Skip to main content
Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Great Shakespeareans

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 29

If you were to make a list of the people who have left an enduring imprint on how the world interprets, understands, and receives Shakespeare, who would you choose?

About a decade ago, Peter Holland, the McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare studies at Notre Dame, and Adrian Poole, the former chair in English literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, set out to create a compendium that summed up the work of these influential people. They chose performers, scholars, writers, critics, theater directors, and others.

The final set of books in their opus, an 18-volume reference work called Great Shakespeareans, was released in 2013. In this podcast episode, Peter Holland explains the rationale he and Adrian Poole used to decide just who got to be listed as the world’s great Shakespeareans.

Peter Holland was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published July 29, 2015. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Some Art Born Great, Some Achieve Greatness, And Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon ‘Em,” was produced by Richard Paul and Garland Scott. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Mandy Kinnucan in the Notre Dame Media Relations Department. 

Previous: Shakespeare and The Tabard Inn | Next: Shakespeare Not Stirred


MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

Every theatergoer who sees a Shakespeare play and every scholar whose research touches on some aspect of Shakespeare’s work comes away with his or her own interpretation of Shakespeare. But, in addition, there are people who have shaped the world’s understanding of Shakespeare. They are performers, scholars, writers, critics, theater directors, and others whose work has left an enduring imprint on how Shakespeare is understood and performed.

About 10 years ago, Peter Holland, the McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare studies at Notre Dame, and Adrian Poole, the former chair in English literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, set out to create a compendium that summed up the work of these people. The final set of books in their opus, an 18-volume reference called Great Shakespeareans, was released in 2013.

In this podcast, Peter Holland explains the rationale he and Adrian Poole used to decide just who got to be listed as the world’s great Shakespeareans. We, of course, call this podcast, “Some Are Born Great, Some Achieve Greatness, and Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon ‘Em.”

Peter Holland is interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

SHEIR: So the collection has reached 18 volumes now. Did you ever think it would get this big?

HOLLAND: We knew it would get this big, and this is as big as it gets. The whole idea was to plan something from the beginning. It was originally going to be, oh, a mere 16 volumes, and then, somehow, we grew so hugely to 18. And Adrian Poole, who’s at University of Cambridge, and I were charged with the idea of trying to put this thing together.

SHEIR: Looking back at when the series was born, who did you see it serving?

HOLLAND: We imagined a pretty wide range of students and scholars. We want people, when they are beginning to get interested in someone, “Hey, I’ve heard of this guy John Dryden, I wonder what he knew about Shakespeare,” that they might just go straight to that article and have not just an introduction, but a way of thinking. I mean, I think “introduction” suggests it’s just kind of going over the same old ground. But we wanted to get the very best scholars to approach their subject differently, and I think the crucial difference was when we said, “Look, we are not going to do standard encyclopedia entries of a thousand words and make it a list of, goodness knows how many, hundreds of people. And we’re not going to ask scholars to write what has become the kind of formula length.” So each volume has at most four people being represented in it, and each of those articles is 15 to 20,000 words. And we wanted people to have a chance, as they were thinking and conceiving of how they would approach their particular individual and his or her world, to provide more context. To go deeper into the work in a way that really the standard 5,000 to 6,000, 7,000 word article just really doesn’t let you do.

SHEIR: Let’s talk about what’s inside that collection. Now I know the books are supposed to explore people who have had influence on the interpretation of Shakespeare, the understanding and the reception of Shakespeare. So can you break down your criteria within those categories? For instance, if we’re talking about interpretation, who would qualify as the people who’ve had great influence on the interpretation of William Shakespeare?

HOLLAND: Well, I actually think every single person who we’ve got in these 18 volumes has had an influence locally, nationally, internationally, and over time on how we think of Shakespeare, that we think of Shakespeare through and with them. Be it a great writer and editor like Dr. Johnson, or a great poet and writer like Goethe, or an extraordinary actor like Ellen Terry or Sir Henry Irving, right through to people alive today. Each and every one, be they an actor, a director, a poet, a scholar, a composer, has changed how we think about Shakespeare.

SHEIR: And if we’re talking about people who have had influence in helping the world understand Shakespeare, then, you mentioned that the charting of Shakespeare’s effect is a never-ending task.

HOLLAND: Oh yes.

SHEIR: So as time goes on, does the list of potential for future books get bigger or smaller?

HOLLAND: Well, I think it changes. We’re not going to continue with the series. We feel, after all the labor we put into this, it’s time to take a rest from this particular project. If somebody else wants to take on a supplement, that’s absolutely fine by me. But the world changes and people come and go in it. One of the decisions we took quite early on was that we wouldn’t pick any scholar and critic who was still alive. It was very easy to decide the initial list of who had to be in. We couldn’t imagine completing this without having Dickens or T.S. Eliot or James Joyce or Karl Marx. They all had to be in. But there were one or two who initially, and no, I’m not going to name any names, that we rather thought might have been in, and then somehow, as their careers have developed over the last while, we just thought, perhaps not, perhaps they’re not making the contribution that we once thought they were making.

Are there limitations on what we did? Sure. I think our list inevitably looks very much an Anglophone list. Not just because of who we are, and where people tend to read most about Shakespeare, but also because somehow the history of Shakespeare has been so much driven by the UK and US. And we’ve had to pick other people who have become, if you like, kind of tokens. I’m sorry, that’s how it is. So, for instance, Yukio Ninagawa, the extraordinary Japanese theater director, is somebody who stands for a way of thinking about Japanese Shakespeare, alongside his great compatriot, the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, whose Throne of Blood and Ran, versions of Macbeth and King Lear, have become such iconic examples of how film has changed how we think about Shakespeare. Could we have gone for more? Yes, we certainly could, but then the question would have been, who came out?

SHEIR: Right. You have to draw the line somewhere.

HOLLAND: Just somewhere.

SHEIR: But you say the people who qualify for inclusion are, and I’m quoting here, “individuals whose own cultural impact has been and continues to be powerful.” It seems to me like that may have been an easier thing to keep track of in the past, than it is today. That maybe there used to be more consensus on things like who has this cultural impact. So maybe the answer to that question is more defuse these days?

HOLLAND: Well, unquestionably it is. We used to work in the early part of the 20th century, perhaps through much of the 20th century, with the notion of a simple canon, and indeed many of the writers and performers who are included are obviously canonical. But I think one of the biggest changes in our perception of Shakespeare has been to see Shakespeare more and more as the ultimate global brand, and that means looking far and wide to see how Shakespeare has that peculiar impact in different cultures, and hence, how significant people within a particular culture have changed how we think about Shakespeare.

Think of France, for instance, and the way in which Victor Hugo became such a key figure in French understanding of why Shakespeare might be worth considering, as not just a foreign import, but somebody they wished to possess as their own. And indeed, the way in which that writing and thinking and influence can be established is a very powerful phenomenon.

SHEIR: You begin the book on Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Hardy by saying, “They were the writers who most enduringly attracted the epithet ‘Shakespearean.’” That term seems to be thrown around a lot in the late 20th and early 21st century. If we look at it today, do you think it would be as easy to pick four people who would fall into that category?

HOLLAND: No, I don’t think it would, and that’s partly because distance means that some people surface, and others go under. Think of that moment during the immediate aftermath of Shakespeare’s own life, in which Shakespeare was not, for a while, distinguished as the greatest writer to emerge from the English Renaissance. It was only really by about the 1680s that Shakespeare’s supreme status was being established, and we could argue whether that is right or wrong, that’s not the point. The point is that view was established.

And as we think now, well, there are so many writers. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t think what the tiny percentage is that I read of novelists or poets, or indeed, see of actors, or the work of theater directors and film directors, to be able to judge who is really most influenced by Shakespeare and is most influencing our view of Shakespeare.

SHEIR: Let’s talk about the great Shakespearean women. We already mentioned George Eliot, and in the book you mention some women who were called “Shakespearean” in their day, but didn’t make it in. So tell us about some of the women who did.

HOLLAND: Well, we’re got Mary Cowden Clarke. I was thinking of Mary Cowden Clarke because of her extraordinarily influential book, The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines, a kind of series of prequels to Shakespeare’s characters. What was Ophelia like when she was a kid? That became a way of thinking about Shakespeare that was much more than thinking about those particular characters, and instead, influenced the whole way in which characters began to have earlier lives that were to be investigated. And at a moment like that, there was an opportunity for a woman to make an impact on a perception of Shakespeare because, after all, Shakespeare’s characters and Shakespeare as a whole was being read and watched and enjoyed widely by women, who brought a very different perspective. And indeed, Anna Jameson, Fanny Kemble, Charlotte Cushman, people who in very different ways explored and contributed to how Shakespeare was viewed. What they did in their own way was to establish a way of thinking about Shakespeare that also in some respects connects with their gender, but has an influence far beyond.

SHEIR: A name that you mentioned was Anna Jameson. Who was she?

HOLLAND: Another 19th-century woman critic who wrote extensively about Shakespeare. One of the things that we all know is that there have been wonderful acts of recovery, to bring back those, particularly women, whose histories and contributions to the ways we think about all manner of work, were submerged and ignored. We see that volume in particular as a way of bringing back to attention some of those women whose lives and works we’ve come to value much more highly than was done for a very long time.

SHEIR: I think it’s interesting that you couldn’t find a group of the great women Shakespearean theater directors.

HOLLAND: Well, that’s one of those sad things. I mean, are there women who are doing, now, quite extraordinary Shakespeare productions? You betcha. I think in the UK of the extraordinary work of Deborah Warner or Phyllida Lloyd. And, indeed, the same is true in the US. The influence of Tina Packer, for instance, has been very, very strong. But it was a long, long, struggle, and I still find it very sad how dominated the world of theater organization is by men, rather than women. There are steps, a lot of people are taking steps to try to change that, but it’s a slow process.

SHEIR: In the meantime, you did choose some theater directors to highlight, and in the volume of theater directors, there’s a chapter on Sir Peter Hall, who started the Royal Shakespeare Company. In that volume, it’s interesting. You don’t shy away from talking about his failures. Along the same lines, in the essay about Yukio Ninagawa, you’re very direct about that criticisms about him, that in the East, he’s considered too Western, and in the West, he’s seen as using Eastern culture as a kind of gloss. So what were you thinking when you included these folks and talked about everything, warts and all?

HOLLAND: Just to be clear, I didn’t write all of it. But when we commissioned the writers for volumes, I said very strongly to the three people I commissioned for the essays on Sir Peter Hall, on Yukio Ninagawa, and Robert Lepage, don’t shy away from what didn’t work, because what didn’t work may tell us a great deal about the problems of thinking about Shakespeare in particular contexts. Even Peter Brook, who I idolize as, for me, the greatest theater director of the 20th century, seems to me occasionally to misfire. That somehow the work doesn’t hit what he’d intended it to hit, and that’s fine. But part of the problem with Sir Peter Hall, and Stuart Hampton-Reeves’s wonderful piece on Hall, was to see how Hall’s commitment to a way of thinking about Shakespeare and to inventing a whole idea of a theater company, the Royal Shakespeare Company, that would play in Stratford and London, and would include a great deal of modern and contemporary, brand-new repertory alongside Shakespeare, it didn’t always leave Hall enough time or energy to create great productions of Shakespeare himself. That’s the problem of working on a treadmill.

SHEIR: Set Number III is about Marx and Freud, who you mentioned earlier.

HOLLAND: One of the volumes is, yes.

SHEIR: Right. You’ve included them because, as you say, they’re thinkers whose work seems impossible without Shakespeare. I think, for some people, that assertion might be surprising. Can you talk about the connection there?

HOLLAND: Yes, I mean it’s a two-way street, as I think it is for many of the people we’ve included. So on the one hand, the way we think about Shakespeare is profoundly influenced by Marx and Freud. In Shakespeare scholarship, there are powerful movements of Marx’s criticism of Shakespeare, of psychoanalytic criticism of Shakespeare. And neither movement would have been possible without their, as it were, originators, Marx and Freud.

But at the same time, Freud read Shakespeare extensively. He thought through Shakespeare, with Shakespeare, out of Shakespeare, in order to explore much of his own possibilities. Marx quotes from Shakespeare over and over and over again, and what Crystal Bartolovich in her brilliant essay on Marx does is to show how much of Marx’s thinking is shaped by that great encounter. That it’s not just what happened when he looked at the world that he saw, but also, how did Shakespeare enable him to do that act of seeing.

SHEIR: Listeners of this podcast will be pleased to hear that Henry Clay Folger makes it into your series. Can you tell us more about your reasons for putting him in?

HOLLAND: Well, it’s not just because this is a Folger podcast, that I’m fascinated by Folger. It’s not just because of all those happy days I’ve spent working away in the Folger Shakespeare Library. But when we think about the whole approach that we have to Shakespeare now, what scholarship, Shakespearean scholarship, is about, the contribution of the Folder Shakespeare Library to that whole process is simply immense. It has been from the moment that the library opened its doors and it continues to be growing. If Mr. Folger hadn’t begun, with his wife, that great collection, then I don’t think Shakespeare scholarship could exist in its current form. It’s not just the accumulation of umpteen copies of the First Folio, important though that has been, it’s the amazing manuscript collections of, not only early modern materials, but all the stuff about the whole history of Shakespeare.

The Folger Shakespeare Library contains … I’ve worked at various points in my career on the work of David Garrick, and indeed, wrote about Garrick for the volume of Great Shakespeareans that looks at 18th and early 19th-century actors. So much of my work on Garrick has depended on the holdings of the Folger Shakespeare Library. So, thank you, Mr. Folger, for making that possible, and thank you, the Folger Shakespeare Library, for opening its doors so generously to all the scholars who go through. And so, we wanted to show that somebody who creates a great library is as important to the history of the reception and interpretation and understanding of Shakespeare as a great scholar, as a great actor, as a great film director, as a great novelist.

SHEIR: Let’s zoom out for a moment and look at the entire Great Shakespeareans series. What would you say are the narratives that emerge from this collection of names and essays?

HOLLAND: I think there are stories of making and re-making, of ways in which so many people were aware that they were part of a tradition and, at the same time, wanted to change a tradition. So when we think about Edmond Malone editing Shakespeare at the end of the 18th century, Malone knew very precisely that he was the inheritor of a long line of Shakespeare editing, stretching back, of course, to Heminges and Condell putting together the First Folio, but also of the great 18th-century line, from Rowe to Pope to Warburton, and through Dr. Johnson to, eventually, Malone himself. And yet Malone wanted to see a different Shakespeare, a different kind of recovery and presentation of Shakespeare that meant he was always aware of that tradition.

I think it’s also about people recognizing the otherness of the past, and how they can interpret that. My students always say, using a word in a way that I really don’t like, that some Shakespeare plays, some Shakespeare characters are so “relatable.” I try to explain to them that I think the word “relatable” means you can tell a story, but, no, they mean they can relate to something. Bertolt Brecht, the amazing German playwright, wrote about the way in which he saw Shakespeare’s plays as not being about now, but about being, the word he used was zeitgebunden, tied to their time, locked into an otherness of the past. I think one of the things, and the stories, as it were, that we want to tell through all these volumes, and through our extraordinary team of contributors, is the way in which Shakespeare is both now and then. As we’ve learned more about the then-ness of Shakespeare, so we remake the now-ness of Shakespeare.

SHEIR: We have these 18 volumes, right now. Will there be more?

HOLLAND: Not from us. I think Adrian and I mapped out our 18 volumes. We delivered them in sets of four or five volumes at a time, you can imagine you move at the pace of the slowest single contributor, and we’re now ready, very much, to move on to other projects

SHEIR: Do you think there should be more?

HOLLAND: I’ll leave that to others to make up their own minds. That’s called the “get out.”

SHEIR: So should I even ask who you would speculate might go into a future volume?

HOLLAND: No, I’d rather not.

SHEIR: Is it because you have to run into them at Shakespearean conferences?

HOLLAND: That doesn’t help, yes.

SHEIR: Well, Peter, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

HOLLAND: It’s been great. Thanks, Rebecca.

MICHAEL WITMORE: Peter Holland is the McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare studies at Notre Dame. Along with Adrian Poole, he is co-editor of the 18-volume reference titled Great Shakespeareans. Peter was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

“Some Are Born Great, Some Achieve Greatness, and Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon ‘Em” was produced by Richard Paul and Garland Scott. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Mandy Kinnucan in the Notre Dame Media Relations Department.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.