Greg Doran speaking to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Shakespeare

The university’s Shakespeare Institute has this summer extended its collaboration not just with the Royal Shakespeare Company but with the State. On Monday June 26th the new All Party Parliamentary Group on Shakespeare – the brainchild of UoB English Literature alumnus James Morris, MP, and Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute – staged a special event at the Palace of Westminster to mark the 400th anniversary of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. In the opulently gilded section of the Parliamentary complex known as the Speaker’s House, a cast of distinguished Shakespearean actors (mostly honorary fellows of the Shakespeare Institute – Dame Harriet Walter, Sir Simon Russell Beale, Dame Janet Suzman, Greg Doran, and Daniel Evans, together with outstanding Institute MA alumnus Andrew French) performed the first three acts of Julius Caesar (given the most unkindest cut of all for the occasion by Professor Dobson, who abbreviated it to 30 minutes of playing time), one of the 18 plays which the world might have lost had the First Folio not included its text in 1623.


Michael Dobson speaking

As well as offering all sorts of topical resonances for an audience of MPs, peers and government ministers (joined by important figures from the worlds of Shakespearean scholarship, education and performance), the choice of Julius Caesar reflected Professor Dobson’s long-standing research interest in the connections between Shakespeare and the institutions of nationhood. His work suggests that the first proposal that Britain might have both a subsidized national theatre company and a national curriculum, both of them centred around Shakespeare, was made in an introduction to Julius Caesar published by the critic Francis Gentleman in 1774:

We wish…our senators, as a body, were to bespeak [a performance of Julius Caesar] annually; that each would get most of it by heart; that it should occasionally be performed at both universities, and at every public seminary in these kingdoms; so would the author receive distinguished, well-earned honour; and the public reap, we doubt not, essential service.

As well as partly fulfilling this dream, Monday’s event also allowed Shakespeareans to discuss their concerns about public policy with ministers and shadow ministers, and in their speeches both Morris and Dobson highlighted the range of policy areas in which Shakespeare is involved: international relations (during the event Prof Maya Harbuzyuk of UoB’s partner institution Lviv National University presented Parliament with a Ukrainian puppet of Hamlet, now displayed with the pilot’s helmet given by President Zelensky), education, the arts, racial equality, disability rights (represented on Monday by the Shakespeare Institute’s collaborative project with the RSC ‘Signing Shakespeare’, which seeks to improve Shakespeare teaching for the d/Deaf). It is hoped, moreover, that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Shakespeare will not only inform public policy, but that its activities, and the contact they will further between Shakespeareans and Parliamentarians, will help to improve the quality of our public discourse – the ‘essential service’ envisaged as long ago as 1774 . So far, as the great theatre critic Michael Billington has reported in The Guardian, it has at very least produced an especially memorable performance of Julius Caesar.