The Foundation

Burgess and Shakespeare

Throughout his career, Anthony Burgess was fascinated by the writing and life of William Shakespeare. Explore these pages to find out about the influence of Shakespeare on Anthony Burgess, and the insights Burgess brings to our reading of his work.

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The 1973 Shakespeare Lectures:

Act 1 An introduction Act 2 Researching the lecturesUse the links at the top of the page to switch section

Act 1 An introduction

Burgess taught English literature – and especially Shakespeare – in many contexts and over many years.

Between 1946 and 1959, Burgess taught at Brinsford Lodge near Wolverhampton; at the Bamber Bridge Emergency Teacher Training College; Banbury Grammar School; at Malay College, Kuala Kangsar; the Malay Teacher Training College in Kota Bharu; and the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin College in Brunei. He wrote a history of English Literature in 1958 aimed at students, and compiled a 2-volume literary history and anthology in 1979, They Wrote in English, presenting a wide selection of English literature from Anglo-Saxon poetry onwards. Both of these non-fiction books contain chapters about Shakespeare.

Burgess regarded Shakespeare as the centrepiece of English literature and drama. He encouraged his students to engage with Shakespeare as a commercial writer and dramatist, as well as attending to the detail of Shakespeare’s texts. 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,’ he wrote, ‘and the students start to sense a somatic and sartorial kinship. All the plots of Shakespeare are … pregnant with present relevance.’ The life of Shakespeare that Burgess imagines — ‘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 which he revives in his creative works.

Having established himself as a full-time writer after 1960, Burgess returned was nevertheless in demand as a short-term lecturer in American universities. In 1972-3 he was a temporary professor at City College New York, where he gave a series of lectures about Shakespeare. Recordings of this lecture series, originally reel-to-reel tapes and now digitised, are part of the extensive collection material on Shakespeare in the Burgess Foundation’s archive.

This resource is in the process of being catalogued and made available to researchers. Find out more about the series and listen to extracts below — and look out for a forthcoming podcast featuring a conversation with Sam Jermy, who has been cataloguing the Shakespeare recordings.

Get thee to: An introduction | Researching the lectures | Burgess at CCNY in 1973 | Another Shakespeare section (see links at top of page)

Act 2 Researching the lectures

Researcher Sam Jermy explores Anthony Burgess lectures given at City College New York in 1973

In the spring semester of 1973, Burgess gave a series of lectures about Shakespeare and his world when he was working as a visiting professor at City College New York. The recordings of these lectures, held in the Burgess Foundation’s archive, provide a glimpse of Burgess as teacher of Shakespeare. Loosely following his 1970 biography of Shakespeare’s life, these lectures show Burgess animatedly encouraging his students to engage with Shakespeare as a writer belonging to Elizabethan England as much as he belongs to the contemporary world, as well as delving into the detail and language of Shakespeare’s texts.

Burgess approaches his lectures not as a scholar, but (he says) as a man ‘who’s read Shakespeare, idolised Shakespeare and tried to be influenced by him in my own craft of writing.’ As much as Burgess provides his students with the historical background of Elizabethan England and the biography of the man himself, Shakespeare is presented as a living, working writer whose grasp of language and the dramatic arts continues to fascinate Burgess.

Throughout the series, Burgess places Shakespeare’s life, motivations, influences, and how his plays reflect or refract the man himself at the centre of his discussions. He describes his approach as ‘a series of concentric circles’, with the texts at the centre. The lectures consider the texts by way of the circles that surround them, which are Shakespeare himself, the theatrical scene he wrote in, the London he worked in, and the wider Elizabethan world. Burgess aims to show his students that when Shakespeare wrote a play it was not arbitrarily chosen, but emerged from the themes, appetites and popular feeling of the times, and that its treatment of these was individual to Shakespeare. Burgess’s lectures illustrate how Shakespeare’s literature and life were not parallel but reflective of each other.

Almost inevitably, Burgess approaches Shakespeare’s life with a degree of speculation. He admits that his lectures ‘fantasise’ on Shakespeare’s life, and he trusts his students to use their judgement and do with these fantasies what they will. While these speculations are in part a result of piecing together the scraps of detail we have of Shakespeare’s life, they evoke the activities, sights and sounds of Elizabethan England.


Burgess provides numerous examples of how life may have been experienced by Shakespeare and his contemporaries — what they ate, what they drank, what the filthy streets would smell like, the daily spectacles of violence around London, the daily routines of Shakespeare’s home life when he was growing up, and even the possible conversations Shakespeare had with the major figures in his life, including Anne Hathaway, the Earl of Southampton, and the actor Edward Alleyn. Through these evocative details of Shakespeare’s world, Burgess continually brings his students closer to a ‘somatic and sartorial kinship’ with a long-dead playwright. Shakespeare lived, as Burgess tells his students, just like us.

This desire to bring Shakespeare closer to his students sits alongside a general frustration Burgess holds about their unfamiliarity with English literary history. Burgess frequently pauses and asks if there are questions which, especially during the early recordings, are frequently met with silence — although this silence may also be due in part to the scheduling of the lectures at 8 o’clock in the morning. The lectures begin with the aim of providing students with a fuller picture of the Elizabethan period and the literary dramatic tradition in England. The series goes on to consider how Shakespeare lived and wrote within these contexts.

In the recordings, Burgess is often surprised by what his students do not know. He is frequently met with questions or requests for clarification after making references to Bernard Shaw, or quoting passages from the Bible. After marking their papers later in the semester, Burgess realises that his students aren’t familiar with the nuances of Elizabethan language (in particular, the difference between ‘thou’ and ‘you), or the workings of blank verse. Yet it is clear that Burgess cares about his students’ education, and he repeatedly encourages them to ask questions and to interrupt him when necessary.


The tapes often show Burgess attempting to bring Shakespeare’s language closer to his students. The sound of Shakespeare’s speech is a point to which he often returns. Burgess argues that the sounds of Elizabethan English would have been close to those of New England or Dublin, and he discusses how this pronunciation informs our understanding of Shakespeare’s writing, citing examples such as puns and rhymes.

Each lecture finds Burgess reading from Shakespeare’s drama and poetry, as well as the work of his contemporaries, and these readings sometimes incorporate Burgess’s imitation of Elizabethan speech. The stress that Burgess places on Shakespeare’s writing, which (he says) ‘built up a language’, emphasises the continued significance of Shakespeare to contemporary speech and literature. Burgess’s readings from Shakespeare’s plays, sonnets, and particularly Venus and Adonis — described as ‘the sexiest poem ever written’ — display a deep affection for Shakespeare’s written word, encouraging his students to engage with the texts first and foremost, before reading any criticism. In his lectures, Burgess portrays Shakespeare as having made a language that still holds strong today.

One of his attempts to impart the significance of Shakespearean language can be seen in the assignment Burgess sets for his students. At the beginning of one lecture, he gives them a choice of three tasks to complete. Two of these tasks involve either writing a page comparing Joan of Arc in Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan and Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 or a page analysing four lines from the same Shakespeare play (beginning ‘Sell every man his life as dear as mine…’). Alongside these more traditional routes, Burgess encourages his students to translate ten lines of a speech by Richard Nixon into Elizabethan blank verse. This response sought to encourage his students not only to think of Shakespeare through a scholarly lens, but also as a source of creative energy which underpins a large amount of contemporary language.


Burgess often compares his own writing process and reception with the playwright he admires throughout these lectures. His self-identification is clear from the start, where he says: ‘Shakespeare wrote plays to make money to become a gentleman; I write novels for the same end.’ He describes his qualifications for lecturing on Shakespeare, talking about his speculative novel of Shakespeare’s love life, Nothing Like the Sun, and his film script for Will (or The Bawdy Bard), a Hollywood musical based on Shakespeare’s life. Shakespeare’s early plays, performed as populist entertainment at the Rose Theatre, are compared to some of Burgess’s own work, such as journalism and television drama. He also compares the snobbery of Oxbridge critics towards his work in terms of Shakespearean facing similar barbs from the university playwrights like Robert Greene.

He draws further comparisons between himself and Shakespeare throughout these recordings by fashioning himself as a literary dramatist. In 1973 Burgess was adapting his own translation of Cyrano de Bergerac as a new Broadway musical, and he often mentions that he will be travelling to various cities as he works towards the play’s opening. Burgess shows a deep reverence for the Elizabethan language that has influenced his writing, referring to the inclusion in his song lyrics of the Marlovian ‘nose that launched a thousand ships’ and the Shakespearean ‘too too solid nose’. Burgess speaks disapprovingly of one actor improvising over his own blank verse at a performance of Cyrano de Bergerac in Toronto, introducing the words ‘So much for you, shorty’ into his meticulously constructed verse. Whereas Shakespeare was an actor and dramatist but never professionally a writer, Burgess viewed himself as a professional writer who worked in the theatre.


Burgess makes passing references to his own life throughout his lectures, which informs his understanding of Shakespeare’s biography. Describing April as the cruellest month, he claims that his father, mother and sister all died in April, comparing this to the many deaths in Shakespeare’s own life. He also gives an anecdote about receiving a letter from his ‘cousin Betsy’, whose husband died on their long-anticipated wedding night, to illustrate how comedy and tragedy were closely entwined. While the veracity of some of these references is questionable, they demonstrate that, even in the formal context of an academic lecture series, Burgess was committed to identifying himself with Shakespeare.

In his rejection of the conspiracy theorists who suggest that nobody as uneducated as Shakespeare could have written his works, perhaps we can see why Burgess is invested in maintaining this identification: ‘I believe that the plays of Shakespeare were written by a man named Shakespeare. Or somebody of the same name, who had a grammar school education. There has never been any need for a writer of great plays or novels to have any education.’ Burgess sees his own childhood, education and subsequent writing as coming from the same vein as Shakespeare’s talent.

The tape recordings in the Burgess archive cover seventeen lectures, ending with the year 1597 when the concept of the New Drama, which began to represent ‘life as it was’, took hold in the Elizabethan theatre. They provide a detailed picture of how Burgess saw Shakespeare, as he balanced the roles of a creative writer and an educator, attempting to pass on his enthusiasm to a new generation.

While the lectures are worth listening to for Burgess’s animated readings of Shakespeare’s lines alone, they finally portray Shakespeare as a reflection of Burgess himself. We learn that Burgess regarded him as ‘a man who sees life directly’ in his writing. He wanted his students to take this to heart.


Get thee to: An introduction | Researching the lectures | Burgess at CCNY in 1973 | Another Shakespeare section (see links at top of page)


Act 1 An introduction Act 2 Researching the lecturesUse the links at the top of the page to switch section