Shakespeare's lasting legacy

By connecting teachers, students and the wider community with William Shakespeare’s works, UQ researchers are ensuring his important lessons continue to have an extraordinary impact on future generations.

William Shakespeare died more than 400 years ago – yet his impact continues to be felt around the world today, in more ways than one.

Regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time, Shakespeare’s works have influenced many facets of modern life, from theatre and film to literature, philosophy and even the English language itself.

But according to Professor Peter Holbrook, Shakespeare’s biggest – and most important – impact lies not in his works themselves, but in their ability to hone citizens’ capacity for reflection and critical judgement – qualities he says are vital for building robust democracies.

“Complex literary texts such as Shakespeare’s plays are intellectually important – they’re things to think with,” Professor Holbrook says.

“By engaging with challenging literature such as Shakespeare’s plays and poems, we become literate citizens capable of more complex thought and discussion, and stronger critical thinkers – all crucial skills in a healthy democratic society.

“Moreover, many people feel that the themes and topics of the plays – for example power and ruling class tyranny – are still relevant to contemporary ethical and political reflection.”

Since 2012, an extensive outreach program directed by Professor Holbrook through the UQ Node of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions has helped connect more than 6000 secondary school students and over 1.5 million media consumers with important literary works, with a particular focus on Shakespeare.

Activities have included public engagement events demonstrating the contemporary relevance of past literary works to people today; collaborations with Queensland’s premier artistic and cultural organisations; and the staging of high-quality exhibitions, film screenings, and talks.

But Professor Holbrook says it’s the program’s support of teachers that is key to ensuring Shakespeare’s legacy lives on for future generations.

“Advanced literacy does not just happen”, Professor Holbrook says.

“It requires wise institutional nurturing, and therefore we need to give teachers the right material to enable them to deepen their teaching practice.”

To help enrich the teaching of Shakespeare in schools, UQ has delivered a series of workshops to connect secondary school teachers with eminent Shakespeare scholars from across the world.

These workshops focus on communicating up-to-date Shakespeare scholarship and explaining its relevance to the secondary school classroom, which Professor Holbrook says helps bring Shakespeare’s works to teachers in a “living way”.

“Our aim is to bring a high level of scholarship into the teaching experience by giving teachers the opportunity to learn from eminent Australian and international academics, who represent some of the best current thinking on Shakespeare,” he says.

He says nurturing teachers ensures they can help bring Shakespeare to life for their students.

“Students need teachers who are passionate about Shakespeare’s plays. A particular need is helping students come to terms with the language of Shakespeare’s period, which is often unfamiliar to us today.

“If we want young people to be able to use their own language with precision, grace, and clarity, we are going to have to ensure that they are effectively and creatively taught those writers pre-eminent in eloquence and imaginative and intellectual power – of whom Shakespeare is one.”

To date, the workshops have reached teachers from more than 30 schools.

Mr Gary Collins, former President of the English Teachers’ Association of Queensland, says the workshops benefit both teachers and students.

“The exposure to cutting-edge scholarship about Shakespeare and related topics has considerable potential to enrich and re-invigorate the work that high school English teachers do with their own students,” Mr Collins says.

“The ongoing link with academia represented by these events provides significant support to the education of young Queenslanders.”

The Delighted Spirit: Shakespeare at UQ

In addition to its work in schools, in 2016 the Centre for the History of Emotions developed a comprehensive series of events called The Delighted Spirit: Shakespeare at UQ to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

The Delighted Spirit: Shakespeare at UQ event at the Fryer Library

Almost all events in the series were intended for a non-specialist audience, including students, high school teachers, and the general public. Events included public lectures, symposia, a rare book exhibition at the Fryer Library, music concerts, professional development workshops, as well as media engagement and public commentary.

Professor Holbrook says the series tried to promote the ideal of cultural democracy, that is, a culture in which the general public feels it can engage freely and meaningfully with great writers like Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare has always been a playwright for everyday folk,” Professor Holbrook says.

“His plays have something for everyone and, in a way, sharing his legacy helps to support this idea of cultural democracy – a society in which anyone can access the work of significant authors.

The Delighted Spirit: Shakespeare at UQ event at the Fryer Library

“One of our main aims in the series was to show that Shakespeare’s plays have a continued vitality and are a source of new creativity – that they give themselves to us to use today.”

ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (UQ Node)

The Shakespeare engagement project started through the establishment of the ARC’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (UQ Node) in 2011.

This nation-wide collaborative research project aims to describe and investigate how emotions are represented and understood in European culture from medieval times through to the late 18th century. Research topics include the role of emotion in the history of this period and how emotions are represented in literature, including in the works of Shakespeare.

The UQ Node's public engagement work has been led by two Education and Outreach Officers: initially Penny Boys, and then, from 2015, Xanthe Ashburner.

Guests listening to a panel discussion at The Delighted Spirit: Shakespeare UQ event at the Fryer Library

The Delighted Spirit: Shakespeare at UQ event at the Fryer Library

The Delighted Spirit: Shakespeare at UQ event at the Fryer Library

The Delighted Spirit: Shakespeare UQ event at the Fryer Library

The Delighted Spirit: Shakespeare at UQ event at the Fryer Library

The Delighted Spirit: Shakespeare at UQ event at the Fryer Library

UQ’s long history of supporting the study of Shakespeare

1911: Hermiene Ulrich, UQ’s first lecturer in Literature (and UQ’s first female lecturer), begins teaching Shakespeare. The course included Henry V, Twelfth Night, King Lear, and The Tempest.

1936: Professor JJ Stable edits Julius Caesar for the Australian Students’ Shakespeare series, published by Oxford University Press.

2006: Under the leadership of Professor Richard Fotheringham and Associate Professor Lloyd Davis, UQ hosts the 8th World Shakespeare Congress, a major international event bringing together Shakespeare scholars with theatre practitioners, teachers, and enthusiasts.

2006: The annual Lloyd Davis Memorial Visiting Professorship in Shakespeare Studies is established.

2010: Professor Holbrook publishes, with Cambridge University Press, Shakespeare's Individualism, a study of Shakespeare’s importance to various 19th and early 20th century advocates of individual freedom.

2011: The ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (UQ Node) is established.

2012: The professional development workshop/lecture series for high school teachers begins.

2015: Professor Holbrook publishes with Bloomsbury the book English Renaissance Tragedy: Ideas of Freedom, which explores themes of equality and freedom in the drama of the period.

2016: UQ celebrates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a public engagement series of events called The Delighted Spirit: Shakespeare at UQ.

2016: Professor Holbrook and Paul Edmondson co-edit a book for Bloomsbury called Shakespeare’s Creative Legacies: Artists, Writers, Performers, and Readers, which explores Shakespeare’s impact on a range of art forms.

Professor Peter Holbrook

Professor Peter Holbrook

Contact details:

Professor Peter Holbrook

Professor Peter Holbrook, School of Communication and Arts 
Phone: +61 7 336 53215

Read more about how UQ researchers are making an impact.