28 April 2016

Remembering Shakespeare
in Southwark Cathedral

The Shakespeare window in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am in London today, at a meeting of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency Us, previously USPG (the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

On my way to the Us offices at Harling House in Great Suffolk Street, I walked from Liverpool Street Station to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and walked across the the London Millennium Footbridge over the Thames to the Globe Theatre on the Southwark side of the river, just 10 minutes walk from here.

For the past week, the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare has been celebrated throughout this part of London, and the offices in Great Suffolk Street are just a short walk from Southwark Cathedral, where Shakespeare is commemorated by a window and a statue in the South Aisle.

Every year a birthday celebration is held in Southwark Cathedral in honour of England’s greatest playwright. Last Saturday [23 April], the special Shakespeare service in Southwark Cathedral blended liturgical worship, music and performance. The celebration drew on extracts of four plays – Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – all currently playing in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe.

It was a fitting celebration of Shakespeare’s life and legacy in his workplace parish. Although he was never a regular worshipper in London, many members of his acting company were on the parish register of Saint Saviour’s Church.

The church was first known as Saint Mary and later as Saint Mary Overy (‘over the river’), and Southwark was part of the Diocese of Winchester. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the church was renamed Saint Saviour’s, and only became a cathedral in 1905 with the formation of the new Diocese of Southwark.

The famous first folio of Shakespeare’s plays, produced after his death by two members of his acting company – John Hemings and Henry Cordell – lists all the company’s members. Over half (but not William Shakespeare) also appear on the parish register of Saint Saviour’s.

The window, showing characters from some of Shakespeare’s plays, was designed by Christopher Webb to replace one that was destroyed during World War II. The window was unveiled in 1954 by Dame Sybil Thorndike, who made her stage debut half a century earlier in 1904 in a regional production of The Merry Wives of Windsor and went on to perform in hundreds off Shakespearean productions.

Beneath the window is a recumbent alabaster figure of Shakespeare, carved by Henry McCarthy in 1912. The Bard is show resting and reading outside the Globe Theatre. The background depicts 17th century Southwark in relief, including the Globe Theatre, Winchester Palace and the tower of Saint Saviour’s.

Shakespeare’s brother Edmund was buried in Saint Saviour’s in 1607, and although the position of Edmund’s grave is not known today, he is commemorated by an inscribed stone in the paving of the Choir.

A Kempe window in the cathedral commemorates Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born author, lexicographer, critic and conversationalist. He was a friend of the Thrale family who were local brewers, and often stayed with them. His friends James Boswell and David Garrick were responsible for reviving English national interest in Shakespeare as a poet and playwright.

The Samuel Johnson window in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Tony Hisgett/Wikipedia)

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