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400 years of the Bard


It seems remarkable that one man’s legacy can have 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. We all have verses, quotes and lines of prose that we hold dear. For each of us, his or her own bard.

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.

The AHRC funds work that offers results outside of a university setting by 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.

“I think that what Shakespeare encapsulates for us is the value of our literary and cultural heritage,” says AHRC CEO, Professor Andrew Thompson. “If, as individuals, we didn’t have a memory we wouldn’t function as people. History and heritage are to society as memory is to an individual. Without them, we’re adrift. Shakespeare’s plays, like so much of the best of our nation’s cultural life, show not only who we are, but they also point us to where we might be going and what we might become.”

Over the years, the AHRC has funded Shakespeare-related research in many areas and 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, language or how his work relates to black or Asian actors and audiences.

“What our research does is to affirm and explain the ways in which Shakespeare is a mirror for British culture,” says Professor Thompson. “Shakespeare’s plays reflect changes in British society; and they reflect the political issues and ideologies of the time. What comes across very strongly from all of the projects we have funded is the extraordinarily evocative and persuasive power of language and Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to articulate things with a precision, clarity, wit and poignancy, such that his words have lodged in our minds and stay with us.”

Whilst the AHRC has an international impact and can drive research goals globally, it is also important for Professor Thompson that it shapes academic and cultural understanding in the UK.

“Fundamentally, it ought to be about how a piece of research changes thinking about a subject,” says Professor Thompson.

“We capture that value in the quality of published work and peer appraisal of that work. Beyond the academy there are different ways of measuring that value, among them we find that the personal testimony of our partner organisations is one of the more powerful. Rather than claiming an impact for ourselves we listen to our partners in theatres, galleries, museums, schools or libraries and others who benefit from our research, as these are the people who can help us to articulate what that value is for wider society.”

While it is easy to reflect upon the great work already done by the AHRC, the organisation as a whole always has an eye on the future. AHRC-funded research on Shakespeare may delve into the past, but grants are awarded to help academics move forward via new engagement with the work and the world around them. By the time we are marking 400 years since the passing of Shakespeare we will have countless new performances, encyclopaedias and new understandings of the work of our most famous playwright, the world he inhabited and the world we inhabit now.

“We think that wider engagement of society with culture is important and very fundamental to being a reflective society, to being engaged citizens, to being a mature democracy and to knowing and understanding our place in the world.”


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