Friday, 22 April 2016

Shakespeare 1916

“Advance our standards, set upon our foes 
Our ancient word of courage, fair Saint George, 
Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons!” 
Richard III (Act V Scene 3)

Shakespeare on a house wall, Heaton, Newcastle, taken by Andrew Curtis for the Geograph project (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Shakespeare on a house wall, Heaton, Newcastle, taken by Andrew Curtis for the Geograph project (CC BY-SA 2.0)
On 23 April 2016, celebrations are taking place to commemorate the death of Shakespeare 400 years ago on this date in 1616. Shakespeare’s popularity is not a revival. In his own time, and these 400 years since, his works have been performed, read, interpreted, and appreciated. It is surprising how many words and phrases in our everyday language, come from him. 

This popularity meant that in 1916, in the midst of the First World War, the tercentenary of Shakespeare's death was marked, in spite of the circumstances. Many of the events were based around London and Stratford-Upon-Avon (as they are this year, though television and the internet brings them to a much wider audience). According to Balz Engler (1) A committee had been formed declaring 30 April as Shakespeare Day (23 April was Easter Day in 1916) and festivities were mainly in the first week of May – Sunday was for the church, Monday for politics, Tuesday for the arts, and Wednesday for education. The proximity with St George’s Day too would help invigorate patriotism in the English people in the middle of a war that perhaps seemed without end (the horror of the Somme had yet to happen), and soon after conscription had been brought in.

However, Sunderland claimed that it was the 'first provincial town in England to hold celebration gatherings' (Sunderland Echo 2 May 1916). The town put on three days of events for the Shakespeare Tercentenary, beginning on Saturday 29 April with an English Flag Day to raise money for local voluntary hospitals treating sick and wounded soldiers. The events of Saturday and Sunday are described in this extract from the Sunderland Echo of 28 April 1916:
" A celebration of the Shakespeare Tercentenary and St. George’s Day was held at the Palatine Hotel last night. The gathering was largely attended, and proved most interesting and enjoyable …

The Chairman said they were met to celebrate the birth and the tercentenary of the death of the greatest genius ever born in the world. When they considered the early age of 52 at which Shakespeare died and the mass of work which he left behind all they could do was to marvel at his genius, which was universal…

Mr GT Ferguson [headmaster of Bede School, Sunderland] proposed the toast of “The Immortal Memory of Shakespeare”. Mr Ferguson said that Shakespeare was unquestionably the greatest of Englishman. The English race had produced men famous in every department of life but if when making a comparison they considered all the world and all the centuries they soon saw that no other Englishman had ever gained in any important branch of human effort and achievement the unchallenged position of supremacy which Shakespeare holds in literature, which was undoubtedly one of the highest departments of human activity and accomplishment because it was the embodiment and expression of the thought, feeling and knowledge of mankind with regard to all subjects. Shakespeare in literature stood unrivalled according to the judgement of the most competent critics belonging to all nations of the world. Mr Ferguson went on to quote a number of phrases and sentences from Shakespeare which have passed into household words. If they asked why Shakespeare was thus quoted the answer was because of his matchless knowledge of human character, the wonderful depth, truth, and force of his thoughts, his boundless wealth of imagination, fancy and humour, his amazing power of portraying every feeling and every passion, the striking felicity of language, often concise, often musical, always expressive, and circumstances to which his words had been or could be applied. "
It was not just England that marked the tercentenary. Germany had its own celebrations though these were not on the same scale as in England, largely because they had celebrated the 350th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in April 1914, the same year that the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft [German Shakespeare Society] had its 50th anniversary (1). The theatre director and producer Max Reinhardt put on a ‘Shakespeare Cycle’ in 1913/14. In 1916 the cycle was performed again as well as Macbeth. After the outbreak of war Reinhardt was reported in The Times of 30 September 1914 as having said Germany should continue to perform Shakespeare, “We can in no way dissolve the ties which bind us to one of the chief ancestors of our German culture” (2). The Times and other newspapers responded by quoting the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, in a bid to boost morale and patriotism (2).

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me 
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, 
This day shall gentle his condition; 
And gentlemen in England now a-bed 
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, 
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks 
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.”
Henry V (Act IV Scene3)

Henry V (Tom Hiddleston), The Hollow Crown series, BBC
Henry V (played by Tom Hiddleston), The Hollow Crown series, BBC
1) ‘Shakespeare in the Trenches’, Balz Engler, Shakespeare Survey 44 (1992)
2) ‘The Renaissance, English Cultural Nationalism, and Modernism, 1860-1920’, Lynne Walhout Hinojosa, Macmillan (2009)

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