubt done much to ensure the perpetuation of his work, there have been negative consequences. For too many students, Shakespeare is printed words in a text, and Shakespeare appreciation means talking and writing about his works in a classroom, usually in a New Critical fashion with no reference to historical or literary context. That’s where The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust comes in.

The SBT is “the world’s leading charity in promoting the life and works of William Shakespeare [offering] a unique Shakespeare centered experience with outstanding archive and library collections, inspiring programmes of literary events and five wonderful houses all directly relating to Shakespeare.” The SBT offers an experience that widens the disciplinary approach to Shakespeare (history, archaeology, comparative literature, theater, art history, even agricultural studies are deployed in the SBT’s attempt to explain, interpret and reimagine Shakespeare). Such an approach ensures that Shakespeare persists in a more rounded and robust form and equips students with the content knowledge and methodological tools that will allow them to ask a whole spectrum of questions – and find a whole range of answers – unavailable under the old disciplinary regime.

Briefly, here are some of the resources available at the SBT’s Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

  • Five buildings associated with Shakespeare, including his Birthplace, Mary Arden’s Farm, Ann Hathaway’s Cottage, Hall’s Croft, and Nash’s House and New Place,
  • Two archives, one focused on Stratford-upon-Avon during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, the other focused on Shakespeare related materials from the sixteenth century to our own day,
  • A team of scholars adept at introducing Shakespeare’s works to students at all levels,
  • Immediate proximity to the Royal Shakespeare Company,
  • Two and a half hours from London.

The SBT experience is not one size fits all. The educator, in consultation with Dr. Elizabeth Woledge and Jacqueline Green in the SBT’s education department, devises a program tailored to the needs of his or her own students. Elements of such a program will surely include attendance at one or several of the plays in repertory at the RSC. Additionally, the SBT can arrange lectures on the play or plays to be seen, post-performance discussions, Q & A sessions with cast members, drama workshops, wig and make-up demonstrations, voice classes, visits to the various buildings operated by the SBT and tours of the archives. The SBT even handles transportation to and from Stratford-upon-Avon and to and from London (for visits to the Globe, for instance). The SBT experience might culminate in a final project such as a brief performance, the presentation of original research or the writing of an original work. Indeed, both Lakeside School and Concord Academy schedule significant student projects into their study programs.

I had the privilege of attending introductory talks on Macbeth and The City Madam givenby Drs. Nick Walton and Penny Freedman, a post performance discussion of Macbeth with Dr. Paul Edmondson and a Q & A with a member of the RSC mediated by Paul Edmondson. I was able to visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Nash’s House and New Place. I attended RSC performances of Macbeth and The City Madam. Finally, while in London, I toured the Globe Theater and attended a production of Dr. Faustus. While the thrill of visiting sites associated with Shakespeare’s life is incontestable, the heart of my experience was the performances and the discussions around those performances. I could play the comparatist (by looking at Shakespeare’s work in the context of a Jacobean and a Caroline writer), the performer and director (by discussing directorial choices with a member of the RSC), the historian (thanks to the superb introductory lectures) and of course the critic. I have returned from Stratford-upon-Avon a more thoughtful reader and watcher of Shakespeare. So will our students. If possible, I would highly recommend visiting the Globe Theater and, if possible, attending a performance there. The RSC and the Globe have related though differing missions with respect to the preservation and performance of Shakespeare’s works. Touring both sites and attending performances at both theaters introduces another enriching comparative dimension to a Shakespeare study trip.

A word about the SBT staff. Every member of the staff with whom I was privileged enough to speak gave proof of that rare combination of erudition and passion that we seek out in our best teachers. Their teaching styles are varied but effective. For all the tremendous resources the SBT commands, its staff is its greatest resource. It is certain that these scholars and teachers can and do inspire their students. Students will return from Stratford-upon-Avon lifelong lovers of Shakespeare.

The SBT can give our students a more faceted portrait of Shakespeare, restoring a sense of the literary, historical and performative dimensions of his work. Through a vast array of activities, the SBT provides an immersive experience that engages all kinds of learners: kinetic, visual and auditory. In the words of Nick Walton, the Birthplace is “an inspiration hub.” It seems that each year brings new expectations, widening responsibilities and further distractions for my students. When I teach Shakespeare during the year I can count on only so much attention from even my best students. An opportunity to concentrate on nothing but Shakespeare for even a few days is invaluable. The quality of attention my students would be able to bring to Shakespeare during an SBT study tour would yield a rich harvest over the course of their lives as they become active, intelligent and passionate readers and watchers of Shakespeare’s works. And with any luck, there will be future writers and actors among those students.

Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for their incredible hospitality and to the American Friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for their tremendous generosity. I am already a better teacher for what I’ve learned over the past few days. Thank you.

20 July 2011