Shakespeare is not just for an age, nor just for all time, but for everyone. Our Artistic Director Gregory Doran explains why his 400th anniversary is a good time to reaffirm that belief.

In 1662, John Ward was appointed vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. He notes somewhat anxiously in his diary: "Remember to peruse Shakespeare's plays, and be much versed in them, that I may not be ignorant in that matter”, a sentiment no doubt echoed by every Stratford vicar since.

But he also writes: “Shakespeare, Drayton and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted”.

This is the only account we have of Shakespeare’s death in 1616. According to his funerary monument in the church, he died on 23 April, which is generally accepted to be the very day on which he was born. So perhaps he went out merrily celebrating his 52nd birthday with his two mates, Ben and Mike (Michael Drayton, a fellow Warwickshire poet), and overdid it rather drastically.

Elliot Barnes-Worrell holding a tray of drinks while Alex Hassall as Prince Hal laughs
A tavern scene with Elliot Barnes-Worrell and Alex Hassall in Henry IV, Part I
Photo by Kwame Lestrade © RSC Browse and license our images

Marking Shakespeare's death

Whatever the truth of the matter, this year we are marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s fatal birthday binge.

So how will we be marking this great Shakespeare anniversary, and how have they marked his big centenaries in the past?

They all began in Stratford. In 1769, (having missed the bi-centenary of Shakespeare’s birth by five years) a canny town council invited the great actor-manager, David Garrick to donate a statue of Stratford’s famous son to adorn the niche in the newly built town hall at the top of Sheep Street.

Garrick however decided that the presentation of a mere statue was not enough and arranged a three day Festival. A special rotunda pavilion would be built on the Bancroft, an area of open grazing land next to the Avon. There would be a procession of one hundred people dressed as characters from Shakespeare; and a firework display across the river, for which all the willows would have to be cut down.

Unfortunately as the dates chosen were in early September, and this is England after all, it rained, and continued to do so for three days. The rotunda was nearly flooded as the Avon burst its banks and turned the Bancroft into a quagmire, the procession had to be cancelled, and the fireworks all got damp and would not light.

However, the whole disastrous occasion was saved when Garrick himself rose in the soggy pavilion and recited an ode he himself had written dedicated to Shakespeare: a man of the theatre speaking of another great man of the theatre. It saved the day.

“’Tis he! ’Tis he! /The god of our idolatry!” he cried, and thus put Shakespeare on a high pedestal, from which he has never descended.

Garrick’s famous Jubilee, at which not a single word of Shakespeare was actually spoken, kicked off the Shakespeare industry with Stratford-upon-Avon as the epicentre. And it remains so until this day.

Engraving of David Garrick as Hamlet from 1754, wearing a long black coat with the white frilly sleeves of his shirt protruding
Engraving of David Garrick as Hamlet in 1754

19th Century visions of Shakespeare

A poster announcing the next big Shakespeare jamboree in Stratford still hangs behind the bar in the Shakespeare Hotel in Chapel Street. It heralds all the events in a festival to celebrate the Bard’s third century, in 1864. The official programme announces that “the substantial object for which the pecuniary results of the festival will be devoted” would be “the erection of a National Monument to Shakespeare in the town of his birth”. The week-long festival, housed in an even larger rotunda, in a paddock near the church, included the familiar balls, banquets and concerts, but it opened with an intriguing firework display.

The programme excitingly lists flights of tourbillons, shells of fanfaronades, sunflower wheels and peacock’s plume rockets. The grand concluding piece “made especially for the occasion” was called “The Vision of Shakespeare: formed of many thousand lights …forming a bouquet of the most beautiful fires known in the pyrotechnic art”. Quite how this conjured a vision of Shakespeare is, at this distance, a little unclear, but certainly the latest technology was being employed in the service of the celebration of the great national bard.

Overall however, the 1864 festival was a bit of a damp squib, and ended in debt, with no contribution to any promised Shakespeare monument. That had to wait until the foundation of a Shakespeare Memorial Association in 1875, which raised the money for the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford, which opened four years later. A local Stratford brewer, Charles Edward Flower, donated the river side site and raised so much of the money himself he became known as “self-raising Flower”.

Painting of sir Frank Benson in a navy blazer and white shorts, seated in a chair
Oil on canvas portrait of Sir Frank Benson, painted in 1910.
Painted by Hugh G Riviere © RSC Browse and license our images

Celebrating Shakespeare in London

There were objections that Shakespeare’s genius should be celebrated in a small market town in the West Midlands, when the capital had no such memorial. So London’s ambition for the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 1916 was to rival Stratford and erect a theatre worthy of Shakespeare in the capital.

Preparations began early. Five years before, in 1911, a Shakespeare Ball was held at the Albert Hall, a highlight in the coronation season of King George V. I found a copy of the souvenir brochure in the Chaucer Head second hand book shop in Stratford. It is a splendid volume, produced to commemorate this spectacular event, and bound in vellum and watered silk. At Midsummer, it says “Elizabethan England was loosed upon Kensington”.

The Ball was attended by Crown Princes, and Serene Highnesses, Grand Dukes and Dowager Duchesses from all around the globe. Ambassadors rubbed shoulders with Maharajahs. The Hall was decorated like an Italian garden, with a circle of tall cypress trees pointing to a false ceiling representing a balmy blue Mediterranean sky. The boxes, hung with vines, resembled arbours in a tall clipped yew hedge, topped with “quaintly fashioned birds”. A special parquet dance floor was laid, on which a Quadrille was danced by the actual descendants of Queen Elizabeth I and her court.

Everyone attended as a character from Shakespeare. Here was Mrs Arthur Bouchier, (the Actress Violet Vanbrugh) looking particularly fierce as Lady Macbeth, and the leather-clad 19-year-old Vita Sackville West as Katharina from The Taming of the Shrew, wielding a bull whip. A committee ensured that every play was covered and that no two guests arrived as the same character. The ladies threw themselves into it, but one of the gentlemen confessed the men were generally “too self-conscious to be gay”.

George Bernard Shaw and GK Chesterton wrote articles for the brochure, in which Sir Israel Gollancz, the honorary Secretary of the Shakespeare Memorial committee, wrote a poignant epilogue: “May we all dance again at the Shakespeare Ball in the Shakespeare Commemoration week of 1916”. But by then of course the clouds of War had rolled in and a second Shakespeare Ball was out of the question. £10,000 was raised for a fitting memorial for Shakespeare, but no such theatre was built.

However, despite the war, the tercentenary was marked with some style. On the afternoon of 2 May 1916, the King and Queen and Princess Mary drove through streets thronged with crowds to Drury Lane Theatre to witness a one-off production of Julius Caesar, with a cast assembled from the very best theatrical talent of the period.

The late Sir Henry Irving’s son, HB Irving, played Cassius, the dashing Henry Ainley was Mark Antony and Arthur Bouchier played Brutus. Caesar was played by Stratford’s own Frank 'Pa' Benson.

I have a particular affection for this indomitable sports-mad actor-manager. He ran the annual Shakespeare Festivals here before the war. At 11am on the morning of the gala, Benson had received news that he was to be knighted during the performance. So he duly presented himself in the Royal Box in the interval. “I was made up in stage-apparel for the corpse of Julius Caesar, he wrote later, with blue lips and sunken eyes, and a long Roman night-shirt”. As his majesty had not arrived in dress uniform, the theatre manager suddenly realised that there was no sword to confer the honour, and had to send out to Messers Simmons the costumiers in Covent Garden for a prop one.

One of the actors dashed back to Stratford, and appeared before the curtain at the end of the second act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to announce the news, but was unable to finish, before the house, guessing what had happened rose in an almighty cheer.

Pa Benson, now Sir Frank, arrived back in Stratford from Paddington the following day and was met at the station by the town. His acting company harnessed themselves to a carriage and drew him through the cheering crowds back to the theatre.

A couple of days later, Stratford held its own celebration of Shakespeare’s tercentenary, a special matinee performance of scenes from Shakespeare, and top of the bill was the great Ellen Terry who appeared as Queen Katherine of Aragon in the Kimbolton scene from King Henry VIII.

A Pen and Ink drawing of Ellen Terry as Queen Katherine in Henry VIII in 1902.
A pen and ink drawing of Ellen Terry as Queen Katherine in Henry VIII in 1902.

Marking the 400th anniversary

At other times of Shakespeare celebration in Stratford the choice of Shakespeare’s plays has been a significant factor. When we opened Elisabeth Scott’s art deco theatre in 1932 the plays chosen were Henry IV Parts I and II. For the Festival of Britain in 1951 the entire tetralogy was mounted: from Richard II (with Michael Redgrave as “the skipping king”), Henry IV (with Antony Quayle as Falstaff), and Henry V (with Richard Burton as the young monarch). And in 1964 or the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth Peter Hall and John Barton defined their new Royal Shakespeare Company by mounting an anti-heroic cycle of both history cycles, referred to as The Wars of the Roses. Trevor Nunn opened the Barbican Theatre with the Henry IV plays in 1982. At moments of national celebration, we like to re-identify ourselves through Shakespeare’s mythology of nationhood.

So there are several recurring themes in our celebrations of Shakespeare which have helped me decide how we, as the keepers of the flame, should mark his 400th anniversary in 2016.

To begin with, we are launching the year at the Barbican by putting together his great history cycle, which we began in 2013 with David Tennant as Richard II; the Henry IV plays with Jasper Britton as the King and Antony Sher as the fat knight; and Alex Hassell as the warrior King Henry V. Those productions then tour internationally to China (our first visit to the People’s Republic with our main repertoire) and to New York.

Celebrating Stratford-upon-Avon as The Shakespeare destination of 2016, the place, Henry James once called “the Mecca of the English-speaking races”, we are mounting a full and varied programme at our home base.

Our flagship production is Shakespeare’s most engaging play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It will tour to the nine regions and three nations of the United Kingdom and in each venue, Bottom and his rude mechanicals will be played by local amateurs, with Titania’s fairies performed by local school children. The production arrives back in Stratford for midsummer, with each amateur group getting its chance to perform on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage.

We open our season with a new production of Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu as the young prince, to ensure that when Hamlet says the purpose of theatre is to hold a mirror up to nature, that our diverse population may see their own reflection there. This production is then joined in the repertoire by Cymbeline and King Lear.

Following the tradition of a great gala concert in honour of our house playwright, and (as the 1864 programme suggests), “so that the expression of our admiration should be sempiternal” we are collaborating with BBC TV to broadcast worldwide on Shakespeare’s birth and death day, The Shakespeare Show. This major event will celebrate Shakespeare’s legacy in all the other arts, with opera, ballet, jazz, rap, musical theatre, and Shakespeare’s original words spoken by some of our greatest Shakespeare exponents, many of whom started their illustrious careers at the RSC.

A pilgrimage to Stratford

David Garrick launched Stratford-upon-Avon’s reputation as a place of pilgrimage for Shakespeare lovers. A theme echoed through the centuries since. Constance Collier, who played Juliet in one of those balmy late Edwardian summers, before the Great War, recollects how going to Stratford was “like a pilgrimage, as believers go to Lourdes to dip themselves in the sacred waters. You dressed for your part, she writes, and between acts, drifted about in a boat, listening to the nightingales and the rippling water, looking down the river towards Warwick, the same river that Shakespeare knew and dreamed of as a boy”.

The nightingales may have gone, but now millions arrive here from all over the world every year. I arrived, having hitchhiked down the M6 from Preston, as a teenager in the early 70s, and seem never to have left. Now as Artistic Director I sometimes jokingly refer to myself as the high priest of a global if benign cult.

2016 will no doubt see even more undertake the pilgrimage; to breathe the air Shakespeare breathed, and take a moment to stand by his bust in Holy Trinity or watch a play in the theatre at which he is still house playwright, where he is still spiritually in residence, and very much alive.

And we have even taken a leaf out of the Jubilee mania for fireworks. We may not have tourbillons, fanfaronades, and peacock’s plume rockets, but we will ignite a giant pyrotechnical display of Shakespeare’s head on the birthday of the playwright that Ben Jonson called our “star of poets”.

We set ourselves a simple task this year:  to reach new audiences. And we’ll do that either internationally in our visit to China and the worldwide broadcast of The Shakespeare Show. We’ll do it nationally, regionally and locally with our Dream tour, and the extension of our Live From broadcasts which we stream for free into schools in the UK, reaching kids in many socially and economically deprived areas that don’t get to theatre, let alone have access to Shakespeare. And we’ll entice people to come and see Shakespeare by presenting him with the latest technological innovation available. We believe that Shakespeare is not just for an age, nor just for all time, but for everyone. His 400th anniversary is a good time to reaffirm that belief.

Our “Vision of Shakespeare” in the 21st century will reveal how we attempt to fashion him in our own image today, just as clearly as the statues, fancy-dress balls and parades demonstrate how we have appropriated him in the past. How we celebrate him this year will no doubt say more about us, than it will tell us about him.

A line of golden fireworks and a line portrait of Shakespeare's head made of flames
Shakespeare's 450th birthday fireworks
Photo by Lucy Barriball © RSC Browse and license our images
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