Shakespeare: All the world’s

MAy 2016

A new report examines Shakespeare’s role as an asset for the UK around the world, and the part his work can play to help support the country’s interests and soft power.

Shakespeare is widely known, liked, understood, and is viewed as relevant today

2016 marks the 400th year since the world’s most famous playwright died. The cultural sector is marking the event with major programmes of activities. As part of these anniversary events, the British Council commissioned new research into Shakespeare’s global influence and its value for the country of his birth. The global survey that it undertook shows that Shakespeare’s popularity is very high with people round the world. Among the 15 countries it surveyed, Shakespeare is widely known, liked, understood, and is viewed as relevant today. 78% of those surveyed had some experience of his work, of whom 76% said that they liked it and 69% said they understood and thought it was still relevant today. 

37% of those surveyed said Shakespeare made them feel more positive about the country where he wrote his plays

Shakespeare has been the fundamental heart of British theatre since his plays were written. 34 million people, it is thought, visit the UK theatre every year - more than English and Scottish Football League and Premiership matches put together; and it is believed the West End on its own makes £630 million a year, which makes it the biggest theatre hub on Earth. Yet the research hints his impact goes beyond education and beyond the stage. 37% of those surveyed said Shakespeare made them feel more positive about the country where he wrote his plays, this rose to 42% for those aged 18 to 24 years of age, and to 62% for Indians. Furthermore they said they were more likely to visit the UK on holiday or study and consume the country’s culture. Seven in ten of those who said their views of the UK were, in a positive way, influenced by Shakespeare, claimed they wished to visit the UK on holiday. This all implies he is a vital asset for the UK’s cultural appeal overseas. 

‘His tongue our trumpet’

Culture plays a fundamental role in a country’s prosperity and soft power. Previous research by IpsosMori, commissioned by the British Council, showed that, when young people overseas were asked what was the biggest factor in their view that helped attract them most to the UK, 35% of them chose culture. And when they were asked to name one person who they associated with contemporary UK arts and culture who they found of particular interest to them, by far the largest number answered ‘Shakespeare’. 

The data also showed that Shakespeare is more popular in many other nations, including fast-growth economies and influential powers like India, than he is even here in the UK

The data also showed that Shakespeare is more popular in many other nations, including fast-growth economies and influential powers like India, than he is even here in the UK. 88% of Mexicans said that they liked Shakespeare and his work, compared to only 59% of British people asked in the survey; of Brazilians, 84% said they found him relevant today, compared to only 57% of those answering the same question here at home; and 83% of Indians asked said that they understood Shakespeare’s work, compared to only 58% of those surveyed from the UK itself.

But the US and Australia, where Shakespeare is taught in the original, showed figures just as low as the UK. It may be that the language of the Bard is hard for us to understand today, whilst those encountering him in their own tongue in modern translations find he speaks to them with more immediate force and relevance.

The current fame of Shakespeare’s characters - of whom the survey showed that Romeo and Juliet are those known best by far - owes much to the empathy and tolerance, and understanding of humanity, that many find throughout Shakespeare’s plays. Just as important to his lasting fame may be the origin of Shakespeare’s plays as popular works designed for broad appeal, and the universal nature of his themes, which retain great relevance today. The popularity of his work is thus likely to last for many years to come.

Yet that popular origin of his plays should be remembered when those plays are taught. Teaching them at school may not be best for introducing people to his work. There is some evidence from the research that suggests Shakespeare’s work is valued more when watched on stage or film than learned at school. The research found that those who disagreed that they liked Shakespeare’s work are more likely to have been taught him in English whilst at school, whilst those who liked it were more likely to have watched a play or film or heard a poem. This may have implications and lessons for the presentation and performance of his work in the UK and round the world.

Four hundred years after the playwright’s death, those involved in sharing British culture with people based in countries overseas should keep in mind that Shakespeare still remains, a great ambassador for the nation. As long as his work is quoted, taught, and read - as long as it is adapted and performed - Shakespeare will continue to live and thrive as envoy for the language he helped to form, and for the country whose myths he helped create. His global popularity shows that he isn’t just an icon for the UK, but one that now belongs to all the world. 

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Policy Analyst and Insight Editor, British Council