By Karen Harker, Gale Ambassador at the University of Birmingham
Around the 23rd of April every year, Stratford-upon-Avon becomes a different place. Flooded with tens of thousands of tourists from across the world, this small Warwickshire town pauses to pay homage to the most recognisable name, and for some, the greatest writer in all of English drama: William Shakespeare. The tradition of celebrating the life and work of Shakespeare has arguably placed Stratford-upon-Avon on the map. Even on a typical day, it is not uncommon to see throngs of school children touring Shakespeare’s Birthplace on Henley Street; patrons heading to see a show at one of the Royal Shakespeare Company theatres; or groups of visitors making their way to Holy Trinity Church to get a look at Shakespeare’s grave. For folks (such as myself) who call Stratford home, seeing Shakespeare remembered in this way, witnessing the twenty-first century style pilgrimage taken by millions of people each year, is a part of our daily life.
But during the last week of April, a time at which we celebrate Shakespeare’s birth and remember his death, both of which occurred on the 23rd, Shakespeare’s eminence in the town of Stratford and in the minds of tourists becomes even more pronounced. It is a tradition so ingrained in local minds, so habitual in practice that it has persisted unwaveringly for centuries. It is often easy to lose sight of the origins of such celebrations, but a look through a number of Gale’s primary sources allows us to travel back in time and see where this all began and how Stratford has continually celebrated Shakespeare through the years.
Though this annual celebration of Shakespeare has become a regular occurrence in modern society, it has roots in the eighteenth century, when famed Shakespearean actor David Garrick arranged the first Stratford Jubilee in 1769. One of the best records of Garrick’s Jubilee is found in this article printed in The Scots Magazine, containing eye-witness accounts of visitors to Stratford for the celebration. The festivities lasted for three days, beginning with performers from Drury Lane walking through the streets singing, waking a sleepy Stratford at 5am with songs written for the celebration, including “Let beauty with the sun arise” and the “Warwickshire ballad.”
The original festivities also included a masked ball, where visitors dressed as their favourite characters from Shakespeare and Classical literature; Garrick’s Ode upon dedicating a building, and erecting a statue, to Shakespeare, at Stratford-upon-Avon (pictured below) given in an amphitheatre constructed especially for the occasion; distinguished meals in the town hall decorated “with paintings [on] transparent silk of Lear, Falstaff, Pistol, Caliban, and the Genius of Shakespeare”; a show of fireworks; and even a horse race won by a horse aptly named “Whirligig” – perhaps an allusion to Shakespeare’s line in Twelfth Night, “and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges (5.1.354).” The cornerstone of the Jubilee was a pageant called the Grand Procession of Shakespeare’s Characters, but due to torrential rain, it never took place. As James Boswell, a visitor from London, observed:
“It was much to be regretted, that bad weather prevented us from having the pageant, upon which Mr Garrick had bestowed so much time in contriving, and so much expense [sic] in furnishing. It was to have been a procession of allegorical beings, with the most distinguished characters of Shakespeare’s plays, with their proper dresses, triumphal cars, and all other kinds of machinery. But the heavy rains made it impossible to have this exhibited, without destroying the valuable dresses, and endangering the still more valuable health of the fair performers.”
The fireworks and horse race seem to also have been affected by the stereotypical British weather, as the horses were reportedly “almost knee deep in water” and the fireworks were no more than damp duds.
After returning to London, Garrick staged an afterpiece he had written entitled The Jubilee, offering audiences at Drury Lane a half-satirical, half-idealised staged version of the Stratford celebrations, including the weather-induced mishaps. The weather had caused Garrick to lose quite a bit of money in the Stratford Jubilee, but his play based on the celebration was popular enough to help him recoup his financial losses. In fact, the Jubilee seems to have inspired quite a few new plays, likely written to compete with or satirise Garrick, such as Garrick’s vagary:, or England run mad and Francis Gentleman’s The Stratford Jubilee. In addition to these eighteenth-century dramatic works, a pocket edition of the songs sung in Garrick’s Jubilee was published, containing the lyrics to of the songs and catches that memorialise this first celebration of Shakespeare, including the song which roused visitors and locals alike at 5am:
Let beauty with the sun arise,
To Shakespeare tribute pay,
With heavenly smiles and sparkling eyes,
Give lustre to the day.
Each smile she gives protects his name,
What face shall dare to frown?
Not envy’s self can blast the fame,
Which beauty deigns to crown.
Though Garrick’s first Stratford Jubilee occurred in September and was intended to occur once every seven years, by 1830 the celebration began to happen annually around the time of Shakespeare’s birth. Other changes, too, have accrued as time has passed, shifting and changing as modern-day society does, and thankfully, the tradition of singing in the streets at 5am has faded from practice! There is no pageant featuring characters from Shakespeare’s plays as Garrick had planned, but the celebrations begin each year with a procession through the town of Stratford, featuring representatives from all over the world, distinguished guests and members of local government, school children and university representatives, a costumed man and woman dressed as William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, and even a giant, cardboard cake drawn by a pair of horses. The procession passes by Shakespeare’s Birthplace, the site of New Place (where he retired), the Royal Shakespeare Company (built on the site where Garrick once built his temporary amphitheatre), Hall’s Croft (his daughter Susanna’s home), finally arriving at Holy Trinity, where a queue of visitors wait to lay flowers on his grave.
Rather than wearing masks for a masquerade ball, visitors now wear rosemary pinned to their shirts, a token of “remembrance” derived from a line in Hamlet (4.5.170). Rather than unfurling painted silks to decorate the town hall, flags from every nation are unfurled along the main streets of Stratford, an indicator of Shakespeare’s global influence. With these flags, the town of Stratford has, in some small sense, watched the rise and fall of nations, as both the flag for the Soviet Union and the Nazi flag have at one time been seen as a part of Stratford’s Shakespeare celebrations, as the Illustrated London News recorded in 1926 and 1934 respectively. In 1942, Squadron Leader and former actor at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, W. Walter stood before Shakespeare’s grave and said, “We come out of the red mist of war for this brief moment of sanity by your quiet resting place,” showing that even in the gravest times of war, the tradition of celebrating Shakespeare has, for some, offered respite. In other years, it has been a merry event, as it was first described in song during Garrick’s time:
This is the day, a holiday! A holiday!
Drive spleen and rancour far away.
This is the day, a holiday! A holiday!
Drive care and sorrow far away …
From heart to heart, let joy rebound,
Now, now, we tread enchanted ground.
As the town prepares once again for this annual celebration of Shakespeare, I cannot help but think what Garrick (and Shakespeare for that matter) might have thought about the nature of our celebrations today, and how they have changed and developed over the last two centuries. This year the celebration is held this coming weekend on Saturday, 27 April, and, as a local resident of Stratford, I invite all “ye Warwickshire lads and lasses” to “see what at our Jubilee passes.”
Blog post cover image citation: The procession along Henley Street, passing Shakespeare’s birthplace on the left (author’s own photo).
 See Michael Dobson. The Making of the National Poet. (Oxford, 1992), p. 219.