Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess and Shakespeare

This resource examines some of the ways in which Anthony Burgess thought about and wrote about one of his greatest inspirations.

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Burgess teaching Shakespeare:

‘I can only present myself to you as a man who has read Shakespeare, idolised Shakespeare, and tried to be influenced by him in my own craft of writing. I still believe him to be the best influence and the best model: the man who knew better than any of us how to manage this very intractable thing called the English language.’

Between his demobilisation from the army in 1946 and his discharge from the British Colonial Service for medical reasons in 1959, Burgess was chiefly employed as a teacher, first at Brinsford Lodge near Wolverhampton, and then in Bamber Bridge, Banbury, Malaya and Brunei. Burgess shared the opinion of many of his contemporaries that studying Shakespeare was a key part of the study of English Literature and Drama. Far from being an ‘ancient Englishman who wrote plays in ancient English,’ Shakespeare remained a relevant force in literature and life: ‘Describe Shakespeare’s probable person, or show pictures of it, and the students start to sense a somatic and sartorial kinship … all the plots of Shakespeare are, as the kids discover, pregnant with present relevance.’

Burgess encouraged his students to engage with Shakespeare as a writer and dramatist. In addition to his main work of teaching basic courses in phonetics and voice production at Bamber Bridge Emergency Training College near Preston, Burgess gave advanced courses in the history of drama and the dramatic technique and took full responsibility for student drama productions at the college. Between 1948 and 1950 he directed six stage plays, including a full-text version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, performed in two parts, with two separate all- male casts, on consecutive evenings.

In his autobiography, he recalls the difficulties in bringing Shakespeare and much of the broader canon of English Literature to an overseas audience, many of whom lacked a background in English literary history. His 1958 history of English Literature was produced in part to address these problems. The Shakespeare Burgess describes — ‘born in Stratford, made an unwise marriage there, migrated to London, amassed a fortune, became a wealthy citizen, and died of a fever after a drinking bout’ — is one he revives as a character in many of his later works.

Anna Edwards