THE BLOG

Assessing Shakespeare at 400 and Making Sure He Didn't Cheat on His Homework

22/04/2016 12:01

It seems remarkable that one man's legacy can still be having such a cultural impact on a nation 400 years after his death. But Shakespeare is no ordinary literary figure, with his work still being seen as a benchmark of the written word across the globe. Some try to capture the spirit of his work with period reproductions in theatres, others bring it bang up to date with cinematic adaptations. But we all have verses, quotes and lines of prose that we hold dear. For each of us, his or her own bard.

In part, this ability for us to interpret, adapt and invent our own Shakespeare is down to time passed and mysteries that still surround parts of his past. But the language, the storytelling and Shakespeare's own historical references all play their part. The more we learn, the more there is to learn.

The plays are kept alive by the very act of performance and adaptation, but research body The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is very much a part of increasing understanding of Shakespeare's work, as well as ensuring that our knowledge of the man and his time are constantly updated, reconsidered and reassessed. Since its inception in 2005, the AHRC has grown to be one of the world's leading research bodies and has funded new research on many aspects of Shakespeare, from his language and lexicon to where his work would have been performed. But do we really need more work on the Bard, when every school studies his work and every local theatre stages his plays?

Well, this is no collection of dry papers that sit high on library shelves. Rather, the AHRC funds work that offers results outside of a university setting, pairing academics with map makers, app makers, schoolchildren, writers and actors. This striving for academic excellence mixed with real world impact makes the AHRC an obvious partner for the likes of the BBC and Royal Shakespeare Company in their celebrations of this important anniversary of Shakespeare's legacy.

For me, though, the beauty is in the willingness to change our view of the work and being unafraid to disrupt legacy. For example, the two-volume Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare's Language is a £1m AHRC-funded project that will draw upon a 321 million-word corpus of work and possibly make us entirely reassess all literacy criticism of Shakespeare to date. We will finally be able to examine Shakespeare's words in the context of the literature and usage of the time. How else would we be able to affirm his genius or establish whether he had been cribbing from his peers?

Over the years, the AHRC has funded Shakespeare-related research across disciplines, encouraging contemplation and collaboration between academics and non-academics in the UK and globally. This has resulted in ground-breaking work that informs and increases our understanding of Shakespeare and also relates to the modern context, whether that be in tourism, how his work can transform the interaction of autistic children or how it relates to black or Asian actors and audiences.

This work has even uncovered important finds that now inform new theatre work. Professor Tony Howard's British Black and Asian Shakespeare unearthed the fact that Ira Aldridge -who is the subject of Lolita Chakrabarti's Red Velvet - was running a Coventry theatre in an era when slavery was still rife elsewhere in the world. Equivalent breakthroughs in science would make the evening news bulletins, but these findings in the arts are often absorbed back into the work of others, providing inspiration in the shape of new stories to tell and new ways of telling them. Tribute indeed to a man who spent his life striving to find a way to do just that.

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