Keats and Shakespeare at Eton College

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 By Sir Stanley Wells


Join us at Eton College, Windsor, for a special evening of Keats and Shakespeare on Tuesday 3 October 2017 from 6.30pm until 9.00pm. Find out more by clicking here.


On 3 October 1817, John Keats, then not quite 22 years old, along with his friend Benjamin Bailey, visited Shakespeare’s Birthplace. The Henley Street house was then privately owned, but even so there was a visitors’ book which Keats signed, enigmatically giving his address as ‘everywhere’. When the friends visited Holy Trinity Church and Shakespeare’s grave on that same day Keats signed off with the Latin equivalent ‘ubique’. He saw himself as a wanderer, a free spirit, untethered by convention.

Keats’s passion for Shakespeare went back to his schooldays and was to inspire some of his greatest poetry, both indirectly and directly, as in his great sonnet ‘On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again.’ In that poem he writes of ‘The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit’, seeing the tragedy as an inspiration which will give him ‘new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.’

Keats owned a seven-volume, illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s works as well as a copy of the first-ever facsimile of the First Folio and a volume of the collected poems. He marked and underlined many of his favourite passages in the works, showing for instance that he was especially fond of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He came to see Shakespeare as his presiding genius, carrying his works with him on all his travels. He enjoyed seeing the plays in the theatre, too, and wrote an enthusiastic review after seeing a performance by the great Edmund Kean. Above all, in his voluminous and wonderfully eloquent letters he writes about Shakespeare with a depth of understanding that gives him a place among the most perceptive of Shakespeare critics.

In December 1817, a few months after his visit to Stratford, he wrote in great excitement that he had formulated a theory of what the quality was that, as he put it, ‘went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously.’ It was, he suggested in a letter to his brothers, what he called ‘Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ The phrase formulated here has exerted great influence over thought about the creative impulse.

In one of his letters, the consumptive Keats, knowing that he had not long to live, wrote that he hoped to be remembered ‘among the English poets’ after his death. A fellow poet of a later generation, Matthew Arnold, introducing a volume of his poems, wrote ‘He is. He is with Shakespeare.’

Now, two hundred years to the day after Keats visited Shakespeare’s Birthplace, we celebrate the affinity between the two poets with a programme of prose and poetry devised and presented by our Head of Research, Paul Edmondson, and me (Stanley Wells), and, as the voice of Keats, the actor Scott Handy, Eton College’s Director of Drama.

On-line bookings only: find out more by clicking here


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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