If you had tuned in to the global media coverage of the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – which took place in the playwright’s birthplace of Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire, on 23 April 2016 – you may have been surprised to see thousands of ‘Shakespeares’ lining the streets.

No, this was not a trick of the eye or some technical glitch, but a dramatic new twist added to this year’s grand commemorative procession: a ‘mask moment’ during which, for a few uncanny and glorious minutes, everyone became Shakespeare as they donned specially commissioned masks of the dramatist.

Crowds line the parade route

Shakespeare masks worn by parade crowds

As a lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute, located at the heart of Stratford-Upon-Avon, I was privileged enough to have been part of the procession. Beginning at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and house and ending at Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare is buried, the parade symbolically mapped the dramatist’s journey from cradle to grave.

The event was a pageant of colour, costume and music, with Shakespeare devotees parading in academic gowns, majestic robes of office, period costumes, ethnic dress or just in their Sunday best. They were led by the Head Boy of the King Edward VI School, holding aloft a quill made using traditional methods at the home of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. At the climax of the procession this quill would be poignantly placed on Shakespeare’s memorial, overlooking his curse-protected resting-place in Holy Trinity Church.

The quill held aloft by the Head Boy of the King Edward VI School

A quill is held aloft by a schoolboy

Following the unfurling of the ‘Shakespeare banner’ and a rousing rendition of the National Anthem we were given the signal to wear our masks. It made for an extraordinary scene. Surrounded by these countless avatars of Shakespeare, it struck me that this was a fitting way to mark the fact that we all have a personal relationship with the ‘bard’, whether this is a memory of reading his plays at school or seeing them performed live, of engaging with his works on some professional level or experiencing him through the phrases and words which he has coined or made iconic. Shakespeare is part of all of us, wherever we are in the world.

Staff and students of the Shakespeare Institute gathering at the parade

Academics from the Shakespeare Institute gather at the parade

My reflections were broken by a thrilling riot of sound as the New Orleans Jazz Band struck up, shifting the tone and rhythm of the occasion into one of jubilation and heady revelry. In response some unfurled colourful parasols while others waved coloured handkerchiefs, with members of the band giving out strings of shiny beads to spectators as they passed (a New Orleans tradition). And so we proudly processed to the lilt and sway of jazz, each wearing sprigs of rosemary (made famous as an emblem of ‘remembrance’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet), and holding bouquets of flowers which would be taken to Holy Trinity Church as an offering to history’s greatest playwright.

The New Orleans jazz band entertain the crowd

A New Orleans band march through Stratford-upon-Avon

As we neared the end of the procession, each filing through to the chancel where we would lay our personal tributes, the first thing that hit me was the fragrance of the thousands of flowers that were laid around his grave: the hopeful aroma of spring and of renewal, reminding me that while we had been commemorating Shakespeare’s death, it was really his living legacy that we were celebrating.

This was just one of the many memorable events which took place during the anniversary weekend, which included a spectacular fireworks display during which a giant portrait of Shakespeare was drawn in flames; a spectral ‘walk of light’ leading to Shakespeare’s candlelit grave; and a ‘Shakespeare Service’ at Holy Trinity Church with a reading of a moving new Shakespeare Anthem composed by Paul Edmonsdon with musical score by Philip Stopford.

Particularly affecting was the reading of the Shakespeare Odes at Holy Trinity Church on the evening of 22 April, an event which involved the Shakespeare Institute as project-partner and which was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. This included a dramatised rendering of David Garrick’s original Ode to Shakespeare, penned in 1769 as part of the first ever commemorative Shakespeare jubilee. This re-creation of the Ode was led by distinguished actor Samuel West who took on the role of Garrick with inspiring conviction.

Samuel West performing in Holy Trinity

Samuel West as Garrick in the Shakespearean Ode performance

It was followed by the staging of a new Ode to honour the playwright: ‘A Shakespeare Masque’, written by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Set to music by Sally Beamish, this interactive performance (in which we in the audience were given our own parts to play, joining in with a climactic ‘refrain’) appropriately praised Shakespeare as ‘word-blessed’ whose writing has inscribed its ‘living human music on our tongues’.

With my thoughts filled with the words of the ‘sweet swan of Avon’, with the poetry and music composed to celebrate his legacy, and with images of the sea of masks which surrounded me during the procession, it is hardly surprising that by the end of the anniversary weekend I felt as if I had almost come face to face with Shakespeare.

Chris Laoutaris

Dr Chris Laoutaris is a Lecturer and Birmingham Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. His most recent book is 'Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe' (Penguin), which was shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize, listed as one of the 'Best Books' of the Year by both the Observer and Telegraph newspapers, and included among the New York Post's 'Must-Read Books'.

Photography by John James.