Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!

Find out why each year the Cathedral celebrates William Shakespeare's birthday on 23 April

The great bell of St Saviour’s, Southwark tolled on a cold winter’s morning in 1607 as the young actor Edmund Shakespeare was laid to rest. At the funeral were his fellow actors and his elder brother, William. Unusually the burial took place in the morning as the actors had to perform on that cold afternoon. William had lodged in two different houses on Bankside.

It’s as ‘Southwark’s most famous resident’ that Victorian enthusiasts erected the monument to Shakespeare in the south aisle. Above it a memorial window shows scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. The effigy below by Henry McCarthy holds a fresh sprig of rosemary regularly replaced ‘for remembrance’. And next to the monument is a tablet commemorating Sam Wanamaker the founder and great moving spirit behind the building of Shakespeare’s Globe barely half a mile from this Cathedral.

St Saviour’s was the church of Elizabethan actors. Look at the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s works and you will see a list of actors before the title. Half those names also appear in the registers of St Saviours: a christening, a marriage, a burial. And yet the preachers in the pulpit of St Saviour’s were no great fans of the theatre.  When the theatre first arrived in the parish with Henslowe’s Rose, there were strong objections to it. Later in 1599 when a second theatre, the Globe, arrived, objections rose to a crescendo but a compromise was reached when a percentage of the takings were allotted to the poor of the parish.

Nevertheless denunciation of the theatre continued from the pulpit : ‘Will not a filthy play, with the blast of a trumpet, sooner call thither a thousand than an hour’s tolling of a bell bring to a sermon a hundred?’ thundered one preacher. Possibly a case of sour grapes.

One young actor, Nathaniel Field, (his father was a preacher satirised in Jonson’s  ‘Bartholomew Fair’) wrote angrily back complaining they had been pronounced damned in front of the congregation and that ‘Christ never sought the strayed sheep in that manner, he never sent a barking dog to fetch it home but gently brought it upon his own shoulders.’

In addition to the names of the actors in the parish register, two dramatists were also buried here: Philip Massinger and John Fletcher, the latter collaborating with Shakespeare on Henry VIII. And finally, the medieval poet John Gower is buried here. His tale of Pericles inspired Shakespeare’s play and Gower appears in it as Prologue.

The days of Puritan preachers are over and the relationship between church and theatre is an affectionate one, no more so than between the Cathedral and Shakespeare’s Globe.

On Monday 23 April, comedian Arthurs Smith and musicians Rick and Jane Jones will be telling the story of Shakespearean feminist Mrs Elizabeth Newcomen who lived in Borough.  This is a free event and further information can be found here