William Shakespeare died on 23rd April 1616. As the celebrations for his quarter-centenary reach their peak this month, there can be little doubt of his status as our ‘national poet’ or his central place in English cultural life. While his exact date of birth is unknown, it is usually given as 23rd April – St. George’s day – so we commemorate England’s patron saint and Shakespeare’s birth and death on the same day each year.
This centenary continues a long tradition of celebrating Shakespeare’s life and work down the ages. The image shown here is taken from one of Wilfred Ashley’s photo albums in the Broadlands archives and dates to around 1863. A precursor of the tourist postcards we buy today, this was a collectible item at the time and shows a popular image of the Bard and a copy of his signature underneath. Its presence in the album may be explained by the fact that 1864 was the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth – perhaps Wilfred attended one of the rival events which took place in Stratford and London that year. By this date, cheaper editions and penny issues were making Shakespeare more accessible, even to the working classes, although most people came to know Shakespeare by seeing his plays performed on the stage.
The following items form part of MS 98, the W.Gillam theatre collection, which includes theatre and opera programmes and related papers for the period 1887-1949. The archive demonstrates Shakespeare’s enduring popularity in this period.
Henry Irving was the famous actor manager at The Lyceum Theatre, London, from 1878-1901. He presented twelve of Shakespeare’s plays and is credited with restoring the fifth act of The Merchant of Venice. In the programme for this performance on 19 May 1887 Irving took the role of Shylock and the famous Ellen Terry that of Portia. According to her biographer Terry achieved her greatest distinction in Shakespeare, especially in Shakespearian comedy, and she played memorably in seven of Shakespeare’s greatest women’s roles. *
This programme was printed for a performance of Anthony and Cleopatra at the Shakespeare Birthday Festival at Stratford upon Avon in April 1931. A handwritten note on the cover states: “The performances in the 1931 festival were given in a cinema while the new theatre was being built after the fire which destroyed the old one.” The festival that year promoted the international movement to rebuild and endow the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.
As we mark 400 years since Shakespeare’s death it is clear that his plays still resonate with the present. This year’s Ian and Mildred Karten Memorial Lecture has a Shakespearian theme: “Imagining the Jewish Past: writing The Wolf in the Water, a play about Jessica, Shylock’s daughter?”, given by Naomi Alderman, takes place on 10 May 2016.
*DNB for Sir Henry Irving and Dame Ellen Alice Terry