The University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute is an internationally-renowned centre for the study of the works of William Shakespeare and his Renaissance contemporaries.
Founded in 1951, the Institute cemented the University’s commitment to exploring the works of Shakespeare, one of the region’s most famous residents. Locating it in Stratford-upon-Avon, the town that Shakespeare called home, was a conscious decision by the University to place this specialist academic unit in dialogue with Stratford’s Shakespearean theatres and heritage.
Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute, says of the department: ‘The energy generated by researchers, scholars and students coming together to explore and celebrate Shakespeare and his works creates an extraordinary atmosphere at the Institute. In addition, being based in Stratford at the heart of all things Shakespearean is of enormous benefit to the Institute, enabling us to maintain close relationships with our neighbours the RSC and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.’
This year the world will commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death via a series of celebratory events and special performances. It’s also an exciting year for the Institute itself; academics from the Institute are at the centre of the anniversary festivities, the University is a co-host of the World Shakespeare Congress, and is entering a five-year collaboration with the RSC.
Discover more about the Institute and its work in this anniversary year…
The works of Shakespeare have heavily influenced the English language but they have also been translated into more than 100 languages, from German to Urdu and even Klingon. With the global reach of his works it is unsurprising that the Institute attracts researchers and students from around the world, adding to its vibrant community.
Yunyan Lin, a researcher visiting the Institute from China, is using a Mandarin translation of Romeo and Juliet to examine the cultural history of China; by understanding how Shakespeare’s work is adapted and presented, she says that we can learn a lot about a society. Yunyan also believes that it is important for Shakespeare’s works to be open to the world: ‘The more times a work is translated and interpreted the longer its life; without continued investigation a piece will die and be confined to the past.’
This year, as co-hosts of the World Shakespeare Congress, the Institute will be welcoming scholars from across the globe. Taking place in Stratford and then London, the Congress will offer unequalled opportunities to engage with Shakespeare’s works and develop international collaborations.
The Shakespeare Institute’s Library holds a wealth of material including critical evaluation, copies of film and recorded theatre productions, literary texts, newspaper cuttings, rare books, annotated scripts and actors’ notes. The overwhelming number of entries in the collection, currently totalling more than 60,000 volumes, offers a comprehensive array of rich material for those studying the works of Shakespeare and other renaissance drama. This facility is not only utilised by those researching the written works but also those exploring different adaptations produced for the stage and screen.
The Institute is currently exploring ways in which sections of the extensive collection can be digitised to make them accessible to all. Digitisation opens up unique collections to the public and wider research community, helping shed new light on Shakespeare and his works.
Take a look at some of the items held in the collection in the gallery below.
Shakespeare Institute Library
The First Folio
The First Folio, formally titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, was the first comprehensive printed collection of Shakespeare’s plays. Published in 1623, seven years after his death, the book contains 36 of his plays. Only 18 of them had already been published individually, so without the First Folio we might have lost half of the Shakespeare canon.
The First Folio
Printed on rag paper – pulp made from cotton rags – experts believe that between 500 and 750 copies were produced, and only about 230 survive today. As each copy was individually produced, and pages were proofread and corrected while the book printing was ongoing, the version held in the Cadbury Research Library at the University contains typographical errors that will not be present in other copies. The folio is held in the Cadbury Research Library on campus, as due to its age and value, it requires specialist climate-controlled conditions.
Actors’ Script Collection
This collection includes the work of Samuel West (Hon DLitt, 2014) and Jasper Britton in major Shakespeare roles. The notes are of particular interest to those studying the performance aspect of Shakespeare’s works and to fellow actors hoping to understand the inspiration behind individual representations of characters. Sam West’s contribution includes detailed notes on his portrayal of Hamlet in 2001 for the RSC.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre Archive
The Archive comprises items dating from the 1960s such as prompt books, programmes, posters, production photographs, costume and set designs, ground plans and music scores. Regent's Park was the most significant outdoor space for Shakespeare in performance until the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe in 1997.
Russell Jackson Collection
The University’s Professor Russell Jackson is a textual advisor to Sir Kenneth Branagh (Hon DLitt, 2001) and others working on Shakespeare in film and on stage. The Collection contains the scripts for all of Branagh's Shakespeare cinematic output and other significant Shakespeare related films such as Shakespeare in Love. The files contain press and publicity material, storyboards and detailed notes, including filming schedules and memos from director to textual advisor.
The Faerie Queen: The shepheards calendar, together with the other works of England's Arch-poët Edm. Spenser. Collected into one volume, and carefully corrected. Published by H. L. for Mathew Lownes in 1611.
This rare book is an early folio of works by 16th century writer Edmund Spenser, called ‘the prince of poets in his time’ on his tomb in Westminster Abbey, whose chivalric epic The Faerie Queene was dedicated to Elizabeth I. He is considered as one of the premier craftsmen of Modern English in its early forms.
Painting of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud
Also in the Institute’s possession and hung on a wall at the front of the Hall is a painting of the Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I of England, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun.
The painting is dated to 1600 during the time that the Ambassador was at Queen Elizabeth’s court. Dr Erin Sullivan (MA Shakespeare Studies, 2005), Senior Lecturer at the Shakespeare Institute said: ‘Not only is the painting valuable to historians, it is of interest to those studying Shakespeare, as the Ambassador is considered by some to be the inspiration behind the character Othello.’
The Institute’s close proximity to the RSC encourages the development of joint projects and an opportunity to harness the intellectual and creative capital available in Stratford. This year the University entered an exciting five-year collaboration with the RSC. The pioneering project will see the reinstatement of the iconic studio theatre, The Other Place, a hub for cutting-edge research and creative practice. As a founding partner of The Other Place the University is rooted in the vision of the theatre as a centre for creative and academic exchange.
Students from the University will have access to creative and teaching spaces at The Other Place and be able to work alongside RSC artists and practitioners who will provide input to undergraduate and postgraduate courses. The RSC will have the chance to work closely with the internationally renowned academics based at the Institute. The collaboration will develop a ‘laboratory for theatre artists’ working with scholars and students in creative experiments that stimulate connections between the arts, the academy and society at large.
In this anniversary year the University’s Shakespeare Institute is at the heart of the celebrations through the World Congress and the launch of The Other Place. Building on its own 65 year history the Institute continues to grow, attracting scholars and students with the aim of unlocking new knowledge to share with contemporary audiences and participants in meaningful and relevant ways.