Post by Gordon McMullan, Professor of English and Academic Director of Shakespeare400

It was a January bike ride besides Walthamstow Marshes that did it – a cold but sunny day in 2011 in which the cormorants that nest in spindly trees on a tiny reservoir island were rebuilding their nests for the coming season, and I found myself wondering what cormorants were doing nesting in trees rather than cliffs. I rode home and googled ‘cormorant’ and found that cormorants have in fact nested in trees for centuries but only relatively rarely so. The late twentieth-century reduction in fish stocks at sea began to drive them inland – to the fury of anglers, who resent the turning of these efficient predators’ attention to freshwater fish – and nesting sites such as those at Walthamstow have become more and more common.

In the process, I came across the name Israel Gollancz, a predecessor of mine as professor of English at King’s, who was, it turned out, mildly obsessed with cormorants due to his belief that the name ‘Shylock’ derived from the Hebrew word shallach, meaning ‘cormorant’. Given the cormorant’s symbolic involvement over the centuries with the anti-semitic associations made between Jews and financial greed, this is in a way unsurprising, but Gollancz developed this connection into a reading of The Merchant of Venice that grew across his lifetime.

And it was at this point, reading about Gollancz’s life, that I began to realise how instrumental he had been in creating the celebrations for the Shakespeare Tercentenary of 1916, and an idea (if you’ll forgive the avian pun) hatched. If, I thought, King’s could lead the charge for the Tercentenary of 1916, why in the era of the insistence that universities create ‘impact’ should it not do so in 2016? And I began the conversations that led to the emergence of Shakespeare400. In part, this was provoked by the largely arbitrary attachment of the World Shakespeare Festival to the forthcoming 2012 London Olympics, which made me fret that cultural organisations and their audiences might become sufficiently over-fed on Shakespeare that they would not wish to see another major festival take place so soon. But it happened that King’s was signing an early agreement with the National Theatre to host ‘NT Live’ screenings, a new initiative at the time, and I was invited to the reception in King’s’ Anatomy Museum, where I spoke with the then Principal, Sir Richard Trainor, and the then managing director of the NT, Nick Starr, and pitched the idea. They both approved, and we were under way.

It took five years of work to create Shakespeare400 – speaking to potential partners, arranging support at King’s, negotiating with other organisations who might themselves have preferred a free run at organising events for 2016 – but we got there, and this website records what eventually happened.