SIL Blind Date with a Book

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.


Although, quite often, impediments arise, as we all know. Maybe our heart of hearts and ray of sunshine leaves the toilet seat up, or badgers us endlessly about toilet seats for some reason. Maybe they appear to have developed a particular deafness to our exasperated sighs, or a peculiar blindness to our frowns. While we know, as in the sonnet, we should not admit impediments to the marriage of true minds, yet quite often the other person becomes expert at delivering a very slow, yet very persistent kind of grinding, that could reduce even the most patient saint to fine, and entirely angry, powder.

Maybe, we consider as V-day looms on the horizon, the true minds Shakespeare mentions are not actually a description of love between two people. Maybe, and I think, far more likely, the deep and unswerving belonging at the heart of the poem is meant to paint an image of reader and book. I admit singledom may have something to do with my reading, but hear me out. While books have in the past disappointed, it was never through inconsideration. While some of them are fragile, none of them will ever demand hours of cuddles when you are not in the mood. While most of them end, you can see that one coming from a mile off, indeed, you can measure the time to the inevitable. Book can be heart-achingly beautiful, mind-bendingly clever, and knee-bucklingly charming, all at once.

So this valentine’s I’m picking up my date from the SIL, taking my time to peel off the outer layers, before going for a leisurely walk about town, and finally to bed and to the marriage of true minds. I will, in other words, be picking up one of our marvellous blind date books, and let the words rock my world. I recommend you do the same. You could even bring your own date.

Dr. Sara Marie Westh, Library Assistant


The Samuel West Script Collection

“It’s a part in which you can’t fail, and you can’t succeed because it’s not about finding answers. It’s all about asking questions.”

The Shakespeare Institute Library is extremely fortunate to have amongst its actors’ script archive Samuel West’s scripts. His collection covers his work as both actor and director of Shakespeare and other work. It is wonderful to be able to promote the research possibilities of this script collection. This exhibition features just some of Samuel’s treasured material.

Photo by Nils Jorgensen

Samuel West was born in London on June 19, 1966, the son of the actors Prunella Scales and Timothy West. It was perhaps inevitable that he would follow them on to the stage, since both his parents have had successful acting careers and even his grandparents Lockwood West and Olive Carleton-Crowe were also actors.

Though Sam West claims that he and his parents do not constitute a ‘family firm’ of actors, the three have appeared together on several occasions. West’s portrayal of Prince Hal in 1996 was opposite his father, Timothy, as Falstaff; they played the same character at different ages in the film Iris, and all the family took part in a reading of Pinter’s play Family Voices. He records that when he told his parents that he wanted to be an actor, they replied ‘Be a plumber.’

West ignored the advice and went on to win a number of awards, act and direct in every medium, and is now one of our most highly regarded Shakespearean actors.

He made his London stage debut in 1989 playing Michael in Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles which drew positive critical comment. Early Shakespearean roles included Prince Hal for the English Touring Theatre’s production of both parts of Henry IV, and Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre.

Photo by Malcolm Davies

In the first of his two seasons with the RSC he undertook the title role in Richard II in Steven Pimlott’s production of 2000. West’s account of planning the production describes how the company saw the play as a chronicle but also a fable, not so much about a king holding on to power as an individual trying to come to terms with mortality. The play was designed with minimal set and props, blue and white lighting that contrasted with darkness, and costumes which evoked the shadows cast on the set.

West has written about the “ammo box” which began life as the base of his throne, became the mirror Richard “crack’d in a hundred shivers” and finally ended as Richard’s coffin.

Reviews were enthusiastic; “A Richard to remember” wrote the critic Dominic Cavendish. In a bold stroke, the soliloquy at Pomfret – “I have been studying how I may compare/ This prison where I live unto the world”- was repeated by Richard’s rival and his queen: the king’s loss of identity a universal condition, not an individual insight. The rehearsal discussions had clearly born fruit.

In 2001, again directed by Pimlott, West played Hamlet. He appeared at first as the typical young student, dressed in jeans and leather jacket, but was soon revealed as clever, able to see through other people’s rhetoric, yet aware of his own powerlessness. West’s performance was set in a highly political world where individual conscience is stifled by power without morality and was generally described as “brilliant.”

Whilst working on Hamlet, West produced three notebooks and one very heavily annotated script. The notebooks cover his initial thoughts and ‘homework’ on the play; his rehearsal process; and fine-tuning of his performance in previews. Evidently a cerebral actor, West’s rehearsal notebook goes into great detail on Hamlet’s relationships with other characters as well as discussing major themes in the play. His ‘reading list’ includes sources as diverse as The Spanish Tragedy, Festen, Fight Club and Batman.

The production featured many memorable bits of staging which are not referred to in the original script, for example in the Ghost scene the phantom held his son close to him in their shared distress, and before Hamlet is sent to England he kissed Claudius squarely on the lips.

Combined with the notebooks, West’s script is a revelation as to how this actor deciphered one of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles.

From 2005–7 West was artistic director of Sheffield Crucible Theatre. As a passionately political man with strong left-wing beliefs, he believed that theatre was a strong vehicle for airing vital issues and making people think. Accordingly, he revived and directed the controversial The Romans in Britain and also directed As You Like It.

West’s As You Like It, which was also performed on the Swan stage in Stratford in 2007, played with ideas of the fluidity of identity with a collection of hats sprouting from the stage to be tried on by the company. The cast included Eve Best, Lisa Dillon and Sam Troughton. Reviews praised Best for “showing all the symptoms of a sparkling wit with a gnawing need inside” and for her “radiant emotional intelligence”.

Eve Best in As You Like It, Sheffield Crucible, 2007

Starting the play with ‘All the world’s a stage’ as a framing device was “subtly magical” but while Michael Billington called it “an eye-opening As You Like It” others thought it “laboured” and “too earnest” and Charles Spencer thought the approach “a load of old bollocks”.

There was praise for West’s leadership of the Sheffield Theatres – both for his choice of plays and his ability to attract actors to the venue and this, his farewell production, “makes one wish he were staying longer.”

West has also appeared in a variety of films including Notting Hill, Hyde Park on Hudson and Darkest Hour but was in the role of Leonard Bast in E.M. Forster’s Howards End in 1991 that he made his name. Bast signals the arrival of the urban white-collar worker in British society, a role that could have been tailor-made for the politically aware West. He plays him as a tragic hero whose dreams of a higher form of existence are in contrast to the spiritual inertia of an office job. He received a nomination for the role at the 1993 BAFTA Film Awards. West was also cast as the colourless and emotionally sterile St. John Rivers in Zeffirelli’s 1996 Jane Eyre, and was praised for his portrayal of the character in an otherwise not highly rated production.

On television, West has had leading roles including Anthony Blunt in Cambridge Spies, a BBC drama about Kim Philby and his associates. In ITV’s 2011 Eternal Law he played Zak Gist, one of two angels who have fallen to earth in order to serve Humankind. The mix of fantasy and legal satire appeared initially to be an intriguing and promising, but critics found it too absurd to take seriously, particularly when West and his colleague appeared with huge white wings sprouting from their backs. Appearances in long-running series, such as Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Mr Selfridge and Grantchester, made West a familiar face on-screen and his prolific work on radio and as a voice artist for audiobooks and documentary narrations make his an instantly recognizable voice.

He is a long-time collaborator with the Shakespeare Institute and has a personal connection to the place. One of West’s earliest Shakespearean roles was Florizel in a 1985 Oxford Playhouse production of The Winter’s Tale in which Michael Dobson, our current Director, played Time ( …and claims to have upstaged him).


In 2016, as part of the birthday celebrations also marking 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Samuel West, as Garrick, narrated the actor-manager-playwright’s 1769 Jubilee Ode at Holy Trinity Church giving it its first full-scale performance since the eighteenth century.

Samuel West generously donated his script collection to the Shakespeare Institute Library in 2012 and our students have already mined the scripts for course work, theses and dissertations. 2014 saw West receive an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Birmingham.






‘A Torch, a Mattock and a Crow of Iron’: Shakespeare’s stage properties

propsLast year, the Royal Shakespeare Company held a grand jumble sale in Stratford-upon-Avon, offering about 10,000 unwanted stage properties. It was an imaginative way of funding the restoration of the theatre’s new costume department, A Stitch in Time, since patrons and theatregoers could actually buy a little piece of the Company, or of the actor who wore it, as their own personal souvenir. It was a roaring success and queues built up through the day for a chance to rake through the huge variety of uniforms, jewellery, shoes, hats and costumes used in former productions.

We are used these days to seeing all manner of sophisticated and realistic stage properties in the theatre. Sets, lighting and stage effects may vary from the sparse to the elaborate, according to the vision of the director: the variety of styles stimulates and engages an audience, besides keeping theatre critics in work. The idea still persists, however, that Elizabethan theatre was very close to what might be called minimalist: a bare stage, no scenery, very basic props if any, and actors performing in the dress of the period. Some critics have claimed that the early stage was occupied predominantly by the playwright’s language. The simplicity of the Wooden ‘O’, empty of visual ornament, was thought to appeal mainly to the mind. So, people went to ‘hear’ a play rather than to ‘see’ it: it was something to be considered rationally rather than engaging all the senses. But, the Elizabethan theatre used more sophisticated props and stage effects than is often assumed.

simon formanThat the early stage involved visual spectacle is borne out by the eye-witness accounts of contemporary theatre goers. The astrologer and herbalist Simon Forman, who was a member of Shakespeare’s circle, left a number of manuscripts, one of which – the ‘Book of Plaies’- records descriptions of the productions he saw between 1610-11. He comments with fascination on the action around Macbeth’s chair – a very solid and visible chair – in the banquet scene.

‘the ghost of Banquo came in and sat down in his (Macbeth’s)  chair behind him, and turning about to sit down again,(he) saw the ghost: which affronted him so that he fell into a great passion of fear and fury’                  

He also mentions the bracelet in Cymbeline, the chest or trunk in which Iachimo, and Autolycus’ ‘pedlar packe’ in The Winter’s Tale.

We are fortunate to have the so-called Peacham drawing, now in the library of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat. It appears to depict a scene from Titus Andronicus where vigorous gesturing and several props and costume give a vivid impression of Elizabethan acting.

peacham drawing

That the public stage was known for the presence on-stage of a number of eye-catching objects, is attested by Philip Henslowe, the leading theatre proprietor and manager of The Admiral’s Men.  Henslowe’s  extensive 1598 inventory of the company’s props describes articles from  the fairly functional ‘paire of rough gloves’, ‘one plain crown’ and ‘one snake’, to articles designed to impress and boggle the eye: a golden sceptre, one Hell’s mouth’ one ‘tree of golden apples,’ ‘the cloth of the sun and moon’ and – most impressive –‘the city of Rome.’

‘Props’ – theatrical slang for properties – first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary of 1841 and so Shakespeare and his contemporaries would not have used the shortened word. Props include all the moveable, physical objects of the stage: costumes, furniture and stage hangings. But we have no record of the props used by Shakespeare’s Company. How did they create the Capulet family vault, into which Romeo breaks with ‘a torch, a mattock, and a crow of iron’ How too, were Caesar’s Rome, the Forest of Arden and The Tempest’s peacock-drawn flying chariot realised on stage?

Inevitably, Henry V comes to mind, where attention is drawn to the theatre’s inability to create a wholly realistic scene. ‘Can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France?’ asks the Chorus. And then comes the suggestion that the audience should employ its ‘imaginary forces’, and ‘piece out imperfections [with] its thoughts,’ so creating France and England for itself.

Shakespeare’s audience would have had no difficulty in  understanding visual clues and metaphors. A cloak would signify outdoors, while riding boots a suggested a journey or a traveller. We see this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the Mechanicals use ‘lime and rough-cast’ to create a wall and a ‘lanthorn, dog and bush of thorn’ to represent the moon. There must, in order to portray Bottom’s ‘translation’ have been a comical ass’s head too.

Stage directions give us considerable information about props: ‘ Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand’ and ‘Enter the Clown with a basket, and two pigeons in it.’ Elsewhere, detailed and precise descriptions conjure up visual images. Shakespeare’s Company might well have had an object which signified Titania’s ‘mossy bank’ but it took Shakespeare’s words to dress it with flowers. Shakespeare himself must have responded strongly when he read – and virtually copied – Petrach’s description of Cleopatra’s barge. The image is multi-sensory:  perfumed sails, flute music and a vessel so decked with gold that it ‘burns’, almost  making the hearer blink.

Dress signified social status and the centuries-old Sumptuary laws forbade ordinary people to wear certain colours and costly fabric but theatre companies got round the difficulty by purchasing a licence from the monarch. For ordinary parts, players used their own clothes but Henslowe’s inventory lists clothes made in the silks, cloth-of-gold, satins and velvets reserved for gentry. These would be worn to play kings and nobles. Such costumes were often left to actors by fellow thespians, or high-ranking citizen bequeathed luxurious clothing to servants who in turn sold them on to theatre companies.

Stage hangings served as places of concealment for spying and hiding, as in the scene in Hamlet where Polonius is stabbed through the arras. Small spaces such as a cell, study or bedroom would be disclosed when hangings were drawn back; or a spectacular object hidden until the moment came for the Grand Reveal. The fabric of the theatre was a prop in itself: a trap door in the stage might be a grave, a pit, or the mouth of Hell, sometimes emitting smoke and fireworks. The upper gallery of the playhouse served as Juliet’s balcony or Cleopatra’s monument, or might become the wall of a city or a castle. Pillars supporting the canopy or roof set the scene for Greek temples or Roman palaces.

Other smaller props also played their part. Rings appear in no fewer than 15 plays of Shakespeare. They are often love-tokens and are given as symbols of binding emotional commitment and fidelity.  Juliet sends a ring to Romeo to indicate her continuing love, despite the fact that he has killed her kinsman. But rings can often go astray; may be lost, stolen, sold or mistakenly given to the wrong person. Much confusion, either tragic or comic results. In an attempt to guide its audience through the vagaries of the plot and it is amusing to note that 2009 production of All’s Well had its actors wear rings with stones the size of golf balls which lit up in different colours.

We know that many Elizabethans kept skulls on their desks as a memento mori, in an age where violent death and epidemics of disease were a fact of life. Some critics believe Hamlet to be the first play in which a skull is used as a prop. The gravedigger’s scene allows both Hamlet and the audience to contemplate mortality, at first objectively, and then subjectively when the skull of Yorick is identified.

Severed heads and limbs, blood and gore, the plucking out of eyes and tongue….. There was a long way to go before Kensington Gore, the generic term for stage blood, achieved a convincing colour and viscosity in our own era. Shakespeare had to be satisfied with a bladder of pig’s blood to achieve his shock effects.


So much for a bare stage and the notion that plays were only to be heard. Shakespearean productions were fairly crowded with props – 572 at the last count. The images are embedded in our culture: the politics, skulduggery and drama surrounding coronets and crowns, Antigonus pursued by a bear, Desdemona’s handkerchief, swords, spears and foils, digging tools, paper as letters or maps, Ophelia’s herbs and Titania’s bower. Add to these, the music of trumpets, drums, viols and citterns and, occasionally, even the reek of cordite as Jupiter in The Tempest descended, astride an eagle, throwing thunderbolts. I call that a complete theatre experience.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

Where Are We Now: celebrating alumni of the Shakespeare Institute

by Sara Marie Westh, PhD student and Library Assistant

As a long-time student at the Shakespeare Institute – it is over six years now, altogether, can you believe it, time flies, doesn’t it just? – it is almost scarily easy to forget that there is a world beyond our wee bastion.

Friends go off to Warwick, to Leeds, to Newcastle, to London. They scatter themselves across England, the UK, the world, posting photos of sunshine and snow on Facebook, along with comments about food and homesickness. And sitting in Stratford-upon-Avon, all the places seem eerily alike. All of them are far away.

When friends leave the Institute, they go to the Great World Beyond, where rare, magical creatures such as Career and Funding roam the lush plains, and where the frontier is the horizon, not the train station. And this month we at the Institute Library use our exhibition to celebrate those intrepid explorers who boldly went beyond the edge of town, and filled my feed and our exhibition with far-away dreams.

There is Professor Christian van Nieuwerburgh, an erstwhile member of the exclusive club of UOB students who have also borne the honour of working for the Institute Library. Discovering an interest in professional development and the role of coaching in education, he joined the University of East London in 2009, where he was made a Professor of Coaching and Positive Psychology, having taught positive psychology in Cambridge and in Paris.

His publications have seen immense popularity in the field, with his Introduction to Coaching Skills: A Practical Guide running into its second edition last year, and Coaching in Islamic Culture, co-written with Raja’a Allaho breaking new ground. Unfortunately, this bold scholar will look toward the farther world in the new year, for, as he writes: “Given some of the political uncertainty surrounding the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, I will be leaving University of East London in November and will be focusing more time and attention to my international work in Australia, the Middle East and the US”.

Christian J. van Nieuwerburgh_1Reflecting on his time at the Institute, Professor van Nieuwerburgh remarks “I’m very appreciative of my time at the Shakespeare Institute, the friendship of fellow students and the expert guidance and supervision of the academic team, particularly Dr Martin Wiggins. Studying Elizabethan and Jacobean drama with some of the world’s experts has had an enormous impact on my personal and professional life. I’ve maintained my interest and curiosity about what motivates human beings. Without my time at the Shakespeare Institute, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. It was a challenging and life-shaping time”.

A no less intrepid scholar is Dr José A. Pérez Díez, who likewise did service to this Library in concert with his studies. To Dr Pérez, England was “a country towards which I had always felt a huge emotional attachment”. On impulse, he joined the Shakespeare Institute Players, and was cast in the eponymous role of Othello, beginning his illustrious career on our stage. Dr Peréz received an offer to read for his PhD in 2010, “under the wise supervision of Dr Martin Wiggins”.

Carrying the old SI standard at Shakespeare's Birthday Parade in 2011Dr Pérez’ fondly recalls his six years at the Institute: “During those years I made lifelong friendships with people from all around the globe—from Japan to California, from Denmark to Australia—and finally got to marry the love of my life, Irma. I worked weekends and evenings as a library support assistant in the astonishing SI Library—the best Renaissance-focused research library in Europe—and taught in the Birthplace and on main campus for years. I also founded, with Will Sharpe, the Lizz Ketterer Trust in memory of a much-missed alumna, Dr Elizabeth Ann Ketterer, as well as the theatre company Ketterer’s Men, the Players’ unofficial ‘sister’. Towards the end of the PhD, while I was frantically writing up my critical edition of Fletcher and Massinger’s Love’s Cure (soon to be published in the Revels Plays), Irma gave birth to our firstborn, David, a Warwickshire lad begot some three hundred yards away from the Birthplace itself”.

Dr Pérez viva enabled him “to take up, literally within weeks, a five-year research fellowship at the University of Leeds”. Looking back, “nine years, four houses, two Birmingham graduations, multiple jobs, some twenty theatre productions, a wedding, and two children later (Daniel was born in 2018),” he still considers the Institute his home, “And not a single day goes by without my missing the seminars, the playreadings, the Library, the theatre-making, the laughter, the building, and, above all, the wonderful people that inhabit it”.

The gallant Dr Lise Olsen likewise holds her time at the Institute close to her heart, she “relishes the time spent at the Institute and often calls upon it in her work.” Currently, Dr Olsen is the Course Director of MA in Acting at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. An American ex-pat, she has been working professionally in the UK for over 25 years, and spent a year in the PhD programme at the Institute, researching “20th Century Vocal performance of Shakespeare, beginning with the actor Henry Ainlie (early 1900’s)”

Lise Olson 52018Dr Olsen is an acknowledged international specialist in the areas of Vocal Violence and Acting Through Song, and has given perennially popular musical theatre workshops at International Stephen Sondheim conferences, and Song Stage and Screen conferences. She has also received a number of directing awards in both the US and UK, and was a founding director of Seattle’s first small specialist musical theatre company.

Dr Olsen presented at ‘Women in Parliament’ in celebration of the Representation of People Act earlier this year, and her upcoming chapter ‘VOX FEMINA PUBLICA’ in Amending Speech: Women’s Voices in Parliament, 1918-2018, due to be published later this year, is eagerly anticipated. She is currently directing the Croatian family drama 3 Winters, which will opened at the Old Rep Theatre on October 10th.

Dr Susan Kay-Williams, Chief Executive Royal School of Needlework, and equally fearless of the Stratford frontier, was first put on the track to Shakespeare studies by her MA tutor at University College Cardiff. Wanting to explore less thoroughly mapped areas of the works, and inspired by the mid-1970’s production of the Henry VI plays in Stratford, she settled on their stage history.

During Dr Kay-Williams’ time at the Institute it was located in Birmingham, “with research students in the attic rooms”, but she undertook a significant part of her research in Stratford, enduring the traditional pilgrimage that is getting here. She embarked on postdoctoral studies in charity fundraising and marketing, first at United World Colleges, and subsequently at the British Lung Foundation. Finishing her PhD, Dr Kay-Williams was made a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and CE of the Henry Doubleday Research Association.

Image of Dr Susan Kay-WilliamsHarbouring a long-standing interest in textiles, she then joined Royal School of Needlework, and has been with them for the past 11 years. There, “We have worked on the wedding dress of the Duchess of Cambridge, a dress for the Oscars for Naomi Harris, Millennium Vestments for Buckfast Abbey, pop art nudes for Philip Colbert and above all taught many people how to create wonderful pieces of art or embellishment for clothes or costumes and ensured we keep the art of hand embroidery alive. We have also taught our first ever summer School in the US, introduced Stitch A Selfie, a project for schools Today the RSN is a £2m+ charity with endowment funds in the bank.”

Dr Cathleen McKague, the final scholastic explorer extraordinaire of this blog, finished her PhD in 2014, supervised by Prof Ewan Fernie, exploring competing representations of androgyny in Renaissance literature.

Dr McKague took an active part in student life during her Institute time, taking part in seven productions with the Players, both on and behind stage. She was a frequent patron of the Thursday night play-readings, and was yet another magnificent soul who worked for the Institute Library.

BritGrad 2013 2Dr McKague was hired as an Adjunct Assistant Professor with the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario after her graduation, and offered a Bader Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2016. This allowed her to research a play-text that she had discovered, owned by Canadian playwright, novelist, scholar, and director Robertson Davies. Following this exciting time, she became Visiting Scholar at Queen’s, and Eisenbichler Research Fellow for the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at Victoria University, University of Toronto.

Continuing to stand at the forefront of her field, Dr McKague’s recent publications include ‘Twelfth Night’s “poor monster”: Viola/Cesario as Holy Grotesque’, a chapter in Michael Heyes’s Holy Monsters, Sacred Grotesques: Monstrosity and Religion in Europe and the United States (2018); and the forthcoming ‘“Pedant Needs More Paunch”: Reviving Robertson Davies’s Annotations from his Performance Copy of The Taming of the Shrew’, with Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches Théâtrales au Canada (2018).

During their peregrinations through far-flung academic disciplines in the Great World Beyond, hunting illusive creatures of time, space, fabric, and text, our alumni turn their falcon gaze to the little, little town that holds the Institute. Somewhere along the way the Institute remains with them, even hidden all the way out here in Stratford upon Avon, at the mercy of Chiltern Railways and London Midlands. Somewhere out there, our alumni show us how to dream beyond borders.

The Where We Are Now exhibition is on now at the Shakespeare Institute Library. Do come.

SIL Book of the Week – The ‘stuff’ of early modern history

The latest addition to the Routledge Guides to using Historical Sources, Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources has been received into the Shakespeare Institute Library this week. Edited by Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis, this book is an invaluable resource for the student of early modern history. Every student knows that primary sources are the lifeblood of the historian and without them, as the Introduction clearly states, history would be impossible to write. But where to start?!

understandingFor the student, the array of material ranging from state papers, printed books, literary sources, manuscript letters, diaries, wills and inventories, visual sources such as paintings, buildings, clothing etc. etc. can be daunting, if not overwhelming. The first part of this book offers a practical guide to approaching such sources, providing information on how the material was produced in the first place, how it has been preserved and how it can be accessed. There are pointers as to where to look at original material as well of course as how to access the vast and ever-increasing  digital resources now available. There are hints on the kind of questions to ask when approaching such sources together with case studies and examples.

The second part of the book approaches its subject thematically, examining what kind of sources can be used to explore a range of major themes such as popular culture, political culture, gender, science, warfare, religion and so on.

A must for the student of early modern history as well as the student of Shakespeare who is interested in setting the work of the bard within the wider context of the world in which he lived.

Dr Jill Francis, Library Support Assistant

SI Old Stager on New Blood & a New Academic Year

Then nightly sings the staring owl.

A time of change is upon us here at the Shakespeare Institute Library.

I know it’s part of the academic year, as sure as the seasons roll on, and a great deal more punctual for that matter. Yet I’m always surprised by it. My inbox is flooded with good advice to new students – the system doesn’t seem capable of differentiating between the new and the continuing learner – who to write, what to write, how to find a housemate, where to file supplications for council tax exemption.

I knew it was coming, and it caught me completely unawares. It always does.

waitingLast Sunday saw the new MA students gather for the welcome tea, and from behind my desk at the Library entrance I hardly noticed. The old academic year has come to an end, and the new one is about to kick off. I haven’t met any of them yet. I haven’t met enough of the old MA’s yet, and they’re leaving this little, little stage, bowing out with Rosalind and Prospero.

It’s strange; the old MA students don’t seem so very old to me, and I find it hard to believe they’ve been here a year. I find it equally hard to believe that even younger students are about to embark on the same journey through Shakespeare scholarship I undertook not that long ago. The whirligig of time brings in more students.

I know they’re here in all their ripeness. I’ve seen a few of them in the library already. At least, I think I’ve seen them. They have the slightly overwhelmed, preoccupied look of people finding their feet on new ground. They pull at doors that should be pushed, and fumble with the card readers. Each of them reminds me a bit of Ferdinand and Viola, looking at the Institute island and trying to decide where they fit into it all.

Perfectly timed to coincide with the hurly-burly of seasonal scholarly change, we have implemented a new loans system across the University of Birmingham Libraries, which should, hopefully, make things run a little smoother all around. Loans will now automatically renew, to be recalled only when someone else requests the book. This will give our patrons the liberty to use our material with the greatest amount of freedom possible, restrained only by the needs of their fellow scholars. To the new students, this will not be a change. To them, this will be the system that always was.

Change is a natural part of the business of learning – when early career scholars are told to publish or perish, this is as much born of the necessity to contribute something preferably measurable to an academic field that often deals with things boundless as the sea, as it expresses the need for movement and for change. The day we stop moving is the day we become a museum. I feel a deep nostalgia for the past year, but I wouldn’t want to relive it.


I will miss the old ones. I look forward to meeting the new ones.

I was new once, too.

Tu-whit, tu-whoo! – a merry note.

Sara Marie Westh, LSA and PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute

‘Your great favour, thus oft and so far to send, to know how your poor @@ doth, is greatly beyond the reach of his thanks.’

So begins a certain love letter. The symbols @@ signify the pet name of the sender – they might almost be ‘text-speak’! But there was no Tudor microchip, and lovers might have to resort to code.Elizabeth_1524100cThe relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester lasted until his death. He was her @@ (Eyes) and sketched his own fine, dark pair in letters to the Queen. But the exact nature of their bond is a subject of speculation. Leicester’s father and grandfather had been executed for treason and he inevitably bore its taint. After resisting the accession of the Catholic Mary Tudor, he was imprisoned in the Tower and was fortunate to escape the block. It was here he met the young Elizabeth whose life also hung by a thread in the wrangle for succession which followed the death of Henry VII.

After Elizabeth became Queen, Leicester was swiftly marked out for her particular favour. Apart from important court positions and trading privileges, he was given estates, houses, manors, forests and ecclesiastical properties in both England and Wales. Among them was the estate of Kenilworth in Warwickshire, which was to become his favourite residence. He was made Baron of Denbigh and Earl of Leicester in 1564.


Leicester demonstrated princely style in his refurbishing of the grounds and castle which were run down and insignificant when he acquired them. He is estimated to have spent the enormous sum of £60,000  (millions in today’s money) in the first few years. A later survey reported that the estate extended to twenty miles around, while a detailed furnishings inventory described acres of luxurious carpet in crimson velvet and silver, embroidered with heraldic posies, bears and ragged staves. The same emblems and colour-scheme appeared in a sumptuous bed of walnut, embellished with painted roses, curtains of the finest satin and a quilt covered in silver lozenges. There were twenty other grand bedsteads and the quantities of top-of-the-range- bedding would have filled a warehouse, not excluding a selection of ‘close stooles’, some in quilted black velvet with pans of pewter.

Painting of Elizabeth dancing with Dudley c.1580

Painting of Elizabeth dancing with Dudley c.1580

Elizabeth visited Kenilworth in 1566 and 1572 whilst on Royal Progress, for Leicester’s position as undisputed favourite and reputed lover had endured. ‘The queen is in love with Robert’ wrote Philip of Spain after the failure of the latest  round of marriage negotiations on Elizabeth’s behalf. But the Queen had evaded marriage with her favourite or with any other suitor.

Leicester was distrusted for his ‘traitorous’ family, for his swaggering and ambition, for the power and wealth he had amassed through royal favour and for his influence over the Queen. The rumour was also rife that he had murdered his first wife, Amy Robsart, in order to clear his way to Elizabeth’s hand. He almost certainly nursed such an ambition whilst Elizabeth was presumably all too aware of how marriage would diminish her power and overthrow her iconic status as the Virgin Queen. She and Leicester may or may not have been lovers. Whatever the case, their association continued.

Her visit to Kenilworth in 1575 is regarded as the high watermark of Tudor culture. It was the social event of the age and, presumably, Leicester’s last attempt to impress and then gain his Queen. To say that no expense was spared in the preparation is an understatement: a new turreted Gatehouse was built and a 100 feet high tower- a sort of Tudor Shard – comprised the Royal Apartments. The third storey penthouse inevitably housed her bedchamber and, lacking the technology for an express elevator (plush lined in scarlet and silver, no doubt), Leicester installed windows so enormous that different vistas over the estate would delight Elizabeth as she ascended to bed.

A full account of the visit is ascribed to a letter of Robert Laneham (or Langham), a court servant. The Castle is praised for being situated in;

‘ayr sweet and hollsum, rayzed on an eazy mounted hill…with sweet springs bursting foorth…and plentifully well sorted on every side into arabl, meado, pasture, wood, water (and) a goodly Pool of rare beauty’

The pool, stuffed with ‘great and fat fish’, embraced the castle on three sides below a ‘faire Parke’ where the Renaissance ideal of nature improved by art was expressed in

‘delectabl, fresh and umbrageous Boowerz, arberz, seatz, and walks…tall and fresh fragrant treez…also by great…cost…sweetnes of savour…fragrant earbs and floourz, in forme, cooler and quantities…deliciously variaunt’

Sir Walter Scott in his 1821 novel Kenilworth imagined the scene as Elizabeth’s procession approached:

‘the acclamation…ran like wildfire…and announced to all…that (the Queen) had entered Kenilworth. The whole music of the Castle sounded at once, and a round of artillery was discharged…the Queen herself, arrayed in the most splendid manner, and blazing with jewels, formed the central figure…Leicester, who glittered like a golden image with jewels and cloth of gold, rode on her Majesty’s right hand.’

Gascoigne presenting his book Hemetes the Heremyte (c.1579) to Elizabeth.

Gascoigne presenting his book Hemetes the Heremyte (c.1579) to Elizabeth.

Scott turns for his information to Laneham’s letter and the verses of poet George Gascoign, who wrote and organised festivities designed to go on for a full twenty-one days. The whole region was aroused and, among huge crowds, might well have been John Shakespeare, alderman of Stratford, and his eleven year old son, William. Onlookers stood for days hoping to catch a glimpse of the Queen, and of spectacles which included fireworks, bearbaiting, hunting parties and an elaborate water pageant.

The latter was overwhelmingly theatrical, featuring Triton riding a mermaid, nymphs on floating islands and a mechanical twenty-four foot long dolphin (possibly the precursor of Speilberg’s shark). This beast was benign, however, for Arion, the classical poet and master of the lyre, himself preserved by music-appreciating dolphins, sat astride and sang:

‘a delectabl ditty of a song…compounded of six severall instruments al covert, casting sound from the Dolphin’s belly.’


Image of Arion from Vesalius, 1543

The scene may well be echoed in Twelfth Night when the ship’s captain tells Viola that her brother has survived drowning, riding the waves ‘Like Arion on the dolphin’s back.’ Other striking references appear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream which Elizabeth is thought to have seen acted. An allusion to Leicester’s designs on the Virgin Queen appears in Oberon’s speech:

‘Cupid all armed: a certain aim he took / At a fair vestal throned by the west.’

Like Leicester, however, Cupid misses his mark and the ‘imperial votaress’ passes on ‘in maiden meditation, fancy-free.’

Oberon twice stresses that he is speaking of visual and auditory memories, and the music and fireworks of Kenilworth are evoked in:

‘Since once I sat upon a promontory

And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back

Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath

That the rude sea grew civil at her song,

And certain stars shot madly from their sphere

To hear the sea maid’s music.’

Leicester’s flair for drama and entertainment had important implications for Elizabethan theatre. He was the first to take into his service the group of private players who became ‘Leicester’s Men’. This set a precedent for other companies to seek rich patrons and, to some extent, improved the popular perception of actors who were widely regarded as rogues and vagabonds. In response to a petition from some of his household, he also procured a royal patent allowing them to perform plays. Among the signatories was James Burbage, father of that very Richard who, at the Globe, was the first to create the roles of Hamlet, Macbeth and Coriolanus.

Shakespeare achieved his theatrical effects mainly through the power of words; Leicester via massive capital outlay. He is reckoned to have spent £1000 per day on the ‘princely pleasures’ at Kenilworth leaving himself virtually bankrupt for the rest of his life. If a reasonable annual income at the time was £40, he must have expended some tens of thousands of pounds.

Elizabeth departed the Castle after only nineteen days, still unbetrothed and, according to some stories, in ‘dudgeon.’ What  had gone wrong? We do not know.

It had been the last throw of the marital dice.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant


Wartime Amateur Theatricals in Northampton

My father found this photograph among his father’s papers. Unlabelled, as these things so often are, he only knew that it was probably from the 1930s-1940s in Northampton and shows the cast of an amateur production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with his father among the company.


A small amount of online research revealed more photographs, images of the programme and more details about the production.



The photo shows the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by the Northampton Drama Club in Abington Park in 1945. The production was directed by Osborne Robinson from the Northampton Repertory Company. The Club performed a variety of plays throughout the war including Twelfth Night in 1942 which featured a young Richard Baker, evacuated to Northampton, who later became a television newsreader.

Founded in 1931 as the Northampton Town and County Drama League, the club eventually became the Masque Theatre in 1951 on moving into their new premises. In 1955 they achieved notable success with Cardenio, the first known performance since 1613.

The Masque Theatre continues to flourish and will be presenting Henry V in July 2016. They have an impressive website at with an archive of production photos dating from the 1930s to the present.

Richard Foulkes wrote an article on Shakespeare performances in Northampton, writing mainly about the professional Repertory Theatre, and claimed ‘There was no Shakespeare during the war. The difficulties of assembling a sufficiently large and well-balanced company were too great and with clothing materials rationed it would have been impossible to produce costumes in house.’ (‘A fairly average sort of place: Shakespeare in Northampton 1927-1987’ Shakespeare Survey, 47, 1995).

These photos would suggest otherwise.


Abington Park has two further connections with Shakespeare: the museum in the park is on the site of the manor house which once belonged to Elizabeth Bernard, Shakespeare’s granddaughter, who is buried in the local church. In the eighteenth century the house was owned by John Thursby whose wife Anne was a friend of David Garrick who visited the house and planted a cutting allegedly from Shakespeare’s New Place mulberry tree in the garden in February 1778. The plaque marking the event is now in the Abington Park Museum.

Kate Welch, Information Assistant (and Philostrate’s granddaughter)

Where Are We Now? Exhibition on the Alumni of the Shakespeare Institute

This month’s Library exhibition showcases the careers of some of the Institute’s alumni. They are an eclectic bunch, pursuing a variety of illustrious paths in all corners of the globe including Australia, Japan, South Korea as well as those who have remained closer to home. The exhibition features information written by the individuals themselves on where they are now as well as a selection of the significant body of work that they have produced between them over the years.

Looking at the paths our alumni have taken is of interest for many reasons: it is good to see the many ways in which an academic career can pan out; it is great to see how everyone still maintains their links with the Institute, across the world and across the decades and how they remember it with affection; and of course, it is just lovely to hear again of people we remember ourselves, either as fellow students, colleagues and library users.

For instance, for me, Dong-ha Seo stands out as a fellow student as, back in 2004, we found our ‘Shakespeare feet’ with Drs Wiggins, Jowett , Richardson et al on the now much-missed and late-lamented  MASSACHRE course. So to see pictures of his growing family and to hear where he is now, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Korean Army teaching Shakespeare to English major cadets I found especially interesting. Look forward to your promised visit next year Dong-ha!

Dong ha and the Shakespeare Institute Players

Dong-ha (back-left next to man in hat) and the Shakespeare Institute Players










Pete-OrfordPete Orford (who completed his PhD in 2006 and – I think also features in the photo above along with Don ha and other members of the Shakespeare Institute players) is a great example of how time spent working – and playing – at the Shakespeare Institute can be usefully transferred to other areas of academia. Although now returning to his Shakespearean roots, since leaving the Institute Pete has worked extensively on Charles Dickens, editing several volumes and leading a highly successful  on-line project investigating Dickens last, unfinished novel, The Drood Inquiry. For more information – come and look at the exhibition!

Robert SmallwoodRobert Smallwood has been associated with the Institute since 1963 and is well-known to us library staff if for no other reason than that we are constantly re-shelving his books, including, among others, the six well-thumbed volumes of the Players of Shakespeare. And as editor of the MRHA Style Guide he must surely have made a vital contribution to many a PhD thesis – including my own. However, what I was surprised to learn from the exhibition was his vital role in history of the Shakespeare Institute itself, being a prime instigator in relocating the University of Birmingham’s postgraduate programmes in Shakespeare studies back to Stratford and Mason Croft. At the same time, he petitioned for the building of the new library in the gardens of the Institute, which is of course about to celebrate its 20th Anniversary later this month and we hope he will be here to help us celebrate.

Anyone who provides a cartoon of himself in lieu of a photo, refers to his latest academic rob conkietome as ‘groovy’ and ‘cool’ and whose over-riding memory of his time at the Shakespeare Institute is Marco’s sandwiches has got to be worth meeting. Unfortunately (for us that is), Rob Conkie is in Australia, slightly more than a hop, skip and jump (there must be some kangaroo related pun in there somewhere!) away from Stratford upon Avon, so we have to make do with his book on Shakespeare and Authenticity: The Globe Theatre Project, a chapter on ‘Australian Campus Shakespeare’ in a brand new volume edited by Andrew Hartley, Shakespeare on the University Stage – and of course to the groovy new book Writing Performative Shakespeares to which we look forward with eager anticipation.

Soko TomitaSoko Tomita took two leave of absences from her job in a college in Japan to study at the Shakespeare Institute – once as an MA student and then again, several years later, to undertake her PhD. Overcoming many difficulties, including working away from home, bringing up a young family and adjusting to a new way of approaching the study of literature – as well of course as adjusting to living in a new country – Soko published her first volume of A Bibliographical Catalogue of Italian Books Printed in England 1558–1603 in 2009 and the second volume, covering the period 1603-1642, in 2014.

The final alumnus to feature in this exhibition is Akihiro Yamada, born in 1929 in Nagoya in Japan. He first came to England to study at the Institute in Stratford in 1959 as an MA candidate. Upon completion, he returned to Japan but was back in Birmingham in 1974 to work on his PhD on the plays of George Chapman. In between these two periods at the Institute, Akihiro also spent a year in the United States as a Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where he edited an edition of Chapman’s The Widow’s Tears for the Revels Plays.  Since returning to Japan, he has held three academic posts at Japanese universities, spanning forty seven years. He has published fifteen books on Elizabethan and Jacobean topics in Japanese and English, including editing The First Folio of YamadaShakespeare, a transcription of the extensive contemporary marginalia in a copy of the First Folio now held at Meisei University Library.  Professor Yamada has been a great benefactor to the Shakespeare Institute Library over the years, donating many items including an extensive (and unique) microfilm collection of early English drama. Among the numerous books also gifted from Professor Yamada’s library are some early printed editions, a selection of which are currently on display as part of this exhibition. These valuable treasures include a 1611 edition of Spencer’s Faeirie Queene, a 1700 edition of The Works of Abraham Cowley and a 1725 edition of Alexander Pope’s Odessey of Homer.

All of the former students featured in this exhibition are a wonderful demonstration of the affection in which they hold their years at the Shakespeare Institute and the connections which have been maintained, in some cases, over many decades. For those of us who have not been around for quite so long, it is a great opportunity to learn a little about the history of the study of Shakespeare at the Institute and to put a face to the names that we see so often on the Library shelves. It goes without saying of course, that all of the books mentioned above are held in the Shakespeare Institute Library collections.

Dr Jill Francis, Library Support Assistant



The China Institute & The Shakespeare Institute: guest blog by Prof. Michael Dobson

2015 has been designated a year of Anglo-Chinese cultural dialogue, and it has already seen the Royal Shakespeare Company, with a certain amount of help from the Shakespeare Institute, embarking on a project to produce a new, theatre-friendly translation of the Complete Works into Mandarin; April 2016, the month that sees the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, will see the RSC taking Gregory Doran’s productions of Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V to Beijing and Shanghai; indeed the whole of next year will find the British Council co-ordinating Shakespeare-related events all over the world under the slogan ‘Shakespeare Lives.’ All in all, if a Shakespearean scholar with an interest in the work of the RSC can’t get flown to China by the British Council in 2015 or 2016, he or she should probably give up all hope of it ever happening.

China Dobson posterI was one of the lucky ones, this year, invited to spend the last week before the autumn term touring China to give a series of what are called ‘Smart Talks’ – mildly evangelistic lectures about key aspects of British culture and education, in my case Shakespeare. I was delighted to accept, for a number of reasons. One is that I have cherished a side-interest in the intersections between Shakespeare and China ever since I was a PhD student working on early stage adaptations of the plays, when I first encountered the 1695 semi-opera The Fairy Queen – a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with wonderful music by Purcell, in which the play’s culminating marriages are adorned not by the mechanicals’ performance of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ but by the fairies summoning a spectacular vision of Chinese landscapes and culture, complete with silks, ceramics, and oranges. In the autumn of 1999, moreover, my wife Nicola Watson and I held visitorships at PKU – Peking University, an elite institution sufficiently conservative to have clung to the older English way of spelling the city’s name – and I have tried ever since to keep in touch with the faculty and students we met during that eye-opening and enriching encounter with the city and its intellectuals.

Coriolanus, Beijing People’s Arts Theatre, 2013

Coriolanus, Beijing People’s Arts Theatre, 2013

Since then, Chinese participation in the international Shakespearean theatre has become much more conspicuous. In 2013, for instance, the Beijing People’s Arts Theatre brought their production of Coriolanus to the Edinburgh Festival, an event for which I was commissioned to write a programme note, and I revisited their home city that autumn to teach a guest class on Othello at PKU — at a time when our best man, conveniently, held the post of British Ambassador to China, and thus had a very comfortable prime ministerial suite at his disposal on Guang Hua Lu. In collaboration with my Singapore-based colleague Li-Lan Yong, moreover, I am at present designing an online MA module about recent performances of Shakespeare in China, Japan and Korea, so I was more than happy to have the chance to get over there again.

After contributing a short on-line interview to the British Council’s Voices website sketching some of the themes I would be exploring in my lectures – I reported for duty at the arrivals hall of Beijing airport on the morning of September 20th. In 1999 Nicky and I were among the last arrivals to pass through the small, battered, state-poster-adorned 1950s terminal which Mao and Nixon had known: today the airport buildings, connected by a swish internal rail system, are vast, sweeping, cosmopolitan spaces covered in the usual large shiny advertisements for international brands. In 1999, similarly, Nicky and I stayed at a wonderfully old-fashioned hotel opposite the PKU campus, the Changchungyuan, known as ‘The Intellectuals’ Hotel’, which provided only pot noodles and jasmine tea for sustenance, and which boasted a diagram of its fire escapes labelled in English as ‘Sketch of Urgent Scattered’: in 2015, my British Council organizer Fraser Deas had me driven to the Chaoyang Westin, an almost embarrassingly luxurious American chain hotel near the embassy district. Beijing’s polluted smog, however, turning the clear blue skies through which my flight had passed over Mongolia to a muffled not-exactly-grey, hadn’t changed at all – in fact my first lungfuls on stepping off the airliner, tinged with the same distinctive local nchina8otes of coal, sulphur and charcoal, transported me at once to the city of my first arrival. That jetlagged Sunday afternoon and evening were about the only free time I had for a week, and I spent them with a former PKU student and her family, exploring Chaoyang Park and its fairground attractions, talking with the kite-flyers I was pleased to find still plying their hobby in commercialized, built-up, internationalized post-Olympics Beijing, watching the personal ads and patriotic videos projected on the immense TV screen in the roof of the Place shopping mall, and eating an exceptionally good meal.

Chinese internet company Net Ease

Chinese internet company Net Ease

The Monday offered a more representative glimpse of how the rest of the week would be: in the morning, a drive to the familiar Haidian district, near PKU, to record a video interview for the huge Chinese internet company Net Ease; around lunchtime, a press conference at the hotel, conducted, via a translator, with the Beijing Evening News and representatives of three other local media organizations (as curious about the current state of British education as about Shakespeare); in the afternoon, a drive to Beijing Middle School Number 4 to give a Smart Talk to a packed hall of 14-17 year-olds; and in the evening, a return to PKU to give a paper on Hamlet to Zheng Xiaochang’s Shakespeare seminar group, including PKU graduate and former Institute visiting scholar Jia Xu.

I had long ago heard of Beijing Middle School Number 4, the most academically fierce secondary school in the capital, which according to its proud headmistress Chang Jing sends 100 of its 1400 students to PKU every year, and it did not disappoint: its architectural core is two former French Jesuit secondary school buildings just over the wall from Beihai Park, on the site of what was once the elite training facility of the Imperial Guard, and its ethos retains something of the place’s dual past. In the playground – or rather, exercise area — squads of goose-stepping students were competing to be chosen to take the salute during an impending sports day. As a prologue to my lecture, a fifteen-year-old male student performed Macduff’s speech on learning that his family have been murdered and a fifteen-year-old female student performed Lady Macbeth’s first speech, both of them fearlessly, with absolute commitment, and in near-flawless English.


As the British Council had requested, I rewarded the posers and answerers of questions with small trinkets selected from the gift shops of the RSC and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, in particular pin-on badges displaying short quotations from the plays. At that school I particularly gave out some which bear a phrase from The Tempest, ‘Thought is free’: may their wearers bear it out.
My audience in the evening at PKU were as well-informed and acute as always, but then that is a university which has a reputation for Shakespeare studies going back to the early days of Mandarin translation in the 1900s, and its English literature faculty never forget that in the late 1930s and 1940s it was the workplace of the great Cambridge-educated poet and critic William Empson. (When the Japanese invasion forced the university to abandon its campus and its library and try to teach what it still could in retreat, Empson is said to have typed the whole text of Othello from memory – though the typescript no longer survives to be checked for completeness). Zheng Xiaochang, Jia, one of the RSC’s translation team and I had dinner together in the seminar room itself after the session was over – possibly the best Chinese takeaway I have ever eaten.

Tuesday found Fraser, his colleague Diana and I flying down to the ancient rival of Beijing (‘northern capital’), namely Nanjing (‘southern capital’). Equally steamy and dirty in its atmosphere, and in the business district where we stayed overnight just as generically built-up (this time the skyscraper hotel was a Sheraton), Nanjing’s streets otherwise reminded me less of today’s Beijing than of the one I remembered from 1999, with fewer signs transliterated in pinyin and more bicycles and freight-bearing tricycles holding their own among the encroaching cars. Miles of medieval city wall survive, and there is a Forbidden-City-like palace complex fronting a famously beautiful lake, and temples and pagodas adorn the surrounding mountains, but we were destined to see none of this (nor did I so much as glimpse the Yangtse, save from the incoming ‘plane) – instead we were driven out to Nanjing University’s elegant, tree-planted new out-of-town campus some distance from the city centre. More diplomatic small-talk with deans and faculty; ritual exchanges of gifts; another superb meal (as always, our Chinese hosts were surprised by the visiting Britons’ ability to eat with chopsticks – the existence of a vast worldwide culinary diaspora seems to remain a secret in China itself); and a packed lecture hall of lively undergraduates and faculty to hear my Smart Talk. (These included, incidentally, the promising Shakespeare critic Xing Chen, recently back from Edinburgh, who presented me with a copy of her new book Reconsidering Shakespeare’s Lateness for the Institute library). I managed a swim in the hotel pool before getting to bed, but it’s not the same thing as a classical Chinese lake.

Wednesday: southwards once more, to Guangzhou. Given that Birmingham has an office in Guangzhou I was particularly curious to see the city formerly known as Canton, though my expectations weren’t high – the reports I had heard spoke of an overdeveloped, shapeless industrial conurbation which has supposedly sold its soul to international capitalism. In the event I was pleasantly surprised by a city which, though some of its downtown areas offer as arid an assembly of generic luxury shopping malls as does the Orchard Road district of Singapore (of which the lush vegetation and ubiquitous bougainvillea continually reminded me), has a real swagger and distinctiveness to its china28recent architecture (its skyscrapers somehow add up to a harmonious and imposing skyline, in a way which Beijing’s miscellaneous gigantisms never do) , and which retains a definitely and enjoyably southern atmosphere throughout. In what remained of the afternoon once we had checked into another immense corporate hotel, I took a cab to the silk market, and as the sudden tropical darkness fell I dined in the open air beside the Pearl River (on a local speciality, a superb hot and sour frog soup) before finishing the day with a viewing of the spectacularly-lit skyscrapers from a boat. The Canton Tower – a structure that resembles a giant tulip vase woven in a basketwork of glass and steel – is especially striking: lit in ever-changing combinations of blue and orange and red, it is quite beautiful enough to serve as a modern cathedral or as a monument to art itself, but around its summit all its revolving neon display is currently proclaiming is a series of advertisements, notably for Pantene shampoo.

On Thursday Fraser took me to the British Council’s Guangzhou offices to give another press conference (during which I waxed as lyrical as ever about the life-enhancing charms of Stratford and Edgbaston), and we than had lunch at a nearby restaurant, the menu chosen by the Council’s local driver. I passed the initial test of eating chicken feet with chopsticks (they were excellent), and all relaxed, and we were then told at great length about how the Cantonese way of preparing goose is self-evidently preferable to any possible recipe for Peking duck. After that, it was time to head out to Guangdong Foreign Studies University for the last of my lectures – this one prefaced by a formal session of diplomatic small-talk with the head of the university, in a magnificent reception room adorned with paintings and draperies.


One reason for this particularly marked welcome (at a university, founded by decree of Zhou En Lai, which trains future diplomats and others in over 20 different languages, a sort of Chinese counterpart to SOAS) was the presence of Duncan Lees, a distance learning student of the Shakespeare Institute who is an assistant professor at GFSU and a conspicuously inventive teacher of Shakespeare. In the few minutes that remained before I was due on stage Duncan showed me the university’s cherished statue of Shakespeare. It stands on the edge of jungle, among a canon of other state-approved artistic and philosophical worthies: Marx, Tolstoy, Confucius, Lu Xun, Beethoven – an intriguing counterpart to the more familiar pantheon of colleagues who flank Shakespeare above the main door of the Aston Webb building.

My horoscope in the China Daily that morning urged me to ‘undertake travel, and attend cultural events, for the more your own mind is enriched the more you will have to share with others,’ so though frustrated in my desire to see some Cantonese opera while in Guangzhou (apparently it mainly happens in the afternoons, when I wasn’t free) I happily accepted Fraser’s suggestion that he should put his fluency in at least Mandarin if not Cantonese at my disposal on an excursion to anything historical or cultural which I might fancy that night. I chose the Liurong Temple, with its celebrated Pagoda of the Six Banyans (1097), near which a taxi duly deposited us well after dark. The intricate surrounding streets and alleyways looked suspiciously like the venues for confrontations with gangs of pirates in a martial arts movie, but fortunately the locals we met during our protracted wanderings in search of the well-screened monument (especially a tailor, who drew an elaborate map) were universally friendly (unless you count the large rat we encountered near a fruit stall). When we finally found the temple gates they had been closed to the public for hours, but despite a disapproving Buddhist monk making a mobile-phone call in the background Fraser managed to persuade a guard to let us far enough inside at least to see the dim pagoda looming through the darkness between its sacred trees. Local culture that evening otherwise consisted of another excellent fish restaurant by the river.
I parted from the British Council on Friday morning at Guangzhou’s main railway station, and went through the surprisingly elaborate border procedures which nearly twenty years on from the 1997 handover are still required for anyone passing from the rest of China into Hong Kong.

Indeed, on arriving at Kowloon three hours to the south I not only had to deposit my suitcase in left luggage, but had to change my remaining Chinese yuan into Hong Kong dollars (discovering in the process, incidentally, that one of my 100 yuan notes, worth about £10, was a forgery, symptom of an increasingly widespread problem in the Chinese economy). I had an engagement to give a PhD supervision in the early evening to Miriam Lau, a split-site Shakespeare Institute student who works at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and is writing a thesis about Shakespearean performance in Hong Kong and its cultural valences since 1997, but I did manage take the Star Ferry across the harbour and the sometimes near-vertical Peak Tram to the island’s summit to admire miriamthe view before returning to Kowloon to see Miriam.
After our supervision there was just time for her to show me the arcade of wedding-accessory stalls she had patronized while making the preparations for her wedding last year (an event which for her had involved at least 3 entire outfits), and to share some street food as the garish neon lights lit up around us, before I took a cab to the airport to catch the 11.05pm British Airways flight back to London.
One last minor observation. Hours after my arrival home, it would be simultaneously the first day of term, my birthday, and the Chinese mid-autumn moon festival, so in order to mark this convergence – and a lunar eclipse to boot – I took a great deal of advice and stocked up, before my departure, on what I was assured were the best moon-cakes Hong Kong could provide. These are from the Kee Wah bakery, but they weren’t the brand I had seen advertised most conspicuously during the week, from Beijing through Nanjing and Guangzhou right down to Hong Kong itself. When Nicky and I first visited Beijing, in 1999, seven years after we had first tasted what was then a local brand of coffee during a visit to some friends in Seattle, the city had just seen the opening of China’s first branch of Starbucks. In 2015 the country which when I was growing up was filling TV newchina38s bulletins with images of the Cultural Revolution, and which is still a one-party communist state committed to a militantly secular materialism, is full of branches of a capitalist coffee-shop chain, all of them offering to adorn the ancient religious festival of the autumn moon with Starbucks’ own-brand moon-cakes.
Present-day China is palpably hungry for the jewel in the British Council’s crown, Shakespeare – international, exotically western in origin, but adaptable to local theatrical and cultural preferences – but its audiences seem to want American coffee in their theatre foyers too.

Prof. Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute