Oxford is marking the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death with an eclectic line-up of events including arias, magic, poetry and hip hop performances throughout 2016
King Lear performed at Blackwell's Norrington Room this month
By Matt Pickles
‘Though know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.’
So wrote William Shakespeare in Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2. Shakespeare himself may have long since ‘passed through nature to eternity’, but he has not been forgotten.
This year is the 400th anniversary of his death and it is being marked in Oxford by a busy programme of events between March and December. Shakespeare’s life, work and legacy will be celebrated with performances, talks, exhibitions, concerts, conferences, film showings, poetry and youth projects.
Much Ado About Nothing in Clarendon Square
Shakespeare Oxford 2016 has been organised by a consortium of the Bodleian Libraries, the English Faculty, Oxford University Press, Blackwell’s and Experience Oxfordshire. They are being supported by cultural organisations across the city including the Oxford Playhouse, Oxfordshire County Council Libraries and SJE Arts (which is based at St Stephen’s House, a Permanent Private Hall of the University).
One of the centrepieces of the festival will be a major exhibition called ‘Shakespeare’s Dead’, which will be held in the Weston Library from 23 April to 4 September. The exhibition is being curated by Dr Emma Smith and Professor Simon Palfrey of the University’s English Faculty. ‘We hope this will be a centrepiece of a lot of creative and scholarly events across the city celebrating the 400th anniversary,’ says Dr Smith. ‘The exhibition uses the Bodleian’s collections to suggest a Shakespeare whose ideas about death always have an edge of playfulness, a paradoxical liveliness or life-ishness.’The first folio of Anthony and Cleopatra, held by the Bodleian
Dr Smith is one of a number of English academics who will give talks on Shakespeare and death during the year. The first will be by Dr Bart Van Es on 2 March in the Weston Library’s lecture theatre. He will make the case that 1594 was the most important year in Shakespeare’s life because it is when he bought a share in an acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. ‘1594 made Shakespeare rich, artistically independent, and – most important of all – it changed his writing style because he shifted from working freelance to working with a known group of actors (a set of individuals who each become a long-term influence on characterisation in his plays),’ he notes.
The ‘Speak the Speech’ series will also feature Sir Jonathan Bate, Provost of Worcester College and a Shakespeare expert, who will discuss ‘Shakespeare and magic’. Dr Emma Smith will explain how Shakespeare’s death has been memorialised and Professor Peter McCullough will discuss funeral sermons in Shakespeare’s time. Professor Steven Gunn of the History Faculty will also talk about everyday death in Shakespeare’s England.
Creation Theatre's production of King Lear, part of Shakespeare Oxford 2016
Other activities happening around the University include a free family trail at the Ashmolean Museum on the second and third weekends of March and a conference about Shakespeare’s History Plays at Christ Church from 31 March to 3 April. Oxford University Press will launch a landmark new edition The New Oxford Shakespeare, and special literary events will be held at Blackwell’s.
Elsewhere in the city there will be a two-man performance of Macbeth at the Old Fire Station on 1 March and a concert of arias inspired by Shakespeare at the North Wall Arts Centre on 15 April. There will even be a rendition of Richard II by the Hip Hop Company at the O2 Academy on 29 April.
The festival organisers have set the challenge for the entire canon of Shakespeare's plays to be performed over the year. Some of them will be performed in stunning venues like the University Parks, Wadham Gardens and Oxford Castle. Local schoolchildren have been invited to join the Shakespeare Schools Programme, which includes animation workshops and Shakespeare-themed carnival puppet-making for the Cowley Road Carnival.
‘It’s been fascinating to see the different cultural organisations in Oxford working together to develop a programme and a bid for funding,’ says Dr Smith.
The full programme of events can be found on the Shakespeare Oxford 2016 website: shakespeareoxford2016.co.uk
This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of Blueprint, the University of Oxford staff magazine (www.ox.ac.uk/blueprint)
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All images © Richard Budd 2016 (www.richardbudd.co.uk), Oxford University Images