As we approach the quadricentenary of Shakespeare’s death, we find ourselves in the midst of a technology explosion, an environment of increasing political tension, and a time of deep concern for the future of the planet. So what does the tercentenary reveal? It’s time to cast back to the previous celebration in the midst of the First World War. The following is an extract from A Book of Homage to Shakespeare by Gordon McMullan.
Easter was late in 1916, falling on 23 April, St George’s Day. This coincidence of faith and patriotism was inevitably both heightened and tempered by the ongoing struggles of the First World War. April 1916 came amidst the protracted fighting of the Battle of Verdun, a long and bloody conflict yet one which was only a foretaste of the horrors to come at the Somme the summer following. For the many Australian and New Zealand troops in London, meanwhile, April 1916 saw the first anniversary of the débacle at Gallipoli, the first ANZAC Day, a moment that saw the emergence of a key myth of origin in the transformation of both former colonies into nations in their own right and which was marked by ANZAC troops marching through central London and attending a matinée variety performance. Easter 1916 also saw a very different, very direct response to colonial experience: the Easter Rising in Dublin, the date chosen for its resonances of rebirth and renewal and remembered with the most complex of emotions by W. B. Yeats in his poem ‘Easter 1916’: ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’ That Easter was in so many ways, then, a time of conflict, of tension, of change.
Easter 1916 happened also to mark the Tercentenary of the death of William Shakespeare. It had been agreed long before war broke out, however, that national commemorations of England’s National Poet would be postponed until the May Day weekend (with the solemn explanation that the change of calendar from Julian to Gregorian in the late sixteenth century meant that 1 May 1916 was in fact four hundred years to the day from 23 April 1616) in order to avoid any unintended conflation of Shakespeare with Christ—a decision that underlines, even as it seeks to elide, the quasireligious reverence in which Shakespeare and his writings were held at this time. This tendency is most apparent in the brief publication Shakespeare Tercentenary Observance in the Schools and other Institutions issued by the Tercentenary Committee for ‘Shakespeare Day’, 3 May 1916, which set out, in effect, a liturgy for the occasion: a Bible reading (‘Let us now praise famous men’ from Ecclesiasticus), three Shakespeare songs (eight are provided in an appendix), a ‘Discourse on Shakespeare’, some ‘Scenes or passages from Shakespeare’ and, finally, the National Anthem. It is perhaps not surprising, in context, that the authorities were obliged to explain a week or two beforehand that, no, Westminster Abbey would not be holding a service in memory of Shakespeare on Easter Day itself.
On 2 May, The Times reported the Shakespeare Tercentenary celebrations that had taken place the day before at London’s Mansion House, noting the reading-out of messages from the King and Queen and from US President Woodrow Wilson and the presence of a wide range of dignitaries from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the US and Spanish ambassadors (the neutrality of the United States and of Spain was, as Richard Foulkes has noted, ‘an obvious subtext to the occasion’), the High Commissioners of Australia and South Africa, representatives of the governments of China, Belgium, Switzerland, and Greece, and a roll call of academics (including Israel Gollancz, editor of the Book of Homage), theatre practitioners, writers, and other intellectual, cultural, and creative celebrities.
The Lord Mayor opened proceedings, noting that whatever the attitude of his early modern predecessors to the business of acting, he could now, ‘in the name of the City of London, heartily and reverently join in that universal tribute of homage which this great anniversary was eliciting throughout the civilized world’. The event continued with tributes from the various dignitaries, including the US ambassador (who reported that ‘the people of that great English-speaking world beyond the sea were expressing their gratitude for their great inheritance—that they were born into the language of Shakespeare and into the development of that civilization and into that racial trick of thought of which he gave the very highest expression’), the Australian High Commissioner (‘if we could clear away the mist that surrounded our decision and indecision at this time and speak the language and the thoughts of Shakespeare’s days we should make all well-meaning men and women happy and make tyrants afraid’), and the South African High Commissioner (‘it was a splendid fact that in the throes of a convulsion which was causing the whole world to reel and totter the nation of Shakespeare stood firm and smiling’). As the Liverpool Courier put it, ‘[t]he Mansion House th[at] afternoon presented a scene of tranquility and intellectual refreshment, the very antithesis of the war and the Dublin rebellion’. The occasion thus detached Shakespeare from global events which might, in another light, have suggested that the historical stability celebrated by so many Tercentenary celebrants was distinctly and uncomfortably illusory.