The Shakespeare Legacy
"I’m certainly very open to experimentation"
Knighted this year for services to scholarship, Sir Stanley Wells was once chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – a position he resigned from in 2011 at the age of 80.
“The Trust kindly kept me on as what they call Honorary President,” states the scholar, who is also Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham. “It means that in some ways they get a good deal of kudos, if I may say so.”
The Trust cares for the various sites linked to Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, opening them up to members of the public, and – in the words of the Honorary President – “perpetuating the Shakespeare legacy.” This is something they also strive to achieve “by encouraging educational activities. We have a lot of courses here,” Sir Stanley, who still gives lectures for the Trust, says. “There are education initiatives for every level, and we have a library with major documents and books about Shakespeare.”
A prolific writer about Shakespeare himself, and one well practiced in assessing “what we can learn about his plays by studying them in performance,” Sir Stanley recently published Shakespeare on Page and Stage with Oxford University Press. It’s a collection of his essays, the earliest he wrote when he was a graduate student and the latest he completed a year or two ago.
“Various new theatrical techniques have been employed in producing the plays, experimentally and frequently,” Sir Stanley remarks as we discuss how Shakespeare’s work can find itself performed. “These days the plays are often produced with varying degrees of textual adaptation and updating, which can be very exciting – and can be pretty awful too.”
I enquire after any exciting examples from recent years, and the lecturer points me towards Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, “which uses an abbreviated version of Shakespeare’s text but sets the action during a modern-day war, and does so very successfully. Laying modern images on an ancient text, and seeing the interaction between the two, helps to bring out the abiding values of Shakespeare – the fact that he is concerned with things which continue to be relevant.”
“So you’re in favour of anything that does that, in whatever way, because not everyone is are they?” I say.
“I’m in favour of it if it works,” he replies. “Sometimes it doesn’t come off. But I’m certainly very open to experimentation in the presentation of Shakespeare, and it seems the playwright at the centre of any experimentation isn’t disappearing. “As I wrote in Shakespeare: For All Time,” Sir Stanley says, “Shakespeare ‘is in the water supply’. You can’t get rid of him. He’s embedded in our language and imaginations.”
Sir Stanley Wells is a recent recipient of the British Academy’s President’s Medal for his work on Shakespeare. He is the author of Shakespeare on Page and Stage; Great Shakespeare Actors; and Shakespeare's Tragedies: A Very Short Introduction. All are available from Oxford University Press.
Top Image - Hall's Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna © The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
Below - Sir Stanley Wells
Bottom - Shakespeare’s New Place is now open to visitors. Walk in Shakespeare’s footsteps and meet the man behind the works in a fascinating new exhibition. Discover beautiful gardens and specially-commissioned artworks, such as Jill Berelowitz’s ‘His Mind’s Eye’, as seen here.
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