ArtIssue 13

Signifying Nothing: Shakespeare’s death at 400

William Shakespeare was born on 23rd April 1564 and died on 23rd April 1616. His collected plays were first published seven years after his death; by 1630 his birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, was best known as the place where Shakespeare lived, despite the fact that his most important years were spent writing plays in London.

Shakespeare had made enough money as a play­wright to be able to buy New Place, the second grandest house in Stratford, in 1597. He was said to have planted a mulberry tree in the garden there during the spring of 1609. The tree became as famous as the house itself, and even began to attract visitors as Shakespeare progressed from the most frequently-published and widely-read playwright of his time to the most prominent, celebrated and popular of all the English poets. Within a century of his death Shakespeare’s eminence was such that he was celebrated by people who had never seen his work in a theatre or bothered to read it.

In September 1769 the first Stratford Jubilee was held, to commemorate the 205th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth (give or take 4 ½ months). The actor David Garrick was appointed Steward of the Jubilee. Dr Johnson decided not to attend, but up to 2,000 others did, among whom was Dr Johnson’s biographer Boswell, who gladly postponed treatment for a pox in order to witness the festivities.

The focus of the Stratford Jubilee was the Stratford Rotunda, an octagonal wooden amphi­theatre built to look like the then-famous Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea (demolished in 1802). The Stratford Rotunda had a stage that could hold a hundred performers and a dance floor that had room for a thousand guests; the Jubilee’s ball as well as its performances were to be held in this elaborate temporary structure. But festivities were to take place throughout Stratford. They began on the morning of 5th September.

Thirty cannon fired; every church bell in town rang; a chorus of actors sang and the Warwickshire county militia band struck up a tune whilst Jubilee-goers took part in a public breakfast outside Stratford Town Hall. The bust of Shakespeare at his tomb in Holy Trinity Church was hung with garlands. Music, poems and solemnities filled the day. There was going to be a parade with a procession of Shakespearean characters had it not started to rain.

Two thousand wet, angry people crammed into the Rotunda; there was no other shelter for them. Nobody had bothered to put up a tent anywhere. The river Avon swelled and almost flooded from the downpour. Garrick gave a Jubilee Oration from the stage; at its climax he drew on a pair of gloves that Shakespeare himself was said to have worn as an actor. In the resulting applause several benches in the back of the Rotunda collapsed and Lord Carlisle was almost killed by a falling door. Yet the Jubilee’s masked ball carried on that evening, even though the water was ankle-deep on the dancefloor. Many who decided to leave the Rotunda at that point and call it a night fell into flooded ditches on their way out.

The next morning wooden planks were provided as relatively dry walkways for those who had stayed inside the structure all night long. Few were still there for the after-breakfast horse race.

The one-legged actor-playwright Samuel Foote (1720–1777), himself an ex-Shakespearean whose most notable failure was as Othello in 1744, defined the term ‘jubilee’ thus in the wake of the Stratford event:


‘A Jubilee, as it has lately appeared, is a public invitation […] to an obscure borough […] to celebrate a great poet […] by an ode without poetry, music without melody, dinners without victuals, and lodgings without beds; a masquerade where half the people appeared bare-faced; a horserace up to the knees in water, fireworks extinguished as soon as they were lighted, and a gingerbread amphitheatre which, like a house of cards, tumbled to pieces as soon as it was finished.’


Celebrations of Shakespeare have proliferated ever since. 2014 already marked the 450th anniversary of the poet’s birth, and commemorations were as expensive and elaborate as they were forgettable. But certain institutions – the BBC, the British Library, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the British Film Institute – felt the need at least to pretend to do something this year too. The results have been in keeping with the tradition established by Garrick.

Most tributes have come in the form of special ‘Shakespeare 400’ websites; the National Theatre’s included an interview with Lenny Henry. Yet even that is far more informative still than the ‘Shakespeare In Ten Acts’ exhibition at the British Library, which seems to be made up of leftovers from the National’s archive but still costs up to £12 per ticket. A few valuable items are on display that the British Library ought to have exhibited for free. Other museums have done almost as little, or even less. The Museum of London has put on a display of random household objects that were mentioned in Shakespeare’s works.

As at the original Stratford Jubilee, Shakespeare’s plays have been conspicuous by their absence during this year’s anniversary: no major theatre put on a special commemorative production, only the odd low-cost ‘event’ to make Shakespeare ‘accessible’ for bored teenagers. Maybe not just teenagers: the new Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in Southwark, Emma Rice, claims not to understand the big ‘posh’ words in Shakespearean verse.

And where theatre failed this year, so did television. On 23rd April the Royal Shakespeare Company presented Shakespeare Live, a 135-minute variety show apparently designed as a language teaching tool for Adult Education classes. It was broadcast live that Saturday night, not only on BBC2, but in cinemas internationally, for the whole world to see how the English need B-list television stars to make crappy jokes about their greatest writer in order to sustain even mild interest in his oeuvre. Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale and a handful of others were allowed a few brief scenes and passages from Shakespeare; otherwise there was a great deal of bad dancing, worse singing and unfunny comedy. Most degrading of all was a hip-hop ‘homage’ to Shakespeare that was as humiliating to watch as it must have been to perform. This was the best the nation could do.

Even in Stratford nobody bothered with a Shakespeare-themed parade this year, though the Globe Theatre did arrange a special ‘Shakespeare Walk’ along the banks of the Thames for the 23rd and 24th of April. This was an elaborate multimedia production: 37 screens were set up at various locations between Westminster Bridge and Tower Bridge; each screen featured a specially-commissioned ten-minute film on a play by Shakespeare. At 2 ½ miles, with 370 minutes of film to watch, ‘The Complete Walk’ ought to have taken around eight hours to complete. On the morning and afternoon of Saturday 23rd one could finish the whole circuit in as little as thirty-five minutes because the screens weren’t working. More than one retired schoolteacher burst into tears; the Globe’s website and Twitter feed were flooded with angry complaints.

Of all national institutions only the BBC seems to have committed any serious resources to the anniversary at all, though most of their resulting contributions to ‘Shakespeare Festival 2016’ have been beneath contempt. Most trying of all is Upstart Crow (BBC2), a historical ‘comedy’ that scarcely deserves mention. The Hollow Crown (BBC2), a compressed three-part adaptation of the Henry VI plays and Richard III starring Benedict Cumberbatch, has proved to be watchable at least, and is an improvement on the 2012 series, which was marred not least by an unconvincing friendship between Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) and Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale). Still, Shakespeare cannot compete as pure television with Wolf Hall or Game of Thrones. Screen and TV adaptations fail because no images can compete with Shakespeare’s words. If only the BBC had figured this out sooner.

‘Shakespeare Festival 2016’ on radio and television has on the whole been disappointing and forgettable, except for the half-hour spoof documentary Cunk on Shakespeare (broadcast on BBC2 on 11th May), which was written by Charlie Brooker, Jason Hazeley and Joe Morris. Diane Morgan revived her Philomena Cunk character from Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe. The whole sorry anniversary is almost justified by this single program, which lays bare how inept, philistine and cynical this sort of celebration has become.

When the Globe and the BBC try to make Shakespeare ‘accessible’, Philomena Cunk represents their target audience: a bored, jaded teenager with a thick Mancunian accent who knows and cares nothing for the subject, and thinks that theatre is for people who wear glasses. Cunk on Shakespeare purports to be an exploration of Shakespeare by a TV presenter who finds Simon Russell Beale’s reading of the “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet so dull that she starts eating a banana and scrolling through her iPhone in front of him, unable even to pretend she’s interested. Throughout the program she remains unconvinced that anybody can understand or enjoy Shakespeare’s “gobbledygook” language.

Cunk on Shakespeare is a masterfully insolent provocation. The language and style of BBC documentaries is subverted; long clips from BBC Shakespeare videos of the 1970s are used to demonstrate how dated and ludicrous they are; best of all there are interviews with Shakespeare experts (Professor Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; the stage director Iqbal Khan; an archivist in Stratford) who are made to look pompous, hypocritical and patronising. Diane Morgan as Cunk deliberately mispronounces terms like ‘iambic pentameter’ to provoke her interlocutors into ‘misunderestimating’ her. Some of this is simply cruel, and the ending of the program is deeply offensive, which makes it a delight to watch.

If not quite perfect, Cunk on Shakespeare is the only intelligent contribution to ‘Shakespeare Festival 2016’ – or this entire anniversary. Certainly nobody will remember anything else. Yet as with the 1769 Jubilee the question remains unanswered: what was the point of this whole degrading spec­tacle in the first place?

In 1753 the Revd. Mr. Francis Gastrell, retired vicar of Frodsham, bought Shakespeare’s old house in Stratford. The constant stream of intrusive literary pilgrims began to irk him; he could not even sit quietly in the garden because so many strangers wanted to see that famous mulberry tree. He also objected to paying full taxes for a house that he only lived in part-time. Thus the Revd. Mr. Gastrell’s decision: he demolished the house and left town, swearing never to return to Stratford – but not before he had the mulberry tree cut down and chopped into firewood. A local watchmaker managed to buy the wood off him … and had it made into Shakespeare souvenirs.

We cannot win.