Post by Gordon McMullan, Professor of English and Academic Director of Shakespeare400


Southwark Cathedral

A hundred years ago, for the Shakespeare Tercentenary of 1916, there was a slight awkwardness (over and above, I mean, other slight awkwardnesses of the moment such as the First World War and the Easter Rising in Dublin). It struck someone in government that 23 April that year was not only the three-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death but also Easter Sunday (not to mention St George’s Day). This caused a certain discomfort, since creating confusion in the mind of the public about the forms of reverence being afforded to Christ and to Shakespeare was not precisely part of the centenary planning – and this was a time in which Shakespeare was being viewed with near-religious fervour. So the convenience of the difference of old and new calendars, Julian and Gregorian, was invoked, and ‘Shakespeare Day’ was moved to 2 May, which was solemnly claimed to be actually three hundred years since 23 April 1616. 

No such manoeuvres were necessary on 23 April 2016, even if anyone had thought them necessary. Easter fell an entire month earlier – and if anyone in Southwark Cathedral on the Saturday in question had felt concerned that there might be some confusion of Christ and Shakespeare, it was not in evidence during the elegantly constructed ‘Celebration of Shakespeare in Southwark’ created by Shakespeare’s Globe in collaboration with the diocese. A packed cathedral sang hymns lustily, listened to a series of vignettes from the current season of Shakespearean late plays at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, heard Bible readings, and absorbed a thoroughly engaging, resonantly delivered sermon by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres – all under the eye of the Globe’s principal patron, the Duke of Edinburgh. 

We emerged into daylight and headed to the Bankside for the Globe’s ‘Complete Walk’ – this year’s reminder of the stunningly successful Globe-to-Globe season of 2012, when thirty-seven global companies came to the Globe to perform their own interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays (Why thirty-seven, please? What have Edward III and The Two Noble Kinsmen done to the Globe to be so abandoned?...) This time the plays were on screen – thirty-seven of them, spread along the South Bank from the former County Hall to the glass pod of City Hall – with scores of familiar faces performing brief extracts from each play on location in the UK and around the world (the places Shakespeare imagined but never visited), intercut with moments from the Globe’s own productions and from Globe-to-Globe performances.  

For me, the day finished at the Royal Festival Hall for the gala concert by Shakespeare400 partner the London Philharmonic Orchestra – a shiveringly wonderful, star-studded medley of some of the best Shakespeare-inspired music, from Verdi to Britten, from Prokofiev to Adès