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Shakespeare in the Royal Collections


‘Shakespeare in the Royal Collections’ is a three-year AHRC-funded project, launched in September 2018. The team is led by Professor Gordon McMullan of King’s College London, the Principal Investigator, and includes Professor Kate Retford of the History of Art department at Birkbeck as Co-Investigator, and Drs Sally Barnden and Kirsten Tambling as Postdoctoral Research Associates.

Shakespeare and the royal family have long had a close, interdependent relationship. Shakespeare addresses royal history in numerous plays, engagement with Shakespeare’s works has been a consistent element in the biographies of royals since the playwright’s death, and Shakespeare has functioned as a vehicle both for the development of royal ideology and for the education of young royals. A key dimension of this history has been the inclusion of Shakespeare-related items - manuscripts, paintings, prints, drawings, performance records, printed books, photographs and other objects - in the Royal Collections. The number of these items is substantial, but they have, to date, been minimally, and certainly not systematically, researched.


The project seeks to analyse the place of Shakespeare in the Royal Collections by investigating the holdings and the stories they tell. The focus is the mutually enhancing nature of the relationship - the extent to which the idea of monarchy and the role of the royal family in British culture has been legitimated by association with Shakespeare, and how Shakespeare’s cultural status has been entrenched through association with the royal family. The central research question, thus, is twofold: what has Shakespeare done for the royal family, and what has the royal family done for Shakespeare?

In answering these key questions, the project will explore how royal patronage, attendance and participation have influenced Shakespearean performance history and the development of public theatre in Britain; how the deployment of Shakespearean performance has contributed to royal legitimation; how royal performances of Shakespeare and Shakespeare-related art reclaim and re-enact earlier moments in royal history; how the Shakespeare-related materials show the influence of royal patronage on the cultural role and status of Shakespeare; what the materials in the collection reveal about the negotiation of royal identities by way of Shakespearean associations; and how the collection might function as a performance archive.


The project will have a number of outputs:

  • a website, which will provide a publicly accessible database of all the Shakespeare-related holdings in the Royal Collections, as well as 3D visualisations of key spaces at Windsor Castle in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed 
  • a pair of monographs, written by the postdoctoral research associates. One will explore the history of royal engagement with performance of Shakespeare’s plays; the other will focus on art objects in the holdings of the Royal Collectionst, and on the significance of those holdings for an understanding of the Royal Collections as a whole, and of collecting as a cultural practice
  • a collection of essays focusing on a series of individual objects in the Royal Collections, designed to include aspects of the investigation not necessarily addressed as primary material in the two monographs
  • an exhibition of selected items from the Shakespeare-related holdings in the Royal Collections, designed to have a significant impact on visitors’ understanding of the relationship between Shakespeare and the royal family, and on the effects of this relationship on UK cultural history
  • a major TV documentary expressing the results of the project’s investigations, designed for a wide and diverse public.