Englisches Seminar, Grosser Hörsaal
Shakespeare and the Making of the Modern City
George Dawson (1821-76) is now almost entirely forgotten, but his statue stood at the civic heart of Birmingham till 1951. Addressing passers-by in a lively attitude, under a canopy decorated with medallions of Shakespeare and Oliver Cromwell, it stood in front of the world’s first ever Shakespeare Library, which Dawson founded after Shakespeare's tercentenary in 1864. Its doors were open to all the people of Birmingham, who owned it – and indeed, still own it. Holding in excess of 40,000 volumes, including the only First Folio in the world specifically acquired to engender a comprehensively inclusive culture: it is surely one of the most remarkably democratic great cultural collections there is. But Dawson’s library is now completely uncurated, shut up in the stacks, shameful testimony to the loss of ‘an increasing intention to give everything to everybody’ which characterised his progressive construal of culture as much as material wealth as common wealth to be shared.
Such was Dawson's ‘Civic Gospel’: a revolutionary movement that transferred the passion and mission of traditional religion into modern urban culture. Minister of a heterodox city-centre Church he himself called ‘The Church of the Doubters’, Dawson insistently, courageously and almost comprehensively reinvented religion and canonical literary culture for new times as a vocation for insurgent liberal activism and solidarity. Shakespeare, even more than the Bible, was his sacred text. In restoring Dawson to his rightful place in history, this lecture will argue he still has something to teach us about Shakespeare's meaning and value in the modern world.
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