One of the most common phrases you’re likely to hear when Shakespeare crops up in a discussion is: “his work is still so relevant to a contemporary audience” and our undergraduate English students studying on the ‘Discovering Shakespeare’ module spent the day in Stratford-upon-Avon finding out why. 

The day started off at the Shakespeare Institute with Professor Tiffany Stern, whose passion is… Shakespeare tat. The less relevance the tat has to the writer himself, the more Professor Stern is interested in it and she is the proud owner of Shakespeare slippers; a Shakespeare acrobat and a Shakespeare shaped pin-badge emblazoned with the words ‘will power’, a phrase the man himself never said nor wrote down.

Professor Stern attributes Stratford souvenirs all the way back to the 18th century Shakespearean actor David Garrick and the Stratford Jubilee. A poor market town, unsurprisingly Stratford wanted to cash in on their famous past resident and they flattered the rather susceptible-to-adulation Garrick with a statue of himself in their Town Hall, which you can still see today. It would appear Garrick was an early adopter of branding and advertising (you get the feeling if social media was a thing in his day, he’d definitely be an influencer!) and he decided a statue of himself was a good enough reason to put on a Jubilee in honour of Shakespeare, complete with many mementoes visitors could purchase on the day. One such keepsake included mulberry flavoured gin, apparently infused with the berries from the very mulberry tree found in Shakespeare’s garden, which was allegedly planted by the Bard himself. You can still buy this type of gin today, using the berries from trees grown from cuttings from the original tree and so the Stratford souvenir tradition continues… 

Professor Stern delivers a talk in front of a screen
Students laughing in a group setting

Sarah Lovsey, the Retail Development Manager for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), explained that why people buy knick-knacks and what they purchase hasn’t really changed since the Stratford Jubilee, only the style has. She believes people want to be able to say they’ve been to Stratford and let people know they like such an inspirational figure as Shakespeare, only now, rather than buying pin-cushions and plates inscribed with famous lines from Shakespeare’s plays, they buy phone-cases and t-shirts instead. Lovsey went on to say that some of the RSC’s bestselling items include Deadpool; Manga; Star Wars and Klingon versions of the plays of Shakespeare and she feels this is no bad thing, because “if selling these items means some people access Shakespeare for the first time and go on to seek the original material, the RSC has done its job, making Shakespeare available for all”.              

The workshop in circular seating on the stage of the theatre

The afternoon moved to the RSC itself and students got to take part in a workshop with playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero, before seeing her new play The Whip in the evening. Romero set them the task of writing monologues from the point of view of various characters from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Stimulated by their surroundings and Romero’s words, “the blank page is a frightening place, but when you go there and see it filling up, it’s empowering”, each student took to the RSC stage and performed their own penned monologues, just like Shakespeare and Garrick before them.

Speaking of the trip, module leader Dr Toria Johnson said it “invited students to take a broad and creative view on what it means to study Shakespeare in the 21st century. Our time in Stratford helped students to see Shakespeare’s impact beyond the classroom and to better understand the University’s partnerships with institutions like the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Students received unprecedented access to Shakespeare experts working in all sectors – education, theatre, and heritage culture”.   

Students on stage closely read the text

BA English student Erica Levett said “my favourite part of the day was having the opportunity to take part in a writing workshop with the writer Juliet Gilkes Romero. We had the chance to write with her guidance on the RSC stage, which was so inspiring! In writing creatively from the perspective of one of the characters from Henry VIII (the play we are currently studying), we were able to develop a greater understanding of the play beyond a superficial approach. We also had informative talks about the merchandise and tourism aspects of Shakespeare, key ideas in our upcoming assessment”.

Juliet Gilkes Romero talks to students in a workshop
Studetns in discussion
Students writing and laughing
A student's written notes
Two speakers address the group

Photographs - Victoria Beddoes. Text - Samantha Allen-Swingler