Stratford Jubilee



  • The celebrations organized by David Garrick and others to markthe bicentenary of Shakespeare's birth. Undaunted by the fact thatthe true date had passed in 1764, and that Shakespeare had been born in April,Garrick set the celebrations for September 1769 and arranged for lavishdisplays of fireworks, cannonades, music, fancy dress, and parades.

    The first of the four days of the festival went well, with30 cannons firing a salute and musicians serenading the crowds. Thespectators included James Boswell and the composer Thomas Arne, withwhom Garrick had collaborated upon an Ode upon Dedicating a Buildingto Shakespeare, specially written for the occasion. On the secondday, however, the rain began. The triumphal procession never tookplace, the river burst its banks as the soprano Mrs Baddeley sang"Soft thou gently flowing Avon", and guests at the fancydress ball found themselves dancing minuets ankle-deep in water. Onleaving the ball, 150 guests fell into a flooded ditch; the rest waitedin the marquee until daybreak before attempting to escape. On topof all this, the only lines from Shakespeare that were spoken duringthe festival were misquoted - nonetheless, they remained singularlyappropriate:

    If there be any, speak, for him have I offended.
    One hundred years later it was almost inevitable that theidea of another jubilee should be mooted. In 1863 it was announcedthat a National Shakespeare committee had been formed to oversee celebrationsof Shakespeare's tercentenery - among its members were Sir EdwardBulwer-Lytton, Tennyson, and Charles Dickens.

    The committee was dominated by Hepworth Dixon, editor of theAthenaeum, who - unknown to his colleagues - harboureda deep grudge (based on an old quarrel) against William Thackeray,who was strongly favoured to join the committee's ranks. Through aseries of manoeuvres Dixon succeeded in having a resolution passedto the effect that Thackeray would not be invited to join the committee.This led to a furore in the press, which only ended when on ChristmasEve the novelist was found dead in his bed. Somewhat taken by surprise,Dixon hastily delivered a laudatory speech in Thackeray's memory atthe committee's next meeting and suggested that his resolution bedeleted from the minutes. However, this time he had miscalculated;his outraged fellow-committee members not only insisted that the resolutionremain on the minutes for all time but passed a further resolutionregretting the whole affair. Within weeks the organization had disbandedin disgust.

    The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth was marked bythe opening of the Shakespeare Centre next to the playwright's birthplace.