Statue or scholarship: A vexed question

By Bridget O’Reilly

What is an appropriate way to memorialise the great Bard?

Melbourne’s debate endowed the University with the Shakespeare Scholarship: a tradition that continues to educate Shakespeare scholars in the Faculty of Arts today. But it was not established without controversy.

Advertisement for a fundraising event for the Shakespeare Scholarship
Advertisement for a fundraising event for the Shakespeare Scholarship, The Argus, Wednesday 13 April 1864 p8:
Image: Trove (National Library of Australia)

The debate that divided Melbourne

During a public meeting in 1860 Melburnians established the Shakespeare Memorial Committee. Similar efforts had been made overseas, and with the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth (in 1864) looming, the people of Melbourne felt it was their turn to pay tribute to the Bard.

There was consensus in those early days of discussion that a statue should be commissioned – it was after all the most familiar and proper form of memorial they knew.

But despite great efforts by the community, the Committee failed to raise the necessary 1000 pounds to afford a statue.

“The attempt to erect a fitting statue to Shakespeare in Melbourne has failed through the reluctance of the public to contribute the necessary funds,” The Argus newspaper informed readers in 1864.

“If the people of Victoria cannot raise a monument to Shakespeare, that is the best evidence that such a memorial ought not to be erected – that we are yet too young to enter fairly into the spirit of such an undertaking – that the demand made upon us is premature and mistimed,” The Argus claimed, echoing public sentiment of the day.

But the Committee was determined that Melbourne commemorate Shakespeare, and a scholarship was soon proposed.

“It being necessary, therefore, to abandon the idea of a statue, the funds collected are to be devoted to the foundation of a scholarship in the Melbourne University.”

The idea was controversial, and divided Melbournians.

“A scholarship can in no case supply the place or convey the meaning of a monument to Shakespeare. It is something impalpable, invisible, unreal, which appeals to no sense, and stirs no feeling,” The Age argued in 1864.

The matter was settled, however, and a series of lectures were held to raise the reminder of the funds.

On 25 April 1883 it was announced in the Mount Alexander Mail that: “At a meeting of the Shakespeare Memorial Committee held on Thursday, it was resolved to relinquish the idea of erecting a statue, and instead found a scholarship in the Melbourne University, of the value of £50 a year, tenable for three years.”

Melbourne Town Hall in 1864. Image: State Library of Victoria
Melbourne Town Hall in 1864. Image: State Library of Victoria

Scholars today

100 years later, the Scholarship has proven itself an apt memorial and is still supporting the education of young scholars.

Joining a long line of recipients, Alexander Thom received the Scholarship in 2014. He represents the continuing tradition of Shakespeare within University’s Faculty of Arts.

Alexander is about to embark on a PhD at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford upon Avon, but it was at the University of Melbourne where he first started to explore his love of Shakespeare.

What attracted Alexander to Shakespeare?

“There’s a long, long list,” he says. “To just unpick the question slightly, I’d say there’s a few discrete approaches to what we might lump together as ‘Shakespeare’, all of which are interesting. Naturally, I’m interested in his writing. But I’m also interested in how people choose to perform, adapt or teach his works.

“There’s also the question of popular attitudes to Shakespeare, both in Australian culture and elsewhere. The question of what Shakespeare “means” in a particular cultural context is obviously complicated and there’s a lot of interesting conversations to be had around that.”

For Alexander, Shakespeare formed a big part of his University experience. He played an active role in the Melbourne University Shakespeare Company, in which many of his friends still perform.

“My experiences with Melbourne University Shakespeare Company were crucial to me pursuing this field of study,” he says.

“My experience directing As You Like It for Melbourne University Shakespeare Company was a particular highlight. Being able to sit and watch friends perform one of your favourite plays over and over again is an extraordinary privilege.”

100 years later, the scholarship has proven itself an apt memorial and is still supporting the education of young scholars.

Being awarded the Shakespeare Scholarship was a journey for Alexander, who applied for the scholarship three times before finally receiving it in 2014.

His winning essay was titled ‘“This seat of Mars…” Israel-Palestine: Shakespeare and national mythologies in the Globe to Globe festival’.

“My submission was actually an analysis of two performances in 2012: a production of The Merchant of Venice by Habima, the Israeli National Theatre Company, and a production of Richard II by Ashtar, a Palestinian Theatre Company.

“I felt that both productions seemed to deliberately draw out specific themes in their respective plays, which resonated a lot with particular political problems, past and present, for both nations. I wanted to look at how production decisions beyond the play – for instance, costuming or music – were used to draw out those themes in a way their audiences would recognise. It was a very challenging topic but tremendously rewarding.”

Alexander now plans to pursue a career in academia, and will commence his PhD at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

“It’s my dream job, really. Starting in September, I’ll be researching a number of thorny issues for political and legal theory in relation to Shakespeare, things like marriage, succession, and banishment.

“So, I’m all set for a really challenging and interesting three years, all thanks to the support of the University, its lovely English department, and the fantastic people I met while studying in it!”

Today’s students keep Shakespeare alive at the University of Melbourne.
Declan Mulcahy playing Bassanio (L) and Alexander Thom playing Antonio (R)

Julian O’Donnell received the Shakespeare Scholarship in 2015. He wrote his essay on the film version of Coriolanus: “a play usually found at the bottom of Shakespeare’s tea-towel merchandise.”

“The film demanded my attention,” he explains, “because it runs like a BBC World News global crisis loop and is one of the best recent screen adaptations of Shakespeare.

“I admit I’m drawn to Shakespeare’s cultural ubiquity as much as the obvious qualities of the works. We have an uncompromising need to adapt his work. Character analogies pour through the media whenever a public figure falters, and here we are on the 400th anniversary of his death – the fuss demands as much attention as the language,” he says..

“The Shakespeare Scholarship, and the Honours year in general, makes the intimidating world of academic criticism seem a little more accessible.”

Julian is now pursuing a career in law, but hopes to have a publication in the field during the next year.

So whether the Shakespeare Scholarship is a stop on a students’ road at the University, or the beginning of a career in academia, each experience proves that Melbourne truly does have an apt memorial to the Bard.

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