SHAKESPEARE and the pyramids now have something in common.
The UNESCO International Memory of the World programme has recognised the immense significance to world culture of the ‘Shakespeare Documents’ – the key archival sources for William Shakespeare’s biography. The 90 documents relate to the bard’s baptism, burial, family matters, property records, legal actions and business dealings.
It means the material now has equivalent status in the documentary sphere as the pyramids of Egypt have for the world’s built heritage.
The successful nomination was led by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) in partnership with The National Archives, Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service, the College of Arms, the British Library and London Metropolitan Archives in the UK, and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.
Together these specialist archive and library repositories care for the precious documents.
SBT collections archivist Amy Hurst said: “The documentary trail left by Shakespeare during his life time provides a rich narrative of his life, giving unique insights into his personal circumstances and how these may have influenced his creative work.
“We hold 31 of the hand-written documents from Shakespeare’s lifetime that mention him by name and provide a vivid insight into his life as an Elizabethan gentleman and businessman.
“This material allows audiences to connect with Shakespeare, getting closer to the world’s most celebrated poet and playwright.”
The international registration follows the successful collaboration between the SBT and The National Archives which saw their
‘Shakespeare Documents’ included in the UK version of the UNESCO Memory of the World programme in 2014.
This led to a special exhibition to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, and the return of Shakespeare’s will – loaned by The National Archives – to Stratford for the first time since his son-in-law John Hall took it to London in late June 1616 to get a Grant of Probate.
“The attention and excitement this generated demonstrated the vibrancy and draw that documentary heritage can have,” added Amy.
“Our mission as a charity is to promote the enjoyment and understanding of Shakespeare’s works, life and times. It is tremendously exciting to be working with our international registration partners to open up even more opportunities to promote these documentary treasures and engage with international networks and audiences.”
UNESCO’s International Memory of the World initiative works specifically with documentary heritage – manuscripts, oral traditions, audio-visual materials and publications – that have “universal value” which transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. While the first principal of the programme is to safeguard material, from neglect, disaster or deliberate destruction, the internationally recognised status also opens up funding opportunities for conservation, digitisation, and use of innovative technologies to widen access.
Dr Katy Mair, head of early modern records at The National Archives, said: “You often hear it said that we don’t know much about Shakespeare; the personality behind the plays.
“But it is possible to piece together a substantial amount about his life. The Shakespeare documents held by The National Archives form the largest collection of its kind and feature nearly half of all known contemporary references to his life – including four of his six known signatures.
“Our collection provides a priceless perspective on Shakespeare’s life in London. It shows him appearing as a resident in the Elizabethan city, with the documentary trail then charting his rise in fortune, both professional and financial, reaching the heady heights of success at the court of James I and ending with his famous will. Paper and ink analysis of the three-page manuscript conducted in 2016 has forced scholars to reassess many of the assumptions about Shakespeare’s family life and death. He was a canny businessman who revised his will several times during his lifetime to provide for his family.”