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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt - Shakespeare’s Church and the Pilgrim Fathers: Commemorating Plymouth Rock in Stratford


Did you know that the Pilgrims have a presence in the church where William Shakespeare was baptized and buried? A stained glass window that bears the inscription, “The Gift of America to Shakespeare’s Church,” shows the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, along with other scenes.

This is just one of the many American connections to Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford explored in a new collection of essays, Shakespeare and Stratford, edited by Katherine Scheil. Appearing below is an excerpt from Chapter 4, “Shakespeare’s Church and the Pilgrim Fathers: Commemorating Plymouth Rock in Stratford” by Clara Calvo, published with permission of Berghahn Books.

In 1896, the annual celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday acquired the proportions of a major cultural event, amply covered by local, national and international newspapers. 1896 was not a specially commemorative year – it didn’t mark any special centenary or half­centenary of the birth or death of the poet – but the arrival in Stratford and prominent presence in the celebrations of both the U.S. Ambassador to the court of Saint James and the U.S. Consul in Birmingham turned Shakespeare’s annual birthday ritual into an occasion for what Melanie Hall and Erik Goldstein have called the ‘diplomatization of culture’ (Hall and Goldstein 2011). As the following pages will aim to show, Shakespeare and Stratford played a part in transforming Anglo-American relations, which evolved from open hostility after American Independence and the War of 1812 to diplomatic and military alliance in the course of Queen Victoria’s reign. As Kim C. Sturgess (2001: 26 passim) has shown, the early anti-English sentiment which arrived in the New World with the Puritans gradually gave way to the American appropriation of Shakespeare. In 1896, the evolution in Anglo-American relations was much concerned with the cultures of commemorating Shakespeare and with making Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church an American, not only a Shakespearean, lieu de mémoire. The presence of American heritage in Holy Trinity Church illustrates how societies remember through commemorative practices, but it also shows how, as Paul Connerton (1989, 2009) suggests, societies that remember sometimes choose to forget.

In Angela Carter’s novel Wise Children (1991), the Chance sisters, Dora and Nora, board a transatlantic liner carrying with them an earthenware urn, purpose-built in Stoke-on-Trent, in the shape of Shakespeare’s bust. Shakespeare, looking like ‘a decapitated doll’ (112) in Dora’s eyes, is hollow inside – his iconic bald forehead can be lifted up, effectively providing a lid. The interior guards a ‘precious gift’ sent from England to America: a handful of earth from Stratford-upon-Avon, ‘dug out of the grounds of that big theatre’, as Dora informs us (113). Dora and Nora travel thus, like Count ­Dracula, with a box full of earth, and their ‘sacred mission’ is ‘to bear the ­precious dust to the New World’ (113). Once the earth from Stratford has reached America, their ‘illegitimate father’, the Shakespearean actor turned filmmaker Melchior Hazard, will sprinkle it on the set of a lavish adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The sprinkling is programmed to take place before the shooting begins, consecrating thus the Hollywood studio as holy ground ready to receive ­Shakespeare.

Angela Carter’s novel echoes – and also parodies – the sprinkling of Avon water and earth from Shakespeare’s garden on Shakespeare Theatre in Dallas, a replica of the Globe playhouse that could be admired at the Great Texas Fair in 1936 (Holderness 1992: 2-15). The replica Globe had previously been erected for a mock English village in Chicago’s World’s Fair (1893), also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, as it was meant to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival. Chicago’s ‘English village’ was not the only attempt to recreate Shakespeare’s rural England on American soil. In 1916, as part of the Tercentenary celebrations, a replica of the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, England, was contemplated in Boston, Massachusetts. Although the replica village was never built, in 1916 the New York Times (25 June 1916) hoped that it would be finished in time for the celebrations of another tercentenary, as in 1920 Americans would commemorate the landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Boston never achieved its permanent Shakespeare village and the Pilgrim Fathers had no replica of the Birthplace for their tercentenary celebrations, but the association of Stratford with Plymouth Rock and of Shakespeare with democracy recurred during the 1916 celebrations. In Boston, Shakespeare’s 1916 Tercentenary was celebrated jointly with the Declaration of Independence not on 23 April but on the Fourth of July. Shakespeare and the Declaration of Independence in fact have a history of joint commemoration. In his will, actor Edwin Forrest specified that annual commemorative rituals would take place on 23 April and 4 July in his home for elderly or disabled actors (Sturgess, 133). In 1916 this joint commemoration took place, amongst other places, on the steps of Boston Public Library where scenes from Julius Caesar were performed. As the press noted the following day, Mayor Curley praised Shakespeare and declared him ‘the poet of democracy’ and John Murray Gibbon, the Canadian poet and publicist for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), linked Shakespeare with the Pilgrim Fathers and the founding of America’s democratic nation (Boston Herald, 5 July 1916).

The desire to recreate Shakespeare’s Stratford in the United States has its counterpart in a persistent drive to leave a trace of ‘America’ in Stratford. The best-known, and more conspicuous, instance of U.S. presence in Shakespeare’s birth town is perhaps the Shakespeare Memorial Fountain and Clock Tower, donated by a Phila­delphia journalist turned philanthropist, George W. Childs, in 1887. Childs also donated memorial windows to William Cowper and George Herbert for Westminster Abbey, and to John Milton at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster. The American Fountain, which still stands today at the top of the town’s marketplace, is an example of tandem commemoration, as it celebrates Shakespeare together with Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887. The dedication ceremony was turned into a significant ceremony, attended by the then American ambassador, Edward John Phelps, and the actor Henry Irving, celebrating the friendship of Britain and America over Shakespeare (Sturgess, 187-88). Like most memorials, it allows the commemorators to memorialise themselves – the joint presence of the lion and the eagle leave no doubt about their iconological significance and Shakespeare thus serves to unite England and America in Stratford.

Phineas T. Barnum failed to purchase the Birthplace when it was auctioned in 1847 and therefore he could not transport it to America, but there are other instances of what Kim Sturgess has called ‘the gradual involvement of the American people in the material ownership of Shakespeare’ (182). Barnum’s failed attempt to buy the Birthplace was later used by Mark Twain’s in a letter to raise funds for the Memorial Theatre (Marder 1963: 243–44; Sturgess, 181-86). American money went into the building of the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, destroyed by fire on 6 March 1926, and the second Memorial Theatre, which opened on 23 April 1932. Well-known examples of American intervention in Stratford are Harvard House – bought by Chicago millionaire Edward Morris with the help of Marie Corelli at the turn of the twentieth century and donated to Harvard University – and a stained glass window, the Seven Ages of Man window in Holy Trinity Church, inspired by Jacques’s well-known speech in As You Like It (Illustration 4.1). This famous stained-glass window that filters light on Shakespeare’s grave was also donated by Childs and has long been an American site of pilgrimage in Stratford, more so since it inspired another famous window at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC (McManaway 1948: 58-59). This window is located at the west end of the Gail Kern Paster Reading Room.

Less conspicuous examples of American presence in Stratford include the stained-glass window behind the altar in the Guildhall Chapel, on which John Shakespeare, the playwright’s father, is memorialised next to King Edward VI. Both Shakespeare’s father and King Edward appear in this window as Stratford benefactors (Illustration 4.2). In one of its lower lights, below Sir Hugh Clopton, who rebuilt the church, and the coat of arms of Thomas Polton, Bishop of Worcester, who dedicated the Chapel, one can read the following inscription: ‘In the steadfast belief that the Church of Christ upon earth is one, these two panels are dedicated by the Rev. Robert W. Burns D.D. & the members of the Peachtree Christian Church, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.’ (Illustration 4.3). As Prof. Christy Desmet once informed me, The Peachtree Christian Church, founded in 1925, survives in Atlanta to this day.

All these examples of U.S. presence in Stratford have something in common: they are the outcome of the generosity of one or several American individuals. By contrast, the stained glass window variously called ‘American window’, ‘New American window’ and ‘American Memorial window’ that covers the south wall of Saint Peter’s Chapel, situated in the south transept of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church (Illustration 4.4), bears an inscription boasting to be ‘The Gift of America to Shakespeare’s Church’.


Research for this paper was possible thanks to Research Project FFI2011-24347, ‘Shakespeare and the Cultures of Commemoration II: Remembering Shakespeare’, financed by the Spanish Research Agency MEC-ANEP.


Melanie Hall and Erick Goldstein, 2011 ‘Writers, the Clergy, and the ‘Diplomatization’ of Culture: Sub-Structures of Anglo-American Diplomacy, 1820–1914’, in On the Fringes of Diplomacy: Influences on British Foreign Policy, 1800–194, ed. John Fisher (Aldershot: Ashgate,).

Sturgess, Kim C. (2004) Shakespeare and the American Nation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Paul Connerton (1989) How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Paul Connerton, (2009) How Modernity Forgets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Carter, Angela (1991) Wise Children (London: Chatto and Windus).

Holderness, Graham (1992) ‘Bardolatry: The cultural materialist’s guide to Stratford-upon-­Avon’, The Shakespeare Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press,), 2–15, p. 2.

Marder, Louis (1963) His Exits and His Entrances: The Story of Shakespeare’s Reputation (Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott).

McManaway, James G. (1948) ‘The Folger Shakespeare Library,’ Shakespeare Survey, 1, 58–59.