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'Proud Shakespeare’ and the LGBTQ+ Lived Experience

SBT Archivist and OUTing the Past Festival presenter Jim Ranahan introduces us to the Trust’s ‘Proud Shakespeare’ initiative.

Jim Ranahan

‘Proud Shakespeare’ is an integral part of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion for our workforce, volunteers and service users. Our ethos is focused on reflecting, celebrating and sharing the lived experience of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans people, both contemporary and historic. We recognise that facing the challenges of today includes understanding and highlighting the injustice and marginalisation previously endured, whose legacy unfortunately persists.

Our contacts within the local LGBTQ+ community stress the key role of collections in providing self-education and a sense of identity over time. Even in the Internet Age, direct access to affordable, high quality reference material remains important and SBT Collections are well placed to support researchers – including those whose primary interest is not Shakespeare. We stock books addressing Queerness identified or implied in the Works of Shakespeare, and we hold literary re-interpretations framed by wider developments in Queer Studies. We make this material available to all, enabling local people to access current LGBTQ+ research, supporting those who wish to extend their engagement beyond the stock held in public libraries, but who do not have access to university libraries.

LGBTQ+ contacts have also highlighted a need to have their contribution to local life recognised, including civic, cultural and social activities in Stratford. Our collections are well placed to support this, as we hold museum objects and records from Shakespeare’s time to the present day. These collections reflect the lived experience of people and can often be re-interpreted to reflect diverse lives. Often, such experience is masked or unrecognised in the collections and as with academic re-interpretation of the Works of Shakespeare referred to above, ‘Proud Shakespeare’ encourages a reconsideration of collections within a Queer analytical framework.

A black and white photograph of a lady in a hat, inside a conservatory filled with plants.
Marie Corelli at Mason Croft c.1910 – (DR777/146)

An example is provided by Augusta Long’s autograph album (1906 – 1927), which contains entries for Marie Corelli and for Bertha Vyver and Arthur Severn. Corelli was a noted Stratford resident, an author and an advocate for the heritage of Shakespeare’s town. She has also been linked romantically but obliquely, at different times with Vyver and Severn. Whilst the autograph album (compiled by Corelli’s housekeeper) does not shed direct light on Corelli’s supposed relationships, it provides a convenient platform to engage researchers with possibilities for researching a possible ‘hidden history’. Such activity is important both for the specific case examined, and as a template for research approaches for people less prominently featured in the historic record than Marie Corelli, but who may have equally poignant hidden histories.

In addition to exploring existing collections, ‘Proud Shakespeare’ engages in contemporary collecting, to ensure that today’s LGBTQ+ experiences do not remain hidden as they enter the historical record. Such collecting is sometimes formal, as with Nancy Meckler’s 2013 production of ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’ for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Addressing suppression of homosexual identity, records of this and other RSC productions held in our collections provide practical insights to communicating LGBTQ+ concerns within cultural activities. Formal collecting of such records provides a strong resource to chart changing attitudes towards, and opportunities for exploration of, LGBTQ+ concerns and experiences – again available to all researchers including those without a direct interest in theatre studies.

We are mindful however that such formal collecting occurs within a supportive, nationally recognised cultural framework, and is not directly reflective of the lived experience encountered beyond that environment. Events locally confirm that prejudice and worse remains: LGBTQ+ people being abused in Stratford’s Rother Street Market in March 2018, and over 100 instances of verbal abuse being reported by members of Warwickshire Pride that month. This acted as a catalyst for ‘Proud Shakespeare’, with community contemporary collecting as a central element. We seek to reflect experiences of Stratford residents, many of whom are employees of, volunteers with or visitors to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Jim Ranahan will discuss more about the Trust’s contemporary collecting activities in a presentation for OUTing the Past Festival, on 17th February. For information on this presentation and how to book your tickets, click here.

Further 'Proud Shakespeare' blogs, which introduce aspects of the Trust's work with and in support of the LGBTQ+ community, will be published here throughout LGBT History Month 2022.