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The Aftermath of the Jubilee

We examine the aftermath of David Garrick's Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769 and its long term impact on the town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

As the sun rose over Stratford-upon-Avon on the morning of Monday 11 September 1769, the town must have felt strangely quiet. Most, if not all, of the visitors to the Shakespeare Jubilee had managed to get away during the weekend. The damaged Rotunda stood empty on the banks of the river. The painted screens were water-soaked, perhaps they had already been taken down. The travelling side shows, Bath chair-men, hairdressers, waiters and actors had all gone. David Garrick himself had left on Saturday and arrived at his home in Hampton on Monday. Nobody could have known at that point what an effect the Jubilee would have on this small market town in Warwickshire. 

On 14 September an advert appeared in The Warwickshire Journal: 'To be SOLD in LOTS, at Stratford-upon-Avon, on Monday next, and until the Whole are sold, All the Materials of the Ampitheatre lately built for the Jubilee'.

In the immediate aftermath of the Jubilee it fell to William Hunt, the Town Clerk, to write the thank yous and deal with the complaints. For example the new owner of Stratford College, John Fullerton, wrote several letters to Hunt complaining about the damage caused to that building during the preparations. Hunt had invested his own money in the event and was evidently all too aware that Garrick might not look upon the whole thing as a success. Towards the end of September he wrote to Garrick enclosing an official letter of thanks from the Corporation. He joked that he expected Garrick would ‘burn every Letter with a Stratford post mark, without opening it, after your Brother has left this place’. George Garrick had decided to stay on in Stratford after the Jubilee and his presence in the town did nothing to help David’s relationship with the locals. He drew David into several disputes with local men including the local poet, Richard Jago.

Garrick
David Garrick as High Steward of the Jubilee, 1769

Garrick had been the main financial backer of the Jubilee and reckoned that he had spent £2,000. This was a huge amount of money at the time, even for a man as wealthy as Garrick. One of the ways he recouped his losses was to stage a play based on the Jubilee at Drury Lane. This play, also called The Jubilee, featured the pageant that had been cancelled in Stratford as well as the many songs that had been composed for the occasion. It was incredibly popular and was first performed on 14 October 1769. It was still occasionally being performed six years later when the famous actress Sarah Siddons played the part of Venus for her first appearance on the Drury Lane stage. The income from those performances would have more than recompensed Garrick for his Jubilee expenditure. 

The production in London meant that the effects of the Jubilee, and even the experience of it, lived on beyond September 1769. Garrick’s Ode to Shakespeare was also published and performances were given elsewhere. The songs and musical scores were published under the name Shakespeare’s Garland. The very idea of a Jubilee, for any occasion, proved popular and Joseph Cradock (a friend of Garrick's) staged a two day Jubilee to celebrate the opening of Leicester Infirmary in 1774. The effects were also felt on the continent. In 1777 a Jubilee was organised by supporters of Voltaire in Paris and in Germany the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe organised a ‘Shakespeare Day’ in celebration of the poet. 

Sweet Willy O from Shakespeare's Garland
One of the Jubilee songs available to buy afterwards as part of 'Shakespeare's Garland'

Nevertheless there were still those who loudly criticised it. The most common criticism was that the Jubilee wasn’t about Shakespeare at all but that Garrick had put his own fame and self-interest at the centre of it. Charles Dibdin, who had composed some of the most popular tunes for the event, wrote that:

‘the whole business was concerted to levy contributions on his [Garrick’s] friends, retainers, dependants, and the public in general, for no other motive upon earth than to fill his own pockets…The tomb of Shakespeare was stript of laurels to adorn the brow of Garrick’. [1]

Another outspoken critic who, like Dibdin, had been at the Jubilee was Samuel Foote. Foote was also a dramatist, actor and manager of The Haymarket theatre in London. He had been an outspoken critic of the Jubilee even before it took place. Afterwards his The Devil Upon Two Sticks, a satirical piece about the Jubilee, proved to be very popular and was widely reported in the papers. This was not the only dramatic piece inspired by the Jubilee. Others were written and performed in the following months that were complementary (such as Carey’s Shakespeare’s Jubilee) and critical (such as Garrick’s Vagary: or, England Run Mad).

Back in Stratford some townspeople and the members of the Corporation were undaunted by the effects of weather and the great expense (almost entirely born by Garrick). They continued to approach Garrick for advice as to how to stage another similar event perhaps in hopes that he would agree to be part of it. Garrick’s own views on the subject seem clear from his letter written to the Corporation in 1770. ‘I am very much flatter’d that you are desire’d to consult me how I would advise your friends to celebrate the memory of our Immortal Bard Yearly’ he writes. He goes on to say that he thinks the celebration should be held on Shakespeare’s birthday in April. He finishes the letter by saying that:

‘if the Gentlemen do real honour & show their love to Shakespeare – Let ‘Em decorate ye Town (the happiest & why not the handsomest in England) let your streets be well pav’d & kept clean, do something with the delightful meadow, allure Every body to visit the holy Land, let it be well lighted & clean under foot, and let it not be said, for your honour & perhaps for your interest that the Town, which gave Birth to the first Genius since the Creation, is the most dirty, unseemly, ill-pav’d, wretched-looking Town in all Britain’

Despite Garrick’s little dig at the town, there is much in his letter that would become part of the celebrations in Stratford in the years to come. Subsequent celebrations also took inspiration from the Jubilee itself and it was certainly a catalyst for the commemoration of Shakespeare in the town of his birth. For many years after, the Corporation celebrated the Jubilee by holding a dinner and procession on its anniversary. In 1793 a two-day Jubilee was held for the opening of a Masonic Lodge in the town. In 1816 Stratford held an organised commemoration of Shakespeare’s death for the first time. The festival was closely modelled on Garrick’s Jubilee and was organised by the sons of those committee members who had been involved with it. 

Shakespeare medal 1816
A medal struck for the 1816 Shakespeare Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon

In 1824 the Shakespeare Club was founded in Stratford. They decided, early on, to restage the Jubilee every three years. The first of these Jubilees was in 1827 and was closely modelled on Garrick’s original schedule. This time the pageant went ahead and 1827 marks the first full-scale Shakespearean pageant in Stratford. Another important event during this year was the laying of the foundation stone for a theatre on the site of New Place garden.

Three years later the 1830 Jubilee attracted nationwide interest and even received Royal Patronage. Perhaps most importantly for the history of the town the 1830 celebration was the first during which a play by Shakespeare was performed at a theatre in Stratford. After this the three yearly timetable seems to have been abandoned. In 1847 the priority was the preservation of the Birthplace and another organised celebration was not held until 1864. This was the biggest and best yet and inspired Charles Edward Flower to start his campaign for a permanent Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (now the Royal Shakespeare Theatre) which was to be built on roughly the same patch of ground where Garrick’s Rotunda had been 110 years earlier.

Shakespeare Jubilee poster 1830
A poster advertising the events of 1830

Perhaps David Garrick viewed the Jubilee in 1769 as a financial and personal failure. Perhaps his feelings about it were more complex. It is undeniable, however, that the events of 1769 have had a lasting impact on the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. David Garrick established a tradition of celebrating Shakespeare in his hometown and devised many of the ways that this could be done over and above performing Shakespeare’s work on stage. 

Today millions of people come to Stratford from all over the world. They come to a town uniquely set up to receive them. A town which lives and breathes the legacy of its most famous son through the conservation of heritage sites, the preservation of important archives and objects, performance, artistic interpretation, commemorative events and trade. It would be a very different place indeed had it not been for David Garrick. In the words of Mrs Hart – a descendant of Shakespeare and one time custodian of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, ‘People never thought so much of it till after the Jubilee’.


[1]. Deelman, Christian, The Great Shakespeare Jubile (London, 1964), p.271

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