Share this page

A History of Shakespeare's Birthday Celebrations

Take a look at some of our older photos of the annual birthday celebrations

Visitors have been coming to Stratford-upon-Avon to commemorate and celebrate William Shakespeare for hundreds of years, but it was only following the Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769 that the idea of a formal celebration took hold. Early attempts to repeat Garrick's Jubilee were largely unsuccessful and it took until 1816 for April 23 to be celebrated as Shakespeare’s birthday in his home town.

Ever since, celebrations have been held in Stratford on or around 23 April to observe Shakespeare’s birthday. The Shakespeare Club, formed in 1824, played a key role in establishing the annual tradition that survives until today. 

Shakespearean Club Anniversary Dinner Invitation
Shakespearean Club Anniversary Dinner invitation, 1827

In 1864, the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, an ambitious festival programme was devised, including the building of a huge pavilion to stage several events. One of the main events was a performance of Twelfth Night, the first time one of Shakespeare's plays had been performed on his birthday.

Tercentenary Pavilion
The Tercentenary Pavilion, 1864

By the early 20th century a format had evolved which remains recognisable to this day. This includes the flying of national, and other, flags in the streets, a procession to lay floral tributes on Shakespeare's grave, and a celebratory birthday lunch. 

Archive birthday celebrations
Archive birthday celebrations

The celebrations of 1932, which coincided with the opening of the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, included folk-dancing in the streets, centred on a statue of Shakespeare placed at the top of Bridge Street.

Archive birthday celebrations
Archive birthday celebrations

In 1964, the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, celebrations were again on an elaborate scale. A pavilion was erected, this time on the Recreation Ground, to house a special exhibition.

While 2020 marks a very different kind of celebration for Shakespeare's birthday, we will be marking the occasion digitally and we hope you are able, wherever you are in the world to celebrate Shakespeare’s 456th birthday with us on 23 April.