The Royal Shakespeare Company as ‘cultural chemist’: critiquing the notion of Shakespeare as a ‘cultural catalyst’

Research output: Chapter in Book/Published conference outputChapter


As other articles in this volume suggest, the extent to which Shakespeare is a true catalyst, a substance that is chemically unaltered by the reaction that it initiates or speeds up, is a concept that deserves critiquing. Jonathan Bate, for instance, argues that Shakespeare is a ‘catalytic converter’. This article seeks to expand the critique, problematising the possibility that Shakespeare is a cultural catalyst. Narratives of Shakespeare as a cultural catalyst involve him unilaterally conferring kudos onto individuals, corporations and other organisations that associate themselves with his person, life and works, or acting as a spur to further creativity and greatness. However, I will demonstrate that Shakespeare is altered by the interaction between his works; institutions and audiences. Furthermore, this article examines the way in which the phrase, ‘Shakespeare as cultural catalyst’, fails to acknowledge that not all reactions are naturally occurring, unaided by human intervention. It contends that the phrase attributes Shakespeare – a body of literary works or a long-dead playwright, poet and person (to name but a few of the labels ascribed to him) – with agency while obscuring the power of those who act on him. These agents include editors, directors, conservators, teachers and the institutions to which they belong, as well as independent scholars, Shakespeare enthusiasts and bloggers. I argue that these organisations and individuals, like chemists, facilitate reactions, or processes, around Shakespeare by bringing together the necessary ingredients. These might include Shakespeare and readers, Shakespeare and students, as well as Shakespeare and tourists, among others. Furthermore, the phrase neglects the different subjectivities, contexts, objectives, and assumptions of those contributing to the catalytic process.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationShakespeare Survey
Place of PublicationUnited Kingdom
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages9
ISBN (Print)9781107011229
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2011


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