“O brave new world?” Shakespeare, Birmingham and America

Everything to Everybody as the Bard collection goes global.

The Everything to Everybody Project is recovering Birmingham’s unique heritage as home to the largest and oldest Shakespeare collection in any public library in the world. Recently, it has also begun to uncover the truly global influence and reach of this historic people’s Shakespeare library, which has holdings in some 93 languages.

In a special History West Midlands film and two associated podcasts, the Project Director, Professor Ewan Fernie, and Everything to Everybody Project American International Champion, Professor Katherine Scheil, share some of the excitement of re-establishing the links between Birmingham’s nineteenth-century Shakespeare heritage and the development of Shakespeare in America.

In The Tempest, when she is faced with human society for the first time, Shakespeare’s cast-away Miranda says, “O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” Her father, Prospero, wearily replies, “’Tis new to thee.” But in the middle of the nineteenth century, George Dawson and the other founders of Birmingham’s pioneering Shakespeare library really believed Shakespeare could play a role in regenerating culture.

Dawson regarded Shakespeare’s plays as “the newest Bible, the sweetest, truest teachings of the truths of the future that the world ever had.” When he crossed the Atlantic to visit America in 1874, he cemented relationships between British and American Shakespeareans which had lasting effects on America’s cultural institutions and landscape. The picture here of the Silver Creek Shakespeare Club of Buffalo, New York, taken in 1890, illustrates the enduring memory of Shakespeare’s work across the Atlantic.

While Fernie and Scheil’s new article on Shakespeare, Birmingham and America uncovers much of this lost history, it also shows that Dawson’s visit to the States exposed serious limitations to his “everything to everybody” ethos – limitations it is vitally important to acknowledge and move beyond today in favour of making culture more equal and inclusive.

Professor Ewan Fernie, Everything to Everybody Project Director said: “Unlocking the connections between Birmingham’s Shakespeare Memorial Library and America has, in many ways been really exciting. It opens up a secret history of international culture, one which looks to the second city as well as to London. At the same time, the research confronted us with an ugly moment in which one of the founders of Birmingham’s great Shakespeare library fell short of his own ‘everything to everybody’ ethos, reminding us that we have to root out and repudiate all racism and prejudice as we seek to remake Birmingham’s Shakespeare heritage with people and communities across the city today.”

Professor Katherine Scheil, Everything to Everybody American Project Lead added: “We’ve uncovered so much about the relationship between America, the UK and Shakespeare and we are only at the beginning stages of this work. Dawson’s largely forgotten lecture tour is described in the papers of the day as mesmerising and we think it demonstrates a new kind of cultural exchange between the two countries which had a profound cultural impact on both sides, for famous American literati but for many ordinary citizens as well.”

The ‘Everything to Everybody’ Project is an ambitious three-year celebration of one of the UK’s most important cultural assets: the Birmingham Shakespeare Memorial Library – the first great Shakespeare library in the world, and the only great Shakespeare collection which belongs to all the people of a city.

A collaboration between the University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council, with funding contributed by National Lottery Heritage Fund and History West Midlands Everything to Everybody will give this uniquely democratic Shakespeare heritage back to people and communities across Birmingham.

Follow the Everything to Everybody Project on twitter @E2EShakespeare, Facebook @e2eshakespeare and Instagram @e2eshakespeare.