A Letter from James Boswell, Esq;
on Shakespeare’s Jubilee
at Stratford-upon Avon

Edited by Jack Lynch

The text comes from The London Magazine, Sept. 1769, pp. 451–54. One footnote appears in brackets in the text. The paragraph numbers have been added.

[1] Allow me amongst so many others to describe Shakespeare’s jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon. Upon such occasions it is exceedingly difficult for those who are present to convey to people at a distance a just account of what is going on. There are few whose heads are strong enough to be in the midst of gay company and a variety of entertainments, without having their spirits put into such a fermentation, as to be incapable of settling to write; and they who can in these circumstances be quite calm, and masters of themselves, are for the most part of feelings so dull, that we cannot expect from them but a heavy and inanimate picture.

[2] For my own part I am now returned to London, and I flatter myself that, after being agitated as much as any body, I have recovered my tranquillity, and am in condition to give you a few remarks on this celebrated jubilee of genius, which I am persuaded will engage the attention not only of all ranks of this island, but of the learned and ingenious of every part of Europe. For what was the Stratford jubilee? not a piece of farce and rhodomontade, as many of the envious foes of our Roscius attempted to make us believe, but an elegant and truly classical celebration of the memory of Shakespeare, that illustrious poet, whom all ages will admire as the world has hitherto done. It was truly an antique idea, a Grecian thought, to institute a splendid festival in honour of a bard. My bosom glowed with joy when I beheld a numerous and brilliant company of nobility and gentry, the rich, the brave, the witty, and the fair, assembled to pay their tribute of praise to Shakespeare; nor could I help thinking that they at the same time paid a very just compliment to Mr. Garrick, the steward of the jubilee, who has done so much to make our nation acquainted with the inestimable riches of their own stage, in possessing so illustrious a dramatic author with such amazing variety and wonderful excellence as Shakespeare. Garrick may be called the colourist of Shakespeare’s soul. — He

    ——Dame Nature’s pencil stole,
Just where old Shakespeare dropt it.

Let conceited and disappointed authors and players vent their spleen against him, he may assure himself that his fame will last forever.

[3] The morning of the first day was ushered in with a pleasing serenade by the best musicians from London in disguise. The jubilee began with an oratorio in the great church at Stratford; the subject the story of Judith; the words by Mr. Bickerstaff; the music by Dr. Arne. It was a grand and admirable performance. But I could have wished that prayers had been read, and a short sermon preached. It would have consecrated our jubilee to begin it with devotion, with gratefully adoring the supreme Father of all spirits, from whom cometh every good and perfect gift. The procession with music from the church to the amphitheatre, led on by Mr. Garrick, had a very good effect. The amphitheatre was a wooden building, erected just on the brink of the Avon, in the form of an octagon, with eight pillars supporting the roof. It was elegantly painted and gilded. Between the pillars were crimson curtains, very well imitated as hanging over each recess. In this amphitheatre was a large orchestra, placed as it used to be formerly in Ranelagh. Here the company dined exceedingly well between three and four. Between five and six the musical performers appeared, and entertained us with several of the songs in Shakespeare’s Garland composed for the occasion. Sweet Willy O, tender and pathetic. The Mulberry tree, of which the chorus is very fine. Warwickshire, a ballad of great merit in it’s kind, lively, spirited, full of witty turns, and even delicate fancies. Mr. Garrick’s words, and Mr. Dibden’s music, went charmingly together, and we all joined in the chorus.

[4] I shall not follow a regular method of narrating the events exactly, but just mention what made impression upon myself; that is the best rate for every man to follow, if he wishes to entertain.

[5] The performance of the dedication ode was noble and affecting: it was like an exhibition in Athens or Rome. The whole audience were fixed in the most earnest attention, and I do believe, that if any one had attempted to disturb the performance, he would have been in danger of his life. Garrick, in the front of the orchestra, filled with the first musicians of the nation, with Dr. Arne at their head, and inspired with an aweful elevation of soul, while he looked from time to time at the venerable statue of Shakespeare, appeared more than himself. While he repeated the ode, and saw the various passions and feelings which it contains fully transfused into all around him, he seemed in extacy, and gave us the idea of a mortal transformed into a demi-god, ad we read in the Pagan mythology.

[6] I can witness from my own hearing what did great honour to Lord Grosvenor as well as to Mr. Garrick. After the ode his lordship came up to the orchestra, and told Mr. Garrick that he had affected his whole frame, shewing him his veins and nerves still quivering with agitation. What truly delighted me, was to observe the warm sincerity of Mr. Garrick’s enthusiasm for his immortal bard throughout the whole suite of entertainments. While the songs were singing, he was all life and spirit, joining in the chorus, and humouring every part with his expressive looks and gestures. When he sung,

There never was seen such a creature, &c.
    Warwickshire thief,
    He’s the chief,
    The thief of all Thieves, &c.

his eyes sparkled with joy; and the triumph of his countenance at some parts of the ode, it’s tenderness at others, and inimitable sly humour at others, cannot be described. I know not whether it my be a compliment to Mr. Garrick, but I must say that his ode greatly exceeded my expectations. I knew his talents for little sportive sallies, but I feared that a dedication ode for Shakespeare was above his powers. What the critics may say of this performance I know not, but I shall never be induced to waver in my opinion of it. I am sensible of it’s defects; but, upon the whole, I think it a work of considerable merit, well suited to the occasion, by the variety of it’s subjects, and containing both poetical force and elegance. It would be unpardonable should I omit acknowledging the pleasure which I received from Dr. Arne’s music, which was truly fine; nor must I neglect thanking the whole orchestra for their execution.

[7] As a number of letters have appeared concerning this famous jubilee, I would wish to avoid repetition; I would wish not to go over the same ground with others, though perhaps it may be with description, as it is with farming, where different persons going over the same ground will make it have a very different appearance, just from their different methods of dressing it. When the ode was finished, Mr. Garrick made a very genteel address to us in prose, modestly expressing how much he thought himself unequal to the task he had undertaken, and assuring us, that he found it quite another thing to speak in public, supported by the great genius of Shakespeare, from what he found it to speak in public, supported only by his own feeble genius; but he hoped we would shew him the same kind indulgence as is usually shewn to those unfortunate gentlemen who appear for the first time in a character. His epilogue to the ladies was very lively, and very well expressed. I hope he will favour us with it in print. When Mr. Garrick had done, he invited any of the company to speak, if they were so disposed. Upon which Mr. King, the comedian, got up to the orchestra, and gave us a smart ironical attack upon Shakespeare, in the character of a modern refined man of taste. This might have gone very well on some other occasion; but, in my opinion, it had better have been omitted at this noble festival: it detracted from it’s dignity; nor was there any occasion for it. We were all enthusiastic admirers of Shakespeare. We had not time to think of his caviling critics. We were stilled with glowing admiration of our immortal bard; and the levity of the fine gentlemen disturbed the tone of our minds. I must be forgiven too for observing that this exhibition looked so like a trap laid on purpose, that it displeased me; and I was angry to find any notice taken of the venomous insects who have shot their stings in the news-papers against the jubilee, and particularly against Mr. Garrick. It had the appearance of a soreness unworthy of our lord high-steward. If the gnats at any time slightly pierce his skin, let him drop a little of the oil of good-humoured pleasantry upon the place, and give himself no farther trouble. This is my receipt, founded on experience, Probatum est. I must however do justice to Tom King, and allow that he played his part exceedingly well. I got acquainted at the jubilee with this ingenious comedian, and found him a genteel, agreeable companion, and for all the shining of his brass* [* ‘Mongst Drury’s sons he comes, and shines in brass. Churchill.] upon the stage, a very modest man in private society. I am surprized that your correspondents, who have so justly praised Mr. Angelo’s fireworks, have not mentioned the pictures on the bank of the Avon, fronting the amphitheatre. There we beheld Time leading Shakespeare to immortality, Tragedy on one side and Comedy on the other, copied from the fine ideas of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Behind these pictures were placed a number of lamps, which gave them a most beautiful transparency. In the same style were five pictures in the windows of the town hall: in the middle Shakespeare, in the attitude of exclaiming,

“Oh! for a muse of fire!"

On the windows on one side of him, Lear and Caliban: on the windows on the other side, Sir John Falstaff and Ancient Pistol. In the same style too was a piece of painting hung before the windows of the room where Shakespeare was born, representing the sun breaking through the clouds. In this room was lodged Mr. Thomas Becket, of London, grand bookseller to the jubilee. Whether inspiration poetical hath impregnated his mind, time must determine. I had a serene and solemn satisfaction in contemplating the church in which Shakespeare lies. It is a large old building, and has been a kind of cathedral, or church belonging to some religious society, for it has a regular choir, in which the bard reposes. His grave-stone is a good deal sunk below the level of the floor; but nobody will ever put a hand to it, for his epitaph is,

“Good friends, for Jesus sake, forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be he that spares these stones,
But curst be he that moves my bones.”

[8] At one end of his grave some pious hands had placed a garland of flowers, bays, laurels, and other ever-greens; and there were also festoons of ever-greens put on the monument which is erected on the wall next his grave. The monument is not very excellent. The warlike music of the Warwickshire militia, and the discharge of artillery, added considerably to the grandeur of our jubilee. We all wore, hungin in a blue ribband at our breasts, a medal of Shakespeare, very well cast by Mr. Westwood of Birmingham. On one side was the head of Shakespeare, and round it this inscription,

We shall not look upon his like again.

And on the reverse,

J  U  B  I  L  E  E
At Stratford,
In Honour
And to the
Memory of

September, 1769

[9] We also wore favours, called Shakespeare’s favours. Ladies, gentlemen, and even servants and peasants wore them. Every human being had, or seemed to have, an idea of the classical festival. Taste beamed a ray on the lively and the stupid, on those who felt it, and on those who felt it not. The very shop-bills upon this occasion were pieces of genius. Mr. Jackson, from Tavistock-street, London, gave about the following one:

Shakespeare’s Jubilee.

A ribband has been made on purpose at Coventry, called the Shakespeare Ribband: it is in imitation of the rainbow, which uniting the colours of all parties, is likewise an emblem of the great variety of his genius.

Each change of many-coloured life he drew.


[10] I dare say Mr. Samuel Johnson never imagined that this fine verse of his would appear on a bill to promote the sale of ribbands. Since I have mentioned this illustrious author, I cannot but regret that he did not honour Shakespeare’s jubilee with his presence, which would have added much dignity to our meeting. The masquerade ball was one of the best that has been in Britain. There were many very rich, elegant, and curious dresses, many beautiful women, and some characters well supported. All the papers have already been pretty full on this subject, so I need say little; only I must observe, that a masquerade is an entertainment which does not seem much suited to the genius of the British nation. In warmer countries, where people have a great flow of spirits, and a readiness at repartee, a masquerade is exceedingly agreeable: but the reserve and taciturnity which is observable amongst us, makes us appear aukward and embarrassed in feigned characters. Many of our Stratford masks seemed angry when one accosted them. — The race at the jubilee was neither better nor worse than other races; nor indeed could it be expected to be any how extraordinary, except, as an ingenious lady observed, we could have procured a race of Pegasuses in honour of our poet. It was much to be regretted that bad weather prevented us from having the pageant, upon which Mr. Garrick had bestowed so much time in contriving, and so much expence in furnishing. It was to have been a procession of allegorical beings, with the most distinguished characters of Shakespeare’s plays, with their proper dresses, triumphal cars, and all other kinds of machinery: but the heavy rains made it impossible to have this exhibited, without destroying the valuable dresses, and endangering the still more valuable health of the fair performers, who might have been rendered incapable of appearing in public for a whole season, perhaps for life. Nature seemed to frown on a jubilee in honour of the thief who had “robbed her of all she was worth.” But as no cost has been spared on this pageant, I hope Mr. Garrick will entertain us with it in the comfortable regions of Drury-lane.

[11] Much noise has been made about the high price of every thing at Stratford. I own I cannot agree that such censures are just: it was reasonable that Shakespeare’s townsmen should partake of the jubilee as well as we strangers did; they as a jubilee of profit, we of pleasure. As it lasted but for a few nights, a guinea a night for a bed was not imposition. Nobody was understood to come there who had not plenty of money. Towards the end of the jubilee many of us were not in very good humour, as many inconveniencies occurred, particularly there not being carriages enough to take us away but in detachments, so that those who had to wait long tired exceedingly. I laughed away spleen by a droll simile: Taking the whole of this jubilee, said I, is like eating an artichoke entire. We have some fine mouthfuls, but also swallow the leaves and the hair, which are confoundedly difficult of digestion. After all, however, I am highly satisfied with my artichoke.

[12] To conclude as I began — I will always be of opinion that Shakespeare’s jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon is an institution which does honour not only to our immortal bard, but to all who have contributed towards it; and I hope that every seven years it shall be celebrated with equal ardour of enthusiasm as it has been in 1769.

I am, sir,

Your very humble servant,

James Boswell.