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Magic in Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare's 400th death anniversary

Sambit Pal | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

Once a year, John and Monica play Shakespeare and Anne for the day. For the past 29 years, every 23 April, the couple come to Bridge Street in the Bard's hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon dressed in traditional Tudor clothes. Each year, they join the parade commemorating William Shakespeare's birth and death anniversary.

It would be easy to see them as an unusual couple - but what's really unusual is how widespread the reverence for Shakespeare still is, 400 years after his death.

"This is a special day for us. Shakespeare has been the world's finest poet and playwright. The whole world remembers him and we come here dressed like this to connect with the world," says John Evans.

They are dressed in black.

"This is not only a day of celebration but also of mourning as Shakespeare passed away on this day," says Monica Evans, John's wife. "This is also a way to show our love to the poet and the world."

The same emotion flows among virtually everyone in this tiny England town on the bank of the river Avon. Shakespeare's birthplace came alive on Saturday, 23 April which is believed to be his birthday as well as the day he died. There is no confirmation, but from the local Holy Trinity Church's christening and burial records, the date has long been estimated to be correct - and to all practical purposes, it is.

Thousands of spectators from across the world gathered for the ceremonial morning parade at the city centre. The headboy of the King Edward VI School led the parade as he brought the quill from Shakespeare's home as the flag was unfurled. People clad in traditional clothes joined the procession that proceeded towards Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried. The idea behind the procession has always been "From Cradle to Grave." 

"It's absolutely thrilling and fantastic to be part of the celebration. What is important is that Shakespeare is celebrated every day irrespective of the time of the year. We welcome visitors from all across the world who come, learn and live Shakespeare during their visit," says Alison Cole, the spokesperson of Shakespeare's Birthplace Trust.

This is no solemn procession, even if it marks his death. People sing, dance and enact scenes from his plays as they move with the procession. An added attraction this year? An exceptional jazz band from New Orleans, that emerged from among the crowd playing traditional songs and dancing to the tunes.

 "This experience is unbelievable. This is for the first time we are here and we didn't expect the crowd to be so energetic that they would dance to our music," said bandmaster Andrew Leduff. The band has been camping here for a week for this special performance.

The event was also a first for Indian Ambassador to the UK Navtej Singh Sarna, who led the Indian delegation in the parade. "I am really impressed with the show. We have grown up reading Shakespeare in school and this is the first time I am visiting his birthplace. It's an amazing feeling," he said.

Delegations from at least 20 countries participated in the parade. It was a packed day - the procession merely one part of a vibrant whole. Activities included painting Shakespeare's Art Cube, mask making, street plays. People in traditional costumes staged a scene or two from Shakespeare's plays, entirely impromptu. The students of Stratford College staged a contemporary adaption of Romeo and Juliet in front of Shakespeare's birthplace.

"This is our proud moment. This year it is special as we are commemorating William Shakespeare's 400th death anniversary. We are here to show off our pride," says Mike Gittus, chairman of Stratford-on-Avon District Council.

The experience doesn't stale, even for repeat visitors. Manoj Sreekandan, a Kerala native who now lives in Stratford-upon-Avon, says this is the fourth time he is witnessing the gala event. "I think this year it is a even more exciting as the 400 years of Shakespeare's death is being observed. I read Shakespeare in school but never thought I would ever live at his birthplace."

Even those who aren't yet familiar with the Bard's genius are caught up in the magic. Sreekandan's 10-year-old niece, Jem, who has not been introduced to Shakespeare's literature yet, is equally excited. "This is the third time I am coming here and I took part in the parade. We also had a competition in our school."

The occasion has the feel of a community festival rather than the celebration of one man. Visitors and locals enter into the spirit of things equally, wearing special Shakespeare masks - the organisers say 10,000 masks were distributed this year - and each feels an equal stake in the writer's genius.

 "This is just the beginning of our celebrations of 400 years of Shakespeare's legacy. We are designing his New Place house where he spent the last 19 years of his life and breathed his last. We are not renovating the house but interpreting his life through a designer garden," says Alison Cole. The birthplace receives 2,80,000 visitors each year, a number that is expected to grow by 30% this year. "The excitement over Shakespeare seems eternal," she says.

If there's anything that truly symbolises the day, it's the scent of rosemary that permeates the air - fresh, fragrant, evocative. The whole town smells of it as people either wear sprigs on their chest or throw it rosemary on the streets during the procession as a mark of remembrance.


"There's Rosemary, that's for remembrance," said the world's greatest playwright in Hamlet, Act 4, Section 5.

The Bard once lived in Stratford-upon-Avon. Today, the town lives on because of him.

Photo credits: Sambit Pal

Edited by Payal Puri

First published: 24 April 2016, 11:00 IST