The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

How to plan a Shakespeare tercentenary

The Folger has a wide assortment of commemorative material relating to Shakespearean celebrations—from David Garrick’s 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, to tercentaries and quatercentenaries of Shakespeare’s birth (although no materials from the quatercentenary of his death quite yet)—but we hold very few published items that shed light on how those celebrations were organized. Some correspondence of public Shakespeareans touches on celebrations, but is often limited to R.S.V.P.s, after-the-fact congratulations, or incidental mentions (for instance, a letter from Frederick Partington to William Winter referring to “petty revelries“).

The Drama League of America is a significant exception here. In the several years leading up to the 1916 Tercentenary, the League helped organize and promote Shakespearean celebrations in several American cities (including Chicago, Atlanta, and New York).1 Much of their energy was focused on these city-wide celebrations, but they also published a booklet of Suggestions for school and college celebrations of the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 1916 to help schools get their own celebrations off the ground with limited resources.2

This 60-page volume provides background readings, costume templates, music and processional ideas, and everything else one might need to put together a successful Shakespeare tercentenary celebration.3 It was originally commissioned by the United States Board of Education, but their financial backing later fell through, leaving the League to exhort its members to “do everything in their power to swell the sales of this Pamphlet” to offset the printing costs.

Note: Model K, in the lower right corner, is a costume design for a Green Man, not a Christmas tree (Sh.Misc. 674)
Note: Model K, in the lower right corner, is a costume design for a Green Man, not a Christmas tree (Sh.Misc. 674)

The recommendations in the guide were likely influenced by the League’s highly successful Shakespeare Birthday Festival four years earlier, which took place in Chicago’s Lincoln Park on April 23rd, 1912. The birthday celebration involved 1,800 children from local schools, dressed in costumes they designed and produced themselves with help from the Art Institute of Chicago, who marched in a procession through the park to “Queen Elizabeth’s Court” (a grassy slope behind the Grant Monument). There, they performed excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays for “Queen Elizabeth,” “King James I,” and “William Shakespeare” himself, who was portrayed by local thespian Thomas W. Ross. An estimated 25,000-30,000 spectators attended, and a write-up of the event in The Drama reported optimistically that “a permanent interest in Shakespeare’s plays was undoubtedly stimulated” in the participating schoolchildren.

La Follette's
Photograph of participants published in La Follette’s Weekly Magazine (May 11, 1912).

The program of the 1912 Shakespeare Festival details its events very precisely, laying out the plays, themes, music, and dances performed by school groups as well as the colors and ordering of their processions. (It also provides several maps of Lincoln Park to ensure that spectators know where to watch the festivities.) The careful coordination of music and dance in the performances is evident, a feature of both the 1912 event and the 1916 suggestion booklet.

Map of the procession route through Lincoln Park (Sh.Misc. 673)
Map of the procession route through Lincoln Park (Sh.Misc. 673)

To further confirm the popularity of the 1912 Shakespeare Birthday Festival, a partial list of upcoming Shakespearean festivities for 1916, compiled by the Drama League, noted that the “Shakespeare festival given by the Drama League at Lincoln Park in 1912 is to be repeated in six Chicago parks.” Planning a celebration of your own for Shakespeare’s quatercentenary this month? Be sure to arrange and color-code your processions carefully to ensure its success!

  1. Monika Smialkowska has argued that the widespread fervor over the Shakespeare tercentenary was used to help unite and solidify an American identity in the face of immigration, recession, and the first world war.
  2. A digitized copy is available via the Hathi Trust.
  3. Its compilers knew their work—one of the major contributors, Mary Porter Beegle, later published a handbook on “community drama and pageantry,” while another, Mary Wood Hinman, operated a Chicago school which taught folk dance teachers.

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