© Matthew Cook

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In the summer of 1769, a delegation from the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire travelled to London to visit the most famous man in England: the actor David Garrick. They came with an offer. If he would do them the honour of opening the borough corporation’s new town hall, paying for a statue of William Shakespeare and arranging some accompanying festivities, they would give him the freedom of the town. Indeed, they had brought the proclamation of his freedom with them, contained in a casket made from the mulberry tree that, they assured him, Shakespeare had planted in his garden during his retirement.

For some years, theatre enthusiasts had been making their way to Stratford, knocking on the door of New Place, the five-gabled house that Shakespeare had purchased with his literary earnings, and asking if they could pay homage to the Bard’s memory by having a look at his mulberry tree. The owner, Reverend Francis Gastrell, eventually got so fed up with the intrusions that he chopped it down. Soon after that, he demolished the house and left town. (This year, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is revealing the results of their archaeological dig on the site.)

An entrepreneurial small businessman called Thomas Sharpe purchased the wood of the mulberry and started making souvenirs from it. The casket taken to Garrick was a prize example, though it had to be said that Sharpe’s workshop was so productive that by 1769 questions were being asked about how so many wooden trinkets could be made from a single tree. Shakespeare’s mulberry was taking on the magical properties of the True Cross, which for centuries had furnished holy relics for Catholic pilgrims across Europe. This was somehow fitting: the mid-18th century was the period when William Shakespeare came to be regarded as a secular deity, his collected plays as Britain’s Holy Writ.

Garrick, who regarded himself as the divine Shakespeare’s appointed representative on earth (or at least on the London stage), agreed to the proposal of the worthy burghers of Stratford and set about organising a grand Shakespeare jubilee, scheduled to take place on the banks of the Avon that September. Day one went well, though there were problems over accommodation, as there always are at a festival. Garrick was guest of honour at a public breakfast, there was a good showing from the gentry and even the aristocracy, an oratorio was sung in Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare’s bones lay buried in the chancel and his portly monument — recently repainted — adorned the wall. There was an evening ball in a wooden rotunda by the river.

On day two it rained. And rained. Very heavily, all day. The Avon crept towards the rotunda even as Garrick was reciting his especially composed ode (“The Will of all Wills was a Warwickshire Will”), the fancy-dress pageant of Shakespearean characters was abandoned and the evening fireworks proved a damp squib. It rained again on the third and final day. Everyone was trying to leave town, though there were problems over transport, as there always are at the end of a festival. At least this meant that the stragglers got to see the chase for the Jubilee Cup at the racecourse.

James Boswell summed up the whole event in his diary: “After the joy of the Jubilee came the uneasy reflection that I was in a little village in wet weather and knew not how to get away.” A plethora of plays and farces re-enacted or satirised the jubilee on the London stage. Garrick’s rival, the one-legged stand-up comedian Samuel Foote, offered his new definition of a “jubilee”:

“A Jubilee is a public invitation, circulated by puffing, to go post without horses, to a Borough without representatives; governed by a Mayor and Aldermen, who are no magistrates, to celebrate a great Poet, whose own works have made him immortal, by an ode without poetry, music without melody, dinners without victuals, and lodgings without beds; a masquerade where half the people are barefaced, a horse race 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.”

Touché.

But there is no doubt that Garrick’s jubilee put Stratford on the map and marked the moment of Shakespeare’s apotheosis. The word “jubilee” ultimately goes back to the Old Testament, where it refers to a celebration of liberty, involving a cancellation of debts, in commemoration of the Jews’ freedom from captivity in Egypt. In the Middle Ages, it was appropriated by the Catholic Church and applied to a year of remission from the penal consequences of sin, during which plenary indulgence could be obtained by a pilgrimage to Rome, the visiting of certain churches there, the giving of alms, fasting for three days, and the performance of other pious works. Garrick’s jubilee adopted a similar structure, rendered secular: pilgrimage to Stratford, visiting of the sacred sites associated with Shakespeare (birthplace, grave etc), three days (though of feasting not fasting), and the performance of theatrical works (though Shakespeare’s own plays were conspicuous by their absence during the festivities). Shakespeare, wrote Garrick in his ode, is “the God of our idolatry”.

When William Shakespeare was buried in Holy Trinity Church on April 25 1616, his name was admired but not revered. He was but one of a constellation of literary stars in the theatrical firmament. Francis Beaumont, who died a month before him at the age of just 31, was mourned as a lost genius and buried in Westminster Abbey beside Chaucer and Spenser, the greatest of English poets. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s friend and rival, was on brink of becoming the unofficial poet laureate. John Fletcher, to whom Shakespeare had handed the baton in his final, co-written plays (Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio), was the leading light of the King’s Men in the Globe theatre (recently rebuilt after having been razed by fire during a production of Henry VIII). John Webster and John Ford were the coming men.

The entire theatrical professional suffered a huge setback in 1642 when the Puritans closed the London playhouses. The works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries went underground. When the theatres were reopened with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it was the comedies of Ben Jonson that had the greatest influence on new drama, and the romances of Beaumont and Fletcher that were most frequently played on stage. The First Folio of their collected plays was indeed branded as “the greatest Monument of the Scene that Time and Humanity have produced”. Which is now, of course, what is always said about the First Folio of Shakespeare’s collected plays. As Beaumont and Fletcher fell in popularity, Shakespeare rose.

The idea of his unique genius was an invention of the 18th century. It owed much to the passionate advocacy not only of Garrick and his former schoolmaster Samuel Johnson, but also of a group of remarkable patrons of the arts who called themselves the Shakespeare Ladies’ Club. But it was also bound up with changing taste and changing politics, with the rise of the middle class and the birth of the Romantic movement. And it was an international phenomenon: two years after Garrick’s jubilee, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe delivered a “Shakespeare Day” lecture, which inaugurated the process whereby the man from Stratford became the German national poet. Before long, even the French were proclaiming, in the words of Alexandre Dumas, that “after God, Shakespeare created most”.

The Shakespeare jubilee in 1769, with a wooden pavilion by the Avon © Getty

Fast forward to 1916 and one encounters the extraordinary spectacle of the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death being commemorated with celebrations of equal fervour in both England and Germany at the height of the first world war. This April, the 400th anniversary of his passing will be marked all around the globe. All the world has indeed become his stage.

What would Shakespeare himself say about this fact? It would certainly surprise him. Although some of his sonnets include lines about achieving immortality through writing, he does not seem to have been very interested in publishing his works for posterity. About half the corpus of his plays appeared in print in his lifetime, but in ephemeral “quarto” editions, the equivalent of cheap paperbacks. Very few copies survive even of his most popular and most reprinted work, the erotic narrative poem Venus and Adonis. The slender quartos were read until they disintegrated or were recycled (sometimes as lining for pie dishes). It was not until seven years after Shakespeare’s death that his fellow-actors raised the monument that we now call the First Folio: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies.

So what would he say about the celebrations? He would, I think, come up with a question and not an answer. Because that is what he always did. He would say: why are you celebrating, what are you celebrating and, above all, are you sure that the celebration is about me? “I think,” he would say, “it is really about you. About you feeling good about yourselves, feeling that you are cultured, that you are sophisticated (able to understand all that cunning wordplay and appreciate all that glorious poetry), that you still respect the past (even though you’ve given up reading most of the other great literature of the past).”

Memory, he would say, always comes with vested interests. And he would give an example from his own works. Because that is why his works still live: they contain within them templates for the understanding of almost every conceivable question we can ask about humankind and society, ourselves and our families, our lives and our deaths.

The example would be this. In the old Roman Catholic faith, the year was shaped around high days and holy days, saint’s day after saint’s day: different memories for different kinds of sanctity and martyrdom. Then came the Protestant Reformation and, with it, a diminution of the role of the saints as intercessors, together with a series of government- and church-orchestrated cutbacks on the number of holidays and saint’s days. Puritanism meant not only the cutting out of intermediaries between self and God (bye-bye Blessed Virgin, bye-bye many of the saints), but also a more vigorous work ethic. Well, the workers didn’t like that, so they promoted holidays of their own.

The London shoemakers were at the forefront of this movement. They claimed the day of their patron saints, a pair of Roman shoemakers called Crispin and Crispinian. This matter is alluded to in a pair of plays first staged in 1599: Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which begins with workers out on the streets. But the idea of a people’s holiday is dangerous. A day off work, a few drinks, and before you know it you will have a riot. So Shakespeare wrote a speech for another play in that year of 1599: Henry V, in which the day of Crispin and Crispinian is reclaimed for God, for King Harry, England and St George. Contested memory: to whom does the day of celebration belong?

By all means celebrate my day, Shakespeare would say, as we celebrated the feast of Crispin. But do so in the knowledge that only some people are celebrating it because they think that I was a patriot and that my greatness belongs to only one nation — and those people need to remember that the coincidence of my birthday with St George’s day is not a certainty and the recognition of it was a contrivance of 18th-century patriotism. Other people are celebrating it because they think that I was a man of the people, a citizen of the world, a rebel and an outsider. In fact, I was all of these things and none. I am the mirror in which you see yourselves. My posthumous life stands in the level of your dreams.

Professor Sir Jonathan Bate is author of ‘The Genius of Shakespeare’ (Picador Classic). He will be talking to the actor Sir Ian McKellen about their lives in Shakespeare at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Sunday April 3

Illustration by Matthew Cook

Photograph: Getty

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