The 18th century saw the development of Shakespeare as a national symbol. The Stratford Jubilee of 1769, organised by Garrick, celebrated two hundred years since Shakespeare's birth. A wooden octagonal playhouse was constructed beside the river at Stratford-upon-Avon but no work by Shakespeare was performed. A planned procession of characters from Shakespeare's plays was postponed due to terrible weather and eventually re-enacted on the stage at Drury Lane in London where it proved an enormous hit.
Playbill for Cymbeline by William Shakespeare for the Benefit of Mr Reddish, Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, 5 May 1779
Strolers performing Hamlet before the Squire, engraved print, 1771
Successful actors and actresses could hope for long term employment at the big theatres in cities such as London or Dublin, but there were also touring companies who moved around the country’s major towns and cities. Some of these were well known and relatively prosperous, however becoming a ‘strolling’ player was seen by many as degrading. Touring was often a less lucrative (and less comfortable) option. The companies were generally smaller, more characters had to be cut and so plays were shortened and adapted to suit the number of players available. Audiences in the country were thought to be coarser and the actors’ clothes in the picture are distinctly tatty. An 18th century actress, Charlotte Charke, described working with a strolling company as ‘a contemptible life’. She even recalls watching one of her fellow actresses edging sideways around the stage in a very peculiar manner in order to disguise the fact that she had no stockings on.
David Garrick delivering his Ode to Shakespeare with Shakespearian characters grouped around the central statue of Shakespeare, artist: R E Pine, engraver: Caroline Watson, stipple engraving, ink and paper, published by John Boydell, London, 25 March 1784. Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.284-1988
In September 1769 David Garrick organised a three-day Jubilee celebration in honour of Shakespeare, held in Stratford Upon Avon. Stratford's councillors agreed to confer the freedom of the town upon Garrick who subsequently donated a portrait of Shakespeare by Benjamin Wilson and a statue by John Cheere. The celebrations included banquets, dances and firework displays, including an appearance from Garrick who delivered his personal 'Ode to Shakespeare' .
Thomas Sheridan as Brutus, engraved print, London, 1776
Thomas Sheridan (1719-1788) was an Irish actor in the mid-18th century and later became the manager of the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. He was the father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, playwright, theatre manager and publican, best known for his comedies of the 1770s such as The Rivals and The School for Scandal. Thomas Sheridan's rise to fame as an actor was spectacular. The son of a gentleman, Sheridan had acted and written plays at university. In 1743 he was given the part of Richard III at the Smock Alley Theatre, despite having no professional training or experience. He was an instant success and by 1744 he had been invited to London to perform at Covent Garden.
This image of Sheridan as Brutus from Julius Caesar is from his first season.
Despite his early popularity, he was later described as more of a 'declaimer' than a good impersonator of characters.
Engraved print entitled Sketch of Stratford Jubilee Booth or Ampitheatre, 1769
In 1769 Drury Lane’s actor-manager David Garrick organised the Stratford Jubilee to celebrate Shakespeare in the town of his birth, Stratford-upon-Avon. This octagonal rotunda was constructed for the occasion on the banks of the River Avon. Garrick had to send a team of carpenters up from London to make sure it was finished on time. The rotunda or ‘booth’, as it is called in the sketch, provided the venue for the official celebrations and grand balls that were to take place. The one event it did not house was a play by Shakespeare. Bad weather led to the cancellation of a spectacular procession of Shakespearean characters. The 2,000 strong rain-sodden audience crammed into the rotunda, which was only designed for half that number. None of Shakespeare’s work was performed, but the specially written Jubilee Oration and Garrick’s Ode to the bard cheered everyone’s spirits. The violence of their applause caused several benches to collapse.
Printed paper ticket for Shakespeare's Jubilee, Stratford upon Avon, 1769
In September 1769 the actor-manager David Garrick organised the Stratford Jubilee to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth (actually Shakespeare had been born 205 years before and in April not September). An octagonal wooden amphitheatre, the rotunda, was built for the occasion, in imitation of the Globe Theatre. The event started well, but on the second day, it poured with rain and the planned procession of Shakespearean characters was cancelled. The celebrations included a masquerade, fireworks, horse races, but not so much as a scene from an actual play. The event did come in for considerable criticism and was seen by some as commercialisation for profit. The Jubilee did increase the industry in Shakespeare ‘relics’ – numerous pairs of his gloves magically appeared on the market and tiny chips cut from what was claimed to be his chair sold for a shilling apiece.
This printed paper ticket reads: 'Shakespears Jubilee, the 6th and 7th of September, at Straford upon Avon. This ticket admits one on the 6th to The Oratoria, The Dedication Ode, The Ball and to the Great Booth at the Fireworks. One Guinea.' The ticket is numbered No 335 and is signed and sealed by Garrick.