The Shakespeare Birthplace marks the 250th anniversary of David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769 and the birth of Stratford-upon-Avon as the place for all things Shakespeare
Although renowned today across the world as the spiritual home of Shakespeare and his plays, back in 1769 Stratford-upon-Avon was a small market town with a population of less than 2,000 with no discernible market for Shakespeare-related tourism. Then in 1769, over three days in September, it became the hub for the world’s first celebration of the town’s most famous son.
2019 year marks the 250th anniversary of the Shakespeare Jubilee, organised by the famous actor and theatre director David Garrick, who between 6-8th September 1769 brought the great and good of 18th century society to Shakespeare’s home town — a place then relatively unknown to the outside world.
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Garrick was a huge Shakespeare fan, and having agreed to donate a statue of Shakespeare to adorn the new Town Hall in 1767 (it remains in place above the main entrance today), he decided to add to the opening of both venue and statue by announcing in May 1769 in the St James’ Chronicle his intention to host a celebration of Shakespeare in Stratford itself.
The preparations attracted a lot of press attention and a temporary pavilion was built on the Bancroft Garden – as it turned out, dangerously close to the River Avon – to host numerous celebrations. What followed was a typically British three day festival of music and merriment that proved to be the catalyst for the nation’s future fascination with the town of Shakespeare’s birth.
As is now customary with British festivals, heavy rain intervened hampering the second and third days, and a grand pageant that was to be the centrepiece had to be cancelled.
Garrick was said to be devastated by the turn of events and never returned to Stratford, but in true theatre impresario style, he adapted the whole episode into a comic play called The Jubilee, which was later performed to great acclaim at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, which was managed by Garrick. As well as offering intellectual succour, the play allowed the financially canny Garrick to recoup the personal financial losses incurred by his Stratford Jubilee venture.
Garrick’s Jubilee may have been flawed but it triggered an interest in Shakespeare the man, as well as Shakespeare the writer, which grew and developed into the next century. When the Shakespeare Birthplace on Henley Street was purchased for the nation in 1847, it paved the way for major improvements to the town, including paved streets, sewers and, eventually, a railway.
In addition to these inducements to visit, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened in 1879, marking a significant gear-change in the tourist experience and the way people experienced the Bard.
“Until Garrick, it wasn’t fashionable to consider Shakespeare as a man, outside of his works,” says Dr Anjna Chouhan, Senior Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. “For a long time, the proper way to celebrate Shakespeare was certainly not by visiting the theatre. Rather, it was respectable to read Shakespeare and experience his work as something moralistic and respectable.
“The very notion of visiting his birthplace was, therefore, somewhat absurd and usually only the preserve of the very wealthy who had an interest and, crucially, the leisure time to travel about looking at dead writer’s houses.”
For today’s heritage tourist, such literary pursuits are commonplace and the Warwickshire town is the recognised first port of call for anyone wanting to get closer to Shakespeare and his works. Approximately 2.5 million visitors flock there every year to immerse themselves in not only the Royal Shakespeare Company’s plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre , but also a range of historic sites including the Shakespeare Birthplace, Guildhall and School Room and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage – each of them bringing eager Shakespearians tantalisingly closer to the elusive man. And it was Garrick who fired this interest.
“Garrick championed the idea of the writer behind the works,” adds Chouhan. “He introduced a new way of approaching Shakespeare and asked a new question: where did the playwright come from? Although the purchase of the house and the transformation of the town happened long after his death, it really was Garrick who drew Shakespearians’ attention to Stratford on a wider scale.
“Even though no word of Shakespeare was spoken at the Jubilee, and the townsfolk were less than keen about the whole festival, the very fact that a celebrity like Garrick deigned to visit and champion Stratford-upon-Avon, was enough to convince the literary London set, and Stratford itself, that Shakespeare’s birthplace was worth paying attention to.”
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust exhibition pays homage to its progenitor by exploring the genesis of the Shakespeare/Stratford phenomenon and the story of Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee, with the help of some rarely seen objects held in the Trust’s internationally recognised Collection.
Among them is a commemorative rosette and medal, a ticket to the Jubilee event, and an oil painting depicting scenes from the event. There’s also a rather fine portrait of Garrick in his Stratford jubilee regalia, looking every inch the Georgian patrician as he gazes fondly at his specially designed medal made of mulberry wood with a carved Shakespeare portrait.
As most devotees of Shakespeare know, Shakespeare famously planted a Mulberry tree in the gardens of his home New Place in Stratford upon Avon in 1609 after the palace urged all landowners to plant them in the hope of promoting a native silk industry. The attempt actually failed because the wrong type of mulberry was selected and Shakespeare’s tree was eventually destroyed in the 1750s by the owner of New Place after he tired of the constant requests for samples of its wood.
Other treasures include a pair of Mrs Garrick’s shoes, high-heeled leather mules which originally boasted a vivid red, turquoise silk trim and lining with an entwining embroidered metal pattern on the pointed toes, which help turn the spotlight on the charming Eva Garrick, who was a dancer before she abandoned her career to become a Georgian socialite wife. According to contemporary reports she revisited her first love by dancing a minuet with her husband at the Jubilee.
Other objects include the Garrick Ode to Shakespeare, the actor’s self-penned tribute to the bard, which he delivered with musical accompaniment at the Jubilee and, as is fitting in any celebration of a tourist town, early examples of the trade in Shakespeare tourist memorabilia, which as any visitor to Stratford knows, are as much a part of our relationship with Shakespeare as Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet; and we have Garrick to thank for that.
Be Inspired, Shakespeare and Me is at Shakespeare’s Birthplace until December 31, 2019.
Shakespeare's Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is an independent charity that cares for Shakespeare's heritage. It owns five Shakespeare Houses in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, all directly linked to Shakespeare. The Trust also cares for Harvard House. The wider work of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust extends to managing one of the largest Shakespeare…