“You must live drawn by your own sweet skill”: Remembering Shakespeare in Victorian Stratford-upon-Avon


Dr Anjna Chouhan completed her PhD at the Victorian Studies Centre in 2011 with a thesis on Shakespeare and Victorian religion, and is now a lecturer at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. In the first of a series of blog posts on Shakespeare in the Victorian era to mark the 450th anniversary of his birth, Anjna discusses celebrations of the Bard’s tercentenary in 1864 – and the nineteenth-century Shakespearians who were instrumental in establishing his hometown as the centre of commemorations.

Charles Dickens’s signature in the visitor’s book at the Shakespeare Birthplace (By kind permission of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).

2014 marks the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and there will be celebrations on an international scale with parties, performances, debates, and conferences all across the globe. Perhaps most excitingly, this year will see the launch of Shakespeare Week: an annual celebration of Shakespeare and his work, specifically for primary schools. Children between the ages of 7 and 11 will have the opportunity to explore Shakespeare’s world, his life and times, developing an enthusiasm for the most famous of all playwrights and taking part in a global celebration. But no celebration will be quite like those taking place in Shakespeare’s idyllic hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.

The tradition of marking Shakespeare’s birthday with grand celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon began in the eighteenth century, with the jubilee organised by the legendary actor David Garrick. However, it was during the Victorian era that both Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the town itself became the de facto location in which to celebrate in April. Prior to the 1769 Garrick jubilee celebrations, up until the Birthplace was turned into a museum in 1847, Stratford’s streets were muddy with poor roads and few residents who knew or cared for Shakespeare’s legacy. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, learned and well-travelled individuals made pilgrimages to Stratford to look inside the home, which by now had fallen into disrepair. Guests, including John Keats and Charles Dickens, would etch their names into the panes of glass in the birth room, and sign in the open visitor book, which is now carefully preserved in the collection at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

A ticket from a fancy dress ball held in honour of Shakespeare’s tercentenary, 29 April 1864 (by kind permission of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).

In spite of these sporadic pilgrims, Stratford was still not considered a viable place to celebrate the works and life of Shakespeare. It was really the mid-Victorian urge to preserve and memorialise the great icon that propelled the town into everlasting fame. In the sale room at the auction of the Birthplace in 1847 were a few notable figures representing the Stratford Committee, including J. P. Collier (who would later become an infamous Shakespeare forger); the publisher and editor of the Penny Magazine Charles Knight, and J. O. Halliwell-Phillips (who was instrumental in the creation of the Birthplace museum). Each one was a significant Shakespeare scholar and founding member of the Shakespeare Society. A few years before the sale, Charles Knight published his Biography of Shakspere [sic] in 1843, in which he urged the public to stand upstairs in the Birthplace and ‘disturb not the belief that William Shakespeare first saw the light in this venerated room’. Running up to, and for decades after the sale, biographers and artists tirelessly constructed romanticised narratives and images of Shakespeare’s boyhood in Stratford, re-writing the Birthplace as a centre of domestic bliss and the definitive origin of the immortal Bard.

The Birthplace was to feature heavily in Shakespeare’s birthday in 1864. The week-long Shakespeare Tercentenary celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon ranged from a cradle-to-grave procession and special evening theatre performances, and a fancy dress ball and a ‘grand display of fireworks’ arranged by the celebrated pyrotechnic Mr. Darby (whose display was so robust that the smoke completely obscured the ‘grand’ finale from sight).

Over the course of a week, commencing on Saturday 23rd April, thousands of visitors arrived in the small town via the newly installed railway, for which a special tercentenary timetable had been scheduled to accommodate the influx of tourists. In the official tercentenary guide there are maps, train schedules, walking tours and a detailed programme of events. A festival pavilion was erected along the river Avon, in which visitors could watch productions of Shakespeare, hear lectures and attend banquets, at which ladies were ‘particularly invited to attend’.


A print of the tercentenary banquet in 1864 inside the festival pavilion (by kind permission of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).

The town itself was the central attraction: the respective homes in which Shakespeare was born and died, the Birthplace and New Place; the town hall; the grammar school where he was likely to have studied as a youth, and Holy Trinity Church which serves as his resting place. Notwithstanding the attractions surrounding Stratford and its own beautiful setting, the tercentenary guide makes the bold claim that ‘the places connected with the life of Shakespeare are those which, on an occasion like this, claim the first notice of the visitor’.

A poster advertising the 'Grand Pageant' held in honour of Shakespeare's birth at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1864 (by kind permission of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).

A poster advertising the ‘Grand Pageant’ held in honour of Shakespeare’s birth at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1864 (by kind permission of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).

Naturally, the week offered ample opportunity to explore Shakespeare’s works, and to learn about the man himself. There were also two sermons preached at Holy Trinity, both of which expounded on the God-given talents of the Bard, and of the moral, instructive capacity of his works.

No large-scale, official celebration can take place without criticism. The people of Stratford in 1864 were unfortunately overwhelmed by the enormity of the proceedings, and especially disconcerted by the ticket prices which ranged from 5 to 21 shillings, depending on the event. Protest posters were, therefore, pasted up around town urging locals to meet and rally against the influx of ‘carriages of profitless swells’. A special pageant was arranged by locals to celebrate Shakespeare as a ‘poet of the people’, who, incidentally and unsurprisingly, also took advantage of the free firework display.

While the nature of the 2014 celebrations will be different to those of 1864, the love, reverence and universality of Shakespeare will certainly fill the air in Stratford-upon-Avon throughout the month of April. And it is to the persistent campaigning and collective fervour of Victorian Shakespearians that we owe our thanks for the great privilege of honouring Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. Without them, in the words of Charles Knight, both the Birthplace and Shakespeare’s connection to it would have been ‘swept away in the course of modern improvement’.

Dr Anjna ChouhanDr Anjna Chouhan is lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Anjna teaches and writes about Shakespeare, particularly about the reception and performance history of Shakespeare in the nineteenth century, and is the editor of a volume on Henry Irving in ‘Lives of Shakespearian Actors’ (Pickering & Chatto). She has appeared on the BBC Two series ‘Great British Railway Journeys’ (series 4, episode 1 – 7th Jan 2013), talking about the Shakespeare Birthplace and Victorian tourism.

Read more about Shakespeare Week here.


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