From stage to page: Shakespeare Club’s story

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ALTHOUGH Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son is commemorated on a regular basis these days, it was not always so.

It was more than 200 years after his death that efforts began in earnest to give William Shakespeare the attention he deserved in the town where he was born and where he died.

There is now an international Shakespeare industry that ranges across literary scholarship, cultural history, tourism and the mass media, which is often referred to as a global ‘brand’ (to the deep irritation of purists), with this small market town in Warwickshire as its chief focal point.

But Stratford took quite a while to get going in its recognition of Shakespeare’s unique status in world literature and it was not until 1824 that some local citizens took it upon themselves to form the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon to pay enduring homage to the Bard.

And the club still exists to this day. Two Stratford scholars — Sylvia Morris and Susan Brock — have now written a history of the club and its contribution to celebrating Shakespeare as a great artist whose life was inextricably linked to the place from whence he came.

It is called The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon, 1824-2016 and contains more than 130 photographs and illustrations.

Sylvia is a former head of the library at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and Susan, a former librarian at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford and later the head of library and academic resource development at the Birthplace Trust.

Both are longstanding members of the Shakespeare Club and sit on its committee.

While the club paved the way for the regular celebrations of Shakespeare that we know today — such as the events to mark his birth (and death) on 23rd April — it was the great actor, David Garrick, who first launched a festival in memory of the playwright on Stratford soil. But that was in 1769, and it took another 55 years before the Shakespeare Club came into being.

The club was responsible for organising the first local festivities for Shakespeare’s birthday on 23rd April in 1827, 1830 and 1833. It played an important part in saving his birthplace for the nation and setting up the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

It also worked towards the preservation of the Shakespeare monuments and the graves in Holy Trinity Church, and played a huge part in setting up the theatres in Stratford so that Shakespeare’s plays have a permanent home for their performance outside London.

Meetings are held on the second Tuesday of the month, between October and May, at the Shakespeare Institute, Church Street. To buy a copy of the book, priced at £12.99, see www.stratfordshakespeareclub.org

For more from the book’s authors, pick up a copy of January’s Focus magazine — FREE inside the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald of Thursday, 5th January, 2016.

  • William Ray

    Your article about the Shakespeare Club’s influence in Stratford popularizing Stratford Will might benefit from the supplemental reading of the prior study, Julia Thomas’s ‘Shakespeare’s Shrine’, U. of Penn. Press, 2012. It traces rampant 19th century commercialization of the local “Bard”s home town by enshrining it instead of noting the complete lack of historical or biographical data that Stratford “Will” was indeed the acclaimed writer we so revere. The Birthplace, capital B, became and remains the focus of a form of approximative semi-religous history. The contrary view also surfaced side by side with the Victorian-styled hero worship. A Reverend George Wilkins commented, “It is the easiest thing in the world to deceive those who wish to be deceived,” as quoted in 1848 in Bentley’s Miscellany’s article, “Hoax of the Shakspeare Birthhouse and Relic Trade at Stratford-on-Avon”. It is most wholesome to honor our literary giant by seeking the historical facts yet discernible beneath a continuing chronicle of flim-flam.

  • Matt Hutchinson

    Many believe Will didn’t write the works:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=aHFHEZWs4cQ