On April 22nd 2017, the Saturday nearest to April 23rd, Stratford-upon-Avon celebrated William Shakespeare’s 453rd birthday. Brass bands played and morris dancers did that curious thing they do; at 11am the head boy of Shakespeare’s old grammar school ritually brandished a new quill pen, subsequently installed for twelve months’ service in the hand of Shakespeare’s funerary bust, replacing last year’s specimen.
The flags of Thailand, the People’s Republic of China, Bangladesh and the USA, among others, waved from flagpoles outside Tudor houses along the high street. Schoolchildren, town councillors as well as ambassadors processed by, all carrying flowers to lay on Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church and a lucky ticket-bearing percentage of the procession were then ferried along the Avon, past the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to a hotel, where there followed the annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Lunch. This came complete with a fanfare by the grammar school’s brass ensemble, a grace by the vicar of Holy Trinity, speeches by the head of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Lord Mayor of London and others, and the presentation, by the Director of the Shakespeare Institute, of the annual Pragnell Award for lifetime services to Shakespeare. (This year’s award went to the Royal Shakespeare Company actor Sir Antony Sher, whose career as a major Shakespearean was crowned in 2016 by his performances as Falstaff on the RSC’s tour of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 across China and then by his King Lear in Stratford and London).
The town breathed a palpable sigh of relief: not only had the festivities once more been blessed with almost freakishly good spring weather, but they had happened at all. After the World Shakespeare Festival associated with the Olympics in 2012, followed by Shakespeare’s 450th birthday in 2014, and after the even larger local and worldwide events marking the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016, the Midlands’ appetite for celebrating Shakespeare was still not sated.
Elements of the curious Trumpton-meets-Bayreuth event that is the Birthday, date back to the first great site-specific Shakespearean fan festival, David Garrick’s Stratford Jubilee of 1769, and most of the rest has been substantially unchanged since the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon took on the task of organizing the first full-scale procession in 1827. It is a very easy day to ridicule – despite its high international profile and the presence of diplomats to represent the overseas tourists on whom Stratford’s economy depends, it still manages to look as parochially English as a school fete, which is perhaps one of the things its international visitors find so excitingly exotic about it.
But Shakespeare’s Birthday is to be cherished nonetheless: a re-echo of Garrick’s declaration that a vernacular writer might be a matter of overwhelming public significance, a day when a whole town demonstrates in the streets to say that culture and creativity matter too, and not just on the page and in the playhouse. The University of Birmingham has been prominently represented in the procession since its foundation in 1900, and especially so since the establishment of its Shakespeare Institute in 1951: long may its banners wave in each year’s April sunshine.