Interview by Carolina Rosendorn Photos by Emma Wheatley
Do you consider yourself a Shakespeare fan? Why? What do you love about his work? Please feel free to elaborate as much as you want.
PAT REID: “Yes, I do consider myself a Shakespeare fan. One of my reasons for launching Shakespeare Magazine was the recognition that Shakespeare does have fans in the modern sense of the word. Shakespeare – and his body of the work – has fans in the same way that a famous actor or band or football team has fans. You get this with lots of cultural figures from the past, but with Shakespeare the fan energy is equal to all of the others put together.”
“For a fan like me, Shakespeare is endlessly fascinating. Even if I was to focus solely on his life and works, that would keep me occupied forever. But Shakespeare touches on so many things – and so much Shakespeare-related activity has taken place in the centuries since his death – that I’d need multiple lifetimes and several additional brains to even begin to process it all.”
“People often ask me if I ever run out of material for the magazine. The truth is that if I was able to cover all meaningful Shakespeare activity in the world, the magazine would be a thousand pages long – and I’d have to publish a new issue every day.”
“There is definitely a ‘trainspotting’ element to being a Shakespeare fan – being amused by gloriously tacky Shakespeare merchandise or delighted by a knowing reference to Hamlet in the Power Rangers TV show. But what I love about Shakespeare’s work is that it seems to touch on all the important questions of life, and seems to offer suggestions for how to get through it. Shakespeare’s plays are broadly divided into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, and ultimately his works range from hilariously funny to educational to emotionally enriching. You can’t ask for much more from an artist.”
“Not forgetting Shakespeare’s Sonnets and long narrative poems, which are also all of those things. But to give one example of the power of Shakespeare I’ll choose Romeo and Juliet. It’s become quite fashionable to be dismissive of that play, but I remember standing reading it on a London tube station a few years ago, and I had tears running down my face because Shakespeare’s words were just so beautiful.”
Why do you think that people all over the world visit his birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon?
“Whenever you have fandom you always find a kind of quasi-religious element, and Shakespeare has certainly spread around the globe like a religion. So it’s not unusual that people want to make pilgrimages to the shrine, as it were. But even without the Shakespeare connection, Stratford-upon-Avon would still be a lovely place (although perhaps it’s because of the Shakespeare connection that people have fought to preserve its essential loveliness).
“Personally, I love going there. It’s a beautiful and tranquil place. It has quite a magical feel, similar to other historic English towns like York, Bath and Oxford – and it has a certain mystical kinship with ancient sites like Glastonbury, Avebury and Stonehenge. I think a lot of people visit Stratford-upon-Avon because of Shakespeare, but end up falling in love with the place for its own qualities.”
“As a tourist destination, Stratford-upon-Avon seems to run like a well-oiled machine. It’s able to accommodate huge numbers of people without getting too uncomfortable, and thankfully I haven’t noticed the kind of environmental damage you might expect from so much human traffic.”
“For a typical visit with my partner and child, we will drive the 75 miles from Bristol and park in the town centre. We’ll buy a ticket that allows us to visit the Birthplace and other related houses (usually the ticket allows return visits too). At the Birthplace, we’ll ask some of the actors to perform a speech or scene or sonnet for us, and one of the musicians does a splendid version of Titania’s Lullaby from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“Then we walk over to Holy Trinity Church to visit Shakespeare’s tomb and see the famous effigy. Next to the church is the Dell, a pleasant park by the river. In the summer they have open air performances by amateur companies. It’s free, and often highly entertaining. While waiting for the next show, we can hire a rowing boat and enjoy splashing around on the river. This is right next to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and it’s not unusual to see one of the star actors chatting to students on the lawn. Also nearby is The Dirty Duck (it’s a pun on ‘Black Swan’), a legendary pub where the actors go boozing after performances. On a sunny day, with ice-cream in hand, it’s all rather blissful.”
“Stratford-upon-Avon is also an academic centre, with the Shakespeare Centre, the Shakespeare Institute and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s own avenues of research. Once I went to interview the venerable Professor Stanley Wells, who has since been knighted. Afterwards, he took me to the office next door to meet his colleague Paul Edmondson, so I was able to do an impromptu interview with him as well. There are several other Stratford-based academics I’m keen to interview, and the Shakespeare Institute certainly has the aura of being a wonderful place to study.”
“It’s impossible to walk around Stratford-upon-Avon without embarking upon some imaginative speculation about Shakespeare and his life-long relationship with the place. This is a creatively healthy and imaginatively rewarding pursuit, just as long as you don’t confuse your speculation with objective fact.”
“Shakespeare Magazine has readers all over the world, and this has certainly educated me in terms of how different nationalities relate to the English language and England itself. Often, countries that have serious political differences with the UK are home to particularly fervent Shakespeare fans. I’ve concluded that people have a powerful desire to find common ground, and Shakespeare can be an important conduit to that.”
“In this day and age, I have to say that I worry about Stratford-upon-Avon’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack. It would be a nihilistic, self-defeating gesture by the perpetrators, but it would be a tragedy for civilisation.”
Do you think that everyone who does is a true Shakespeare fan? Or is there some kind of myth around his figure that attracts tourists even if they are not familiar with his actual work? I have come across a fair amount of “Shakespeare lovers” who in fact haven’t really read his work – only seen movies like Shakespeare in Love and such…
“I think probably the vast majority of visitors are not true Shakespeare fans, but that’s fine. Most adult visitors have at least some level of genuine interest in Shakespeare, and visiting Stratford-upon-Avon can only increase that. When I went to Hong Kong and visited the ‘Big Buddha’ nobody berated me for not being a true Buddhist, and I still found it an amazing experience. Likewise, I’m delighted that people from China want to visit Shakespeare’s home, and I’m confident most will take away from it something that they find meaningful.”
“Yes, there is definitely a mythic element that attracts tourists even if they have little or no formal experience of Shakespeare. Especially in the English-speaking world, Shakespeare is so embedded in the culture that people often don’t realise they’re ‘speaking Shakespeare’. So Shakespeare’s Birthplace is also the point of origin for vast swathes of our cultural identity. Visitors recognise this and respond to it in different ways – from pleasant surprise to full-scale intellectual epiphany. And importantly, people always seem happy and excited to be there. Stratford-upon-Avon seems to have an inbuilt feelgood factor.”
“Expanding on the mythic idea of Shakespeare… there are, of course, many documented myths relating to Shakespeare and his works, and new ones keep emerging all the time. Part of Stratford-upon-Avon’s attraction is the way it feels like so much mythic energy is focussed in one relatively small and aesthetically-stimulating location.”
“Paul Edmondson says that every day he is irked to hear tourist guides in Stratford-upon-Avon perpetuating certain myths about Shakespeare. But ironically, Paul has himself been reinvestigating other Shakespeare myths, and asking if they might have a grain of substance.”
“Yes, I have also encountered self-proclaimed Shakespeare lovers who actually don’t know much about the subject. I try not to judge them too harshly. There’s an aspirational dimension to it, wishing to be seen as a culturally well-rounded person. I will admit that when I was younger I used to imply that I knew more about Shakespeare than I really did. I know a lot more about Shakespeare now, but I can cheerfully admit there’s a vast, yawning chasm of what I don’t know. For me, Shakespeare is a life-long learning project, and Shakespeare Magazine is a way to help myself and others with that.”
“One thing that really frustrates me is when people share dreadful fake Shakespeare quotes via social media. I wish we could shut down the stupid websites that originate these things, because it’s a form of cultural vandalism. Conversely, I love the meme of the actor Tom Hiddleston looking angry ‘because someone, somewhere is misquoting Shakespeare’.”
If there’s anything you want to add, please feel free to do so? Any insights you might have about Shakespeare as a tourist attraction would be interesting.
“Many of the big engine rooms of Shakespeare study and performance are now situated in North America. And I sometimes suspect that some of those guys are starting to believe that their take on Shakespeare is the real deal, and the version that belongs to England is somehow an inferior version. This is how you get ridiculous situations like a Shakespeare festival in Oregon spending millions of dollars on ‘modern-day translations of Shakespeare’, as if Shakespeare’s actual words constitute some kind of problem that needs to be fixed. I certainly appreciate that geographical distance can inspire valid perspectives on Shakespeare, but it’s insane to think that Stratford-upon-Avon and London can be written out of the equation.”
“There are people in this world who deeply resent the UK because of its colonial legacy – and other, more recent, crimes – but they still love Shakespeare. So it’s strange to see Shakespeare himself apparently falling victim to a form of US cultural imperialism. I should add that, because Shakespeare Magazine has so many US readers and contributors, it’s arguably as much an American publication as it is a British one. The story of Shakespeare in America will never run out of steam, but it’s a story that begins in London and – crucially – Stratford-upon-Avon.”
“I would just like to add that, as tourist attractions go, Stratford-upon-Avon is a pretty great one. There’s loads to see and do, and it’s not too expensive if you plan wisely. There are plenty of London locations with compelling links to Shakespeare, but in Stratford-upon-Avon every inch of the place is connected to the man and his journey from cradle to grave. To stand on the same patch of turf as the greatest Englishman who ever lived is a powerful and precious privilege.”