Image: Illustration from Richard Foulkes, The Shakespeare Tercentenary of 1864

With just over two weeks until the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on 23 April 1616, Professor Sir Brian Vickers, one of the UK’s most distinguished Shakespearian scholars, takes a historical look at celebrations marking the literary giant’s birth and death. In the Victorian and Edwardian periods these would be ‘occasions for banquets and pageants rather than literary exhibitions or collective volumes of literary criticism.’  

Celebrating Shakespeare’s birth (1564) or death (1616) is a venerable custom. The Catalogue of the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, an invaluable repository of the printed record, including ephemera, lists material from 1769, 1816, 1827, 1830, 1836, 1864, 1916, 1923, and 1964 (some of these dates seem odd).

In the Victorian and Edwardian periods these were popular activities, occasions for banquets and pageants rather than literary exhibitions or collective volumes of literary criticism. Programmes and menus survive from dinners at Nock’s Royal Hotel, Birmingham, the Derby tercentennial banquet, and the ‘Fancy Ball’ on 14 May 1864, as depicted in the Illustrated London News.

Towering above all others were the celebrations organised by the National Shakespeare Committee. On April 9 1864 a ‘Character Ball and Masque’ were held in the Royal Agricultural Hall, during which the colossal tercentenary bust modelled by Charles Bacon was unveiled. (The venue, said to be one of the largest public halls in Europe, survives as the Business Design Centre, its rear entrance unchanged on Liverpool Road, Islington.)

On 21 April a concert of songs from Shakespeare and readings followed, and on both occasions the cavernous hall had been decorated with pink drapery, masking the spaces beneath the gallery, and inn signs, including Ye Tabard and The Boar’s Head, hung along the sides. I’m not sure whether the audience could concentrate on the music with that massive head looking down on them [see feature image]. Not every planned celebration took place, however. A Shakespeare banquet planned in Paris on 23 April 1864 was banned by Napoleon III, an early example of cultural politics.

The next big centenary fell in 1916, bad timing for the Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, which had been planning the event since 1904. Their large and sumptuous volume, A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, only appeared in 1916, and its editor, Israel Gollancz (King’s College, London), sadly recorded that ‘the dream of the world’s brotherhood to be demonstrated by its common and united commemoration of Shakespeare, with many another fond illusion, was rudely shattered’. Now its catchment area was reduced to recording ‘the widespread reverence for Shakespeare as shared with the English-speaking world by our allies and neutral states’. Yet a consolation arrived from an unexpected source. Although the original plan was for 100 contributors worldwide, it ‘soon became clear that … the British Empire alone could not be represented by less than one hundred contributors’.

Shakespeare celebrations catch nations at significant stages in their history. The ‘imperial theme’ had been sounded since 1901 by the British Empire Shakespeare Society, one of the largest of many such bodies, which published its Official Gazette from 1915 to 1939; the Bath branch was still meeting in 1955, the Glasgow one in 1956. The British Academy was more fortunate in its timing: its annual Shakespeare lecture series was inaugurated in 1911 by the French scholar J. J. Jusserand, and in 1913 Alois Brandl lectured on the huge topic of ‘Shakespeare in Germany’, the country that had led the world in Shakespeare scholarship during the preceding century.

Happily, Shakespeare anniversaries have not always been marked by such serious concerns, for in Britain, at least, a vein of irreverence keeps breaking through. The 1864 celebrations included ‘Shakespeare’s Comic Tricentenary, or Quaint Memories of ye Bard’, a ‘Tercentenary draught board’, a ‘Tercentenary badge (Coventry manufacture)’, and ‘the Bard of Avon quadrilles’.

After the bardolatry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it is refreshing to come across Victorian burlesques (which imply a fair knowledge of the object of the parody) such as Hamlet! The Ravin’ Prince of Denmark!! Or the Baltic Swell!!! And the Diving Belle!!!; or Othello: an Interesting Drama, Rather! Visitors to Knole House, Sevenoaks, which has belonged to the Sackville family since Elizabethan times, may be amused to find a Shakespeare Doorstop [below, left], made for Victoria Sackville-West.Doorstop

For a full celebration of this Shakespeare Quatercentenary, both serious and comic, we need look no further than Senate House and its library. Under the leadership of the librarian Jackie Marfleet, and Dr Nick Barratt (associate director, collections and engagement), Senate House Library (SHL) will offer a rich programme currently consisting of 26 events with more to come.

The centrepiece will be the Library’s first major exhibition, Shakespeare: Metamorphosis, which will reflect the many changes that Shakespearian text and scholarship, as well as perceptions our perceptions of Shakespeare have undergone. Curated by Dr Karen Attar and Dr Richard Espley, and inspired by the ‘seven ages of man’ speech from As You Like It, the exhibition traces this 400-year transformation by displaying over 30 rare texts from seven significant ages of development. They will include SHL’s splendid collection of all four Shakespeare Folios.

The celebrations will be launched at a press conference on 13 April, with Professor Sir Jonathan Bate giving the first lecture on 15 April, and Dr Stanley Wells giving the concluding one on 17 September. To pick out a few events, there will be lectures on ‘Shakespeare burlesqued’ (Michael Slater), ‘Shakespeare – a German writer’ (Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex and Professor Martin Swales), ‘Macbeth on the Victorian stage’ (Sandra Clarke, who has just published the Arden 3 edition), and a presentation by the Talawa Theatre Company, entitled ‘Speak what we feel’.

Other topics covering this 400 year period include ‘Reinterpreting Shakespeare’s will’, ‘The metamorphosis of “New Place”’, and Shakespeare and the First World War. Nor will the modern media be neglected, with one session on ‘Shakespeare in London: a Wikipedia workshop’ and another on ‘From 1899 to digital: the Arden Shakespeare’ in its latest guise.

To end on a personal note, I have had the privilege of organising two events. One is a symposium in which six speakers will discuss ‘Shakespeare’s text down the ages’, a topic that perfectly illustrates the overarching theme of Metamorphosis. One might think that Shakespeare’s text had been preserved by the original hand-press editions, but scholars are still trying to work out what he wrote, as distinct from what scribes and printers transmitted. (Some editors print what they think he ought to have written).

The other event will be an illustrated talk, ‘Exploring the Sonnets’ (23 June), where the readings will be by a distinguished theatrical family: Edward Fox, his wife Joanna David, and his nephew Laurence Fox. I shall also be making a contribution to the printed record. On 21 April Harvard University Press will publish a book called The One ‘King Lear’, which has grown out of my teaching for the MA course in the History of the Book for the Institute of English Studies. Along with all the participants in these celebrations, I echo the words ‘Let us tribute bring’.


Professor Sir Brian Vickers, FBA, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, a Fellow of the British Academy, and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has written and edited more than 40 books, the most recent of which are, The One ‘King Lear and The Complete Works of John Ford, Volume II and III. His current research includes a book on Recovering Thomas Kyd: a canon restored, and a new edition of The Works of Thomas Kyd.