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Birth of Shakespeare (Commemoration)

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014

We are here today to commemorate the birth of a self-taught, self-made, self-created man. A man of many parts: player, poet, grammar school boy made good, entrepreneur, and of course cultural icon. A man who gave Britain a voice before there was a Britain. And a man who gave the world its best and truest account of what it means to be human.

The great 18th century man of letters. Dr Johnson, observed:

“Other poets display cabinets of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and polished unto brightness. Shakespeare opens a mine which contains gold and diamonds in inexhaustible plenty”.

Johnson was right about the extraordinary richness of Shakespeare’s works. Each of us will have a favourite line from the canon, whether

“All the world’s a stage”;

“To be or not to be”;


“This story shall the good man teach his son”.

I would be fascinated to hear which of Shakespeare’s speeches sends a shiver down the Minister’s spine.

Wonderful. I am confident that we shall have an extraordinary, cultured debate.

Shakespeare’s influence on English is not confined to the stage or the heavily annotated academic textbook: his words live and breathe in the language of everyday speech. If people wear their heart upon their sleeve, become a laughing stock, have people in stitches, then, in one fell swoop, simply vanish into thin air, they are quoting Shakespeare. They could also be describing the political career of Godfrey Bloom, but that is another story.

I hope the Minister will agree with me that the bard’s legacy is not only artistic, for as well as Shakespeare the poet, we also have Shakespeare the brand. When the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, visited Britain for two days in 2011, one day was reserved for high-level strategic talks in Whitehall, but the other day, at his own request, was spent in Stratford with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the independent charity created by Act of Parliament to care for the sites associated with Shakespeare’s life. The thought of one of the world’s most powerful men wearing special white gloves so that he could reverently handle a Shakespeare first edition is a striking reminder of just how far Britain’s cultural reach extends.

Indeed, the British Council recently asked young adults in China, India, Germany, Brazil and the United States of America to name a person associated with contemporary British culture; Shakespeare came out top and was most popular in China. This is an important finding, because the recreational industries are one part of the Chinese economy where Britain has a real competitive edge, accounting for 35% of all Chinese imports. Recreation is a relatively small part of the Chinese economy now, but as China rebalances away from Government investment towards domestic consumption, we need to make sure that Britain maintains that dominant position.

Does the Minister recognise that Shakespeare is an incredibly important part of Britain’s image abroad? Does he agree, too, that the Shakespeare brand can be used to promote trade and dialogue with our target markets? I know that some will take issue with the idea of Shakespeare as a brand and at the use of a marketing term to describe such a towering, literary genius, but the bard would have seen no contradiction between art and enterprise. For him, they were one and the same.

j I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. In fact, I nearly called him my hon. Friend, because we get on rather well.

I have no objection to having a Shakespeare brand, although I am a little bit reserved about. It is worrying that, in my work to get children out of the classroom to learn, not enough children from a more economically challenged background are getting into Shakespeare, visiting his birthplace in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency or even learning about Shakespeare at school. Does he agree that that is important and should be mentioned as a concern?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right. I will deal with some of those issues later.

Uniquely among Elizabethan playwrights, Shakespeare owned a stake in the theatre company for which he wrote. Like all good business owners, he invested in the company, in 1608 helping to finance a second theatre in Blackfriars, just across the river from the more famous Globe, and he is still winning business today. Heritage tourism is worth a staggering £26.4 billion to the UK economy, and theatre is worth at least £2.8 billion. Shakespeare is a major part of that story; he is worth £355 million to Stratford alone, bringing in 4.9 million visitors a year to a town of just 26,000. Some 15,000 jobs —that is one job in every eight—in the Stratford and Warwick areas are associated with tourism. In London, Shakespeare’s Globe accounts for 11% of all London theatre-going. I am sure that the Minister will join me in paying tribute to the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Globe and Shakespeare’s England, for their contribution to Britain’s world-class tourism industry.

Shakespeare is far more than just an economic asset. For so many young people, he is their way into the greatness of English literature. His work is studied by half the world’s schoolchildren and here in the United Kingdom is an indispensible part of the national curriculum. Does the Minister agree that the best way to cultivate a lifelong love of Shakespeare is to make him accessible at an early age, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) suggested? Will he join me in congratulating the RSC and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on doing just that? Thanks to Government support, both have brilliant educational outreach programmes.

In March, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust launched Shakespeare week, a national campaign, funded by the Arts Council, to bring Shakespeare to life for 500,000 primary school children. Does the Minister agree that Shakespeare week was a huge success and would he encourage other schools and arts organisations to join the 3,600 already registered for Shakespeare week next year?

Last week, we were privileged to see some of that outreach work on display here in Parliament. William Shakespeare and parliamentary democracy are two of Britain’s greatest gifts to the world, so I was delighted to bring them together for one night. At my invitation, Mr Speaker kindly hosted a special performance of extracts from “Henry IV”, featuring an ensemble cast drawn from seven secondary schools and one college in my constituency, under the direction of the RSC. The young actors were joined by schoolchildren from Bridgetown primary school, ably assisting the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to exhibit some of the most precious artefacts in its collection. Does the Minister agree that this was a truly memorable evening and was he, like me, amazed, moved and humbled by the performance?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will agree with me. This is an important anniversary. Is it getting enough attention from the BBC? The BBC this week is pounding the airwaves, or our ears, with Dylan Thomas on his centenary, whereas John Clare—it is his 150th anniversary this year—has almost no attention at all. I am a great Shakespeare fan and I love Dylan Thomas, but why does the BBC let us all down in this way, so that a great English poet, such as John Clare, is relatively neglected?

The hon. Gentleman has been a champion of John Clare and regularly mentions him in the main Chamber. I would not in any way take away from the work that the BBC is doing on Dylan Thomas, not only because of his importance to our cultural life and its enrichment, but in fear of offending some colleagues in Parliament. I would like to think that what we have been able to do for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is worthy of praise from the Minister. I hope his speech will recognise the wonderful evening that we had in Mr Speaker’s apartments.

Stratford’s most famous son has given this country so much, and I feel it is time we gave something back. In “Henry IV, Part 1”, Prince Hal, referring to his future transformation from dissolute youth to national hero, says:

“If all the year were playing holidays,

To sport would be as tedious as to work;

But when they seldom come, they wish’d-for come.”

There are few occasions when the British people can come together and celebrate what it is that makes them proud to be British: when they seldom come, they wished-for come. What better symbol of Britishness than an English poet who worked for Welsh Tudors and Scottish Stuarts, a man who conquered the globe with a quill pen? My final question to the Minister is: will he support my call to have Shakespeare’s birthday— 23 April, which is St George’s day—officially recognised in the calendar? I have long argued that 23 April should become a bank holiday, but official recognition would be an excellent start. He is our star of poets, the swan of Avon, a man

“not for an age, but for all time”.

I hope Members will join me in wishing William Shakespeare a very happy birthday. He may have died in 1616, but:

“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

I will speak briefly. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) for smiling on my contribution. When I chaired the Children, Schools and Families Committee, I worked very closely with the Shakespeare schools festival, which is a fine institution. I have always celebrated the excellent work it has done, and the fact that it takes Shakespeare into unusual settings. A lot of people get put off Shakespeare because they think it is posh or for the elite. Tickets for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, or to plays in London, can be expensive or difficult to get. We should make Shakespeare accessible to more people in our country. It would be a great shame if Shakespeare was seen as something for an exclusive part of the population. He is the dramatist of the people, and he should have that currency.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that right across our cultural life, we want greater involvement of people in schools, colleges and lifelong learning? I was pulling his leg about John Clare, but I seriously want him celebrated. A little boy—a farm worker’s son who was a farm worker himself—left school at 12 able to read and write and could not stop reading and writing. He wrote more than 1,000 poems, many of them lately discovered lost works that he wrote when he was in the asylum. This is his 150th year, and we should celebrate that, as we should celebrate Dylan Thomas, too.

We have some problems—this is the only demurring I will do in this debate—in the cultural sector. It is relying a little too much on brands and commercial sponsorship. I look sadly at the diminished Arts Council and its work in the regions. Looked at constituency by constituency, so much of arts funding is flowing to only a few constituencies, and so little is flowing to many others.

I thank the hon. Gentleman and you, Mrs Riordan, for allowing that briefing contribution.

It is a delight to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who secured this debate to celebrate the birth of Britain’s, and possibly the world’s, greatest poet and playwright. The question of whether the study of Shakespeare is an elite activity has been debated; given the paucity of representation at today’s debate, I wonder whether debates about Shakespeare are an elite activity—we have four of the leading parliamentarians of our generation in this room—or simply a minority activity. It might, however, be because the debate coincides with lunch. As Shakespeare tells us,

“Unquiet meals make ill digestions”.

I can perhaps understand why those of our colleagues who wish to eat a good lunch have not made today’s debate.

There are so many quotations about Shakespeare that one could use, but I will start with this rather florid one, from the great French novelist Victor Hugo:

“In Shakespeare the birds sing, the bushes are clothed with green, hearts love, souls suffer, the cloud wanders, it is hot, it is cold, night falls, time passes, forests and multitudes speak, the vast eternal dream hovers over all. Sap and blood, all forms of the multiple reality, actions and ideas, man and humanity, the living and the life, solitudes, cities, religions, diamonds and pearls, dung-hills and charnelhouses…all are on Shakespeare and in Shakespeare.”

That is a typically French, florid quotation, but it again shows how Shakespeare speaks to all. I prefer a more pithy English poet, who summed it up:

“The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good—in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”

That quote, of course, came from our great poet, Robert Graves.

It is 450 years since Shakespeare’s birth—almost half a millennium—and it is remarkable that he is as popular today as he has always been, if not more so. His works touch on timeless themes, allowing us to explore complex issues of politics, conflict, discrimination and oppression, and give us insight into the human emotions of love, friendship, rivalry, ambition and greed. Through Shakespeare’s plays, we can forge a greater understanding of one another, and they allow people to explore issues that can be difficult to discuss openly. We have Shakespeare to thank for more than 3,000 words in the English language that are commonplace today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon said, including hot-blooded, new-fangled, and—the word that sums up my hon. Friend—majestic.

I am getting worried as the Minister proceeds with his speech. He is so eloquent and reads Shakespeare so wonderfully. I have heard my constituent Sir Patrick Stewart—he was born in Huddersfield and shares his birthday of 13 July with John Clare—read Shakespeare, but he is nothing compared with the Minister.

I join my hon. Friend in thanking the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who has become an hon. Friend, following that wise intervention. Both my hon. Friends have talked about Shakespeare in schools. I am conscious of the warning from “Richard III”:

“So wise so young, they say, do never live long”,

but thankfully Shakespeare is still widely taught in our schools. The study of his masterpieces allows our children to establish a link with our culture, history, heritage and language. That is why the wise Secretary of State for Education—he reminds me of the quote that “some are born great”—has personally ensured that the importance of Shakespeare’s work continues to be recognised in the new national curriculum starting in September 2014. My speech is becoming slightly more prosaic.

In celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, the Education Secretary, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which already works with more than 400,000 children annually, has distributed the RSC’s Shakespeare toolkits—I am not sure if Shakespeare invented that word—to more than 16,000 state-maintained primary schools. That will bring Shakespeare’s plays to life for countless school children through playful, practical experiences, helping them to understand the language, characters and stories. The Department for Education has provided £500,000 of grant funding over the past two years for the Shakespeare schools festival, which I celebrated with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon in the Speaker’s house. It is the UK’s largest youth drama festival, offering students from all backgrounds the opportunity to perform Shakespeare on the stage.

Does the Minister agree that Shakespeare is at its best when someone trained to read and act it goes into a school and performs it for the children? Any of us who have been to schools can see that, whether the children are tiny or older. There are so many underemployed actors and so many talented young actors in this country that we ought to have a new programme that actually pays them a reasonable fee to go into schools to bring Shakespeare to life this year.

That is an excellent idea. On the back of Teach First, we could have “Recite First”. I will come to discuss my plans for cultural education in the widest sense, because it is important that such programmes marry central Government and grass-roots initiatives. We should try to work with people with a passion for a subject, such as those involved in the Shakespeare schools festival, to deliver the sort of cultural experiences that we all want for as many of our young people as possible.

Having discussed the Royal Shakespeare Company, I want briefly to talk about the Globe theatre, which was set up as a result of the passion of Sam Wanamaker—entirely, funnily enough, with private money, although I believe that its education programme is funded in part by Arts Council England. It welcomes 100,000 students every year—from pre-school children to postgraduate students—to take part in tailored projects and workshops. It is supported by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deutsche Bank, which echoes the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon made about the marriage of arts and enterprise, and demonstrates Shakespeare’s global appeal. The 450th anniversary also saw the launch of the first Shakespeare week, a national annual celebration to inspire primary school children and their families. It aims to give every primary school child in Britain the chance to be inspired by Shakespeare.

My hon. Friend spoke eloquently of Shakespeare’s global appeal. He is the most widely read and studied author in the English language, and his complete works have been translated into more than 90 languages, from Arabic to Zulu. On a recent visit to China—my hon. Friend mentioned the Chinese President’s visit here—I was struck by how revered and celebrated Shakespeare is in that country. Indeed, the Chinese Vice-Minister of Culture, to whom I gave a complete set of the DVDs of Shakespeare’s plays, told me clearly that Shakespeare was not a British playwright, and that he belonged to the world. He was of course making the point that Shakespeare’s legacy is global. It is the case, however, that the wider reach and appreciation of Shakespeare’s work enhances this country’s global reputation and influence, helps us to connect with other countries, and encourages people to study and do business. Shakespeare’s global appeal, again picking up on what my hon. Friend said, has a massive impact on our tourist industry. Eight million visitors head to Shakespeare country every year, helping to support the local Stratford economy and providing many thousands of jobs.

2012-13 was an exceptional year for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is based in my hon. Friend’s constituency, with 1.5 million people from around the world experiencing its work, more than 335,000 of whom were first-time attendees. The company recently broadcast its performance of “Richard II” with David Tennant in cinemas and schools, reaching over 100,000 people, which I gather is the largest ever audience for a single, live performance of a Shakespeare play. In 2013, the Globe theatre welcomed over 600,000 people to its productions, either at Bankside or on tour.

My hon. Friend mentioned the RSC’s huge impact on the local economy, and the hon. Member for Huddersfield spoke about the arts outside London. I inform Members that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is holding an important inquiry on the subject. Arts Council support to organisations outside London is strong, with some 70% of lottery funding going outside London. I will be able to put these points in more detail to the Select Committee when I give evidence, but this debate, while celebrating Shakespeare’s birth, reminds us that one of our top five national performing arts organisations is firmly based outside of London, and continues to thrive by being so based.

Before the Minister concludes, may I propose a challenge? I am part of a group of MPs who are challenging a minimum of 150 MPs to get 150 of their constituents to read 150 poems this year. I hope that the Minister will get involved. The Secretary of State for Education has already agreed to take part, and I hope that other Members will do the same, because it would help to bring the arts and culture to life. Some of those poems will be by Shakespeare, some by Dylan Thomas and, if we are very lucky, some of them might even be by John Clare.

I will certainly pick up on that challenge and will contact as many of my constituents as I can to encourage them to undertake it. I could work with Oxfordshire’s superb library service, which continues to thrive under the stewardship of Oxfordshire county council, to communicate the challenge. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is working with library services up and down the country, because they offer similar schemes, such as the summer reading challenge for children, in which 99% of library authorities participate.

I note that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) has entered the room. As he is one of my oldest friends, I am conscious that, having impressed the hon. Member for Huddersfield, I must impress him, too. He has missed the best bits of my speech, but I will come to my conclusion, sensing the mood of the House.

The bard’s birthday celebrations began in earnest during the week of his birthday with fireworks on the roof of the Royal Shakespeare theatre, and a big birthday bash at the Globe on Bankside, which was attended by nearly 6,000 people, who played pin the ruff on the bard. I happened to be in China at the time, but I marked the occasion at the start of the Shakespeare 450 season at China’s national centre for the performing arts.

Celebrations of this prestigious event are not being limited to his actual birth date. While we have ambitious plans to celebrate the 450th anniversary of his birth, we also want to commemorate in 2016 the 400th anniversary of his death. The two key dates are linked, and the RSC is celebrating with Young Shakespeare Nation. Kicking off with “Richard II”, the RSC will perform every one of Shakespeare’s plays over the next six years, sharing them with audiences up and down the country and internationally, through filmed performances in cinemas and streamed free to classrooms across the UK. Shakespeare’s Globe has begun the world’s most extensive tour of his work: a two-year tour of “Hamlet” will visit every single country on earth—205 at the current count—from 2014 to 2016. The tour will travel across seven continents, taking one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays to many who have never had the chance to experience his great works.

The BBC—the hon. Member for Huddersfield said that it had perhaps let us down, but I do not agree—and the Royal Shakespeare Company will also collaborate on “Dream 16” as they take “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on an epic tour to partner theatres across the UK, with Bottom and his friends played by local amateur companies and Titania’s fairy train by primary school children.

The British Library has reopened its refurbished permanent gallery with a display of some of the greatest treasures from its William Shakespeare collections, including a rare first folio. In recognition of his global appeal, the British Library is also developing a major exhibition in partnership with institutions in the United States, with events, learning programmes, outreach projects and performances on site and across the country. These unprecedented celebrations will bring Shakespeare to life for all to enjoy, whether they are veterans of his works or newcomers discovering the delights of his writing for the first time.

Does the Minister agree that it would be a terrible shame, on this day when we are celebrating Shakespeare and his great heritage in this country—and the brand—if we did not use the full 30 minutes of this little, half-hour debate? Will the Minister perhaps give us a little more of Shakespeare’s poetry in the remaining 90 seconds of this precious debate?

I had thought that we were doing pretty well, as we have only 60 seconds left. I was going to conclude by recognising the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon for a Shakespeare bank holiday. A great many issues have to be taken into account when considering bank holidays, not least the wider cost to the economy and the fact that they are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, but there is no doubt that we should ensure that more attention is paid to the celebrations of the bard’s birthday.

As I reach my peroration and conclusion, I want to say that this year’s celebration of Shakespeare’s life and works is one of the biggest opportunities for us to showcase the strength of Britain’s culture to the world since the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012. It is a fitting commemoration to the bard’s outstanding contribution to the cultural life of this country and around the world. I must say, Mrs Riordan, that I have been under such pressure that I would

“give all my fame for a pot of ale”.