A Shakespeare Connected exhibition in collaboration with Helen Hopkins, Birmingham City University.
Delving in to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s collections with Germany in mind reveals stories of idolisation, national pride, international friendship, conflict, and negotiation, stories which twist and turn through some of the most significant events in European history. There are twelve key moments in the story I am seeking to tell which, through the Collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, are illustrated by gifts, letters, publications, organisational records, and memorabilia. Here we can find out more about how Shakespeare first became part of the German literary scene, and later a point of communication and a trophy to be fought for through the war years, and beyond.
Germany saw the first translated collection of Shakespeare’s plays (in the 1760s) and was the home of the world's first Shakespeare Society (founded in 1864). It’s an alluring starting point for anyone interested in Shakespeare’s world-wide reputation. This on-line exhibition begins with the earliest German translation held in the SBT’s collection (of 1778) and takes a tour through the Sturm und Drang artistic movement, the establishment of the German Shakespeare Society in Weimar, the long-standing friendship between the Shakespeare Birthplace and the Goethe-Haus, through the tumult of the twentieth century, and up to the 1960’s.
Understandably, the British-German friendship which was built on mutual appreciation of Shakespeare faltered with the outbreak of the First World War. However, the correspondence related in the minute book entry of 5th November 1914 reveals that the lines of communication would not be cut where Shakespeare was concerned. The entry acknowledges that items belonging to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which had been loaned to Leipzig National Library for a special exhibition had been rumoured to have been burned but reports the receipt of assurance that they were being kept in a place of safety. Their survival (and return in 1919) is perhaps an indication of their cultural importance not only to the Board of Trade of London, but to those who kept them safe in Leipzig. Undoubtedly, a collection including a cast of the bust from Shakespeare’s burial place and an array of significant works and translations would have made a fine war trophy, had the war ended differently. But as it was, the trophies of victory were to be held by the allied nations, and in another intriguing minute book entry, it seemed that New Place, Shakespeare’s Stratford home, was suggested as a suitable place to display them. A German machine gun, two ammunition belts and an Austrian entrenching tool were received into the Collections in 1919. Might this have been construed as the Trust ‘thumbing its nose’ at ‘the enemy’?
To find out more about Shakespeare and Germany, including the exclusion of the German flag from the unfurling ceremony at the Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations; Shakespeare and the Third Reich; and the two Shakespeares of the Cold War years, please follow this link.