Not the Usual Celebration for Shakespeare: ND Faculty Meets King Charles

Author: Jason Comerford

Peter And The King

Not the Usual Celebration for Shakespeare: ND Faculty Meets King Charles

It started with an unobtrusive piece of mail. And then, just a short time later, Peter Holland found himself face to face with the King of England.

For Holland, the McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Notre Dame, it had already been an interesting summer. He was deep into his work with the Arden Shakespeare Fourth Series, among other projects. He was enjoying his time back in England, his home country, and certainly didn’t expect such a summons to arrive.

But arrive it did… and it resulted in a unique moment in the history of the University of Notre Dame: a conversation between a Notre Dame faculty member and a ruling monarch.

Attending Westminster Palace

Holland had already attended one remarkable event that summer: an event in the staterooms of the speaker’s house in the Houses of Parliament, marking the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio. It was organized by MP James Morris, who is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Shakespeare. About 40 people attended the event, including luminaries such as Gregory Doran, the outgoing artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as celebrated performers such as Dame Janet Suzman, Dame Harriet Walter, and Sir Simon Russell Beale. The guests also included a mixture of academics and members of the houses.

“This wasn’t the usual celebration for Shakespeare,” Holland laughs, noting that Westminster Palace is not often utilized for such events. But as it turns out, the bigger adventure was still to come.

The Invitation Arrives

Windsor Invitation

“The Master of The King’s Household is commanded by Their Majesties to invite Professor Peter Holland to a Performance and Reception to be given at Windsor Castle by The King and Queen,” read the invitation, underneath the distinctive gold-etched stamp of the Royal Family, “to celebrate the contribution of William Shakespeare’s works to the literary culture and society of the United Kingdom on Tuesday, 18th July, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.”

This wasn’t Holland’s first brush with royalty. Indeed, Holland notes, when King Charles was merely Prince Charles, he would always attend the annual meeting of the Royal Shakespeare Company, of which the Prince was and still is President, when Holland was a member of that organization’s board. “He has a phenomenal memory,” Holland recalls, “and he’s very sharp. He would remember conversations from the year prior. Very funny, very intelligent, very interesting.”

Holland shares that Charles in fact has not only an interest in Shakespeare, but a tangible passion for it. “He’s very passionate about theatre, and Shakespeare in particular,” Holland says, and relates that during the RSC board meetings, Charles always wanted to be part of the discussion. Charles has frequently not only attended performances of Shakespeare’s plays, but also always to stay after the performances and talk to the actors. “This isn’t the kind of thing that monarchs always want to do.”

The Event Begins

Holland’s preparations for the event then began in earnest. About 200 people were invited, all of whom were carefully vetted. Instructions for what was allowed and not allowed were issued to the attendees. Phones had to be checked in. Arriving at Windsor Castle, Holland was startled to see something unfamiliar to UK residents, yet unfortunately too familiar to Americans: armed guards. “This is not normal in the UK,” Holland chuckles.

The program began with a series of performances introduced by Gregory Doran, with excerpts from Macbeth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest essayed by talents including Simon Russell Beale, Dame Harriet Walter, Ray Fearon, Lucy Phelps, and Mark Quartley. Guitarist Nick Lee and vocalist Sophia Nomvete performed songs penned by the composer Paul Englishby, a BAFTA nominee and veteran of many Royal Shakespeare Company productions.

Famous faces dotted the crowd: Dame Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave. Holland hobnobbed with his old friend, Sir Stanley Wells, the famed Shakespearean scholar.

The Big Moment

Peter And The King

When asked about how he felt about meeting the King, Holland says, “Mostly I was curious about what he would want to talk about.” And when the moment came, it was surprisingly easy. “He’s very easy to talk with. He’s very relaxed, so he makes you feel relaxed. He’s a very interesting monarch – he was talking about climate change and sustainability decades ago, so he’s also very prescient. He saw what was going on before the rest of us, and so he wanted to know how we could build better for the future.”

Holland says that during his conversation, the King mentioned that he’d been reading Shakespeare “since I took over this job.” King Charles noted how he’d read Shakespeare’s kings, and spoke of his astonishment at Shakespeare’s understanding of the burdens placed upon royalty.

The big takeaway, Holland comments, is the King’s engagement with Shakespeare, and his concern with theatre and culture. “He wants to celebrate Shakespeare as a gift to the world,” Holland says. “He chose to host and be present for this event, not just out of a sense of duty, but a sense of pleasure. He has an interest in and a respect for Shakespeare’s genius, and for scholarship. Again, these are not always the attributes of a monarch.”

“I came away with even more respect for him,” Holland says. “He was even asking people about how to get more young people interested in Shakespeare – not because it’s good for you, but because his plays are exciting and interesting and fun.”


Originally published by Jason Comerford at on August 21, 2023.