Celebrating Shakespeare – a JMU Tradition

by Julia Merkel

William Shakespeare lived from 1564 until April 23, 1616. This April, Shakespeare’s legacy will be celebrated worldwide. James Madison University formally kicks-off honoring the Bard with a lecture on April 4th, along with exhibits in Carrier Library, Rose Library, and the Prism Gallery at Festival. If one is not able to see the Carrier Library exhibits, please visit the online exhibit instead!


In preparing for the Carrier Library exhibits, English Graduate Student, Megan O’Neill and Art History Junior Madison Whitesell discovered that celebrating Shakespeare has a 100-year old tradition here in Harrisonburg and at JMU – or, the “Normal” as it was affectionately known back in the day.

From May 25 – 26, 1916, the Harrisonburg and Madison communities came together for an all-out Shakespearean love-fest captured in “Brilliant Scenes at Pageant’s End,” a Daily News-Record article from May 27th touting Shakespeare’s 300th anniversary as a momentous two-day event with audience members from Harrisonburg, Rockingham and adjoining counties. stsk08 copy copyChildren from the Main Street School School star as a very young Queen Elizabeth, Robin Hood, and Foresters (JMU Special Collections Historic Photographs, #Stsk08)

Faculty member, Miss Ruth Hudson, organized festivities on Thursday with school groups from Broadway, Waterman, and Main Street Schools presenting scenes from: As You Like It, The Triumph of Spring, Midsummer’s Eve Festival on the Stratford Village Green, and A May Day Celebration with Queen Elizabeth.

Dramatic scenes were performed in the “State Normal Orchard,” the open air theatre built into the grassy slope behind Maury or “Science” Hall on what was the Newman Farm.stair04 copy copyOne local schoolboy found a better vantage point for the afternoon performances by climbing a tree. (JMU Special Collections Historic Photographs, #Stair04)

A “magnificent street parade” began at 5pm the same day starting at the top of the quadrangle and processing all the way to Court Square in downtown Harrisonburg. Heralds and marshals portrayed by President Julian Burruss and Professors Smithey and Heatwole led the way followed by Queen Elizabeth played by Mrs. Saylor D. Myers, and A.K. Fletcher, Jr. as Shakespeare.stsk04 copy copyPresident Burruss in a memorable costume leading the parade. (JMU Special Collections Historic Photographs, #Stsk04)

stthe01 copy copyQueen Elizabeth and William Shakespeare traverse the main quadrangle with Maury, Jackson, and Harrison Halls visible in the background. (JMU Special Collections Historic Photographs, #Stthe01)

The stately pageant processed from what would later become the quad to Court Square in downtown Harrisonburg to the delight of students and community members.stsk09 copy copy(JMU Special Collections Historic Photographs, #Stsk09)

On May 26th, ballads were led by Director of Music, Miss Edna Shaeffer, and followed by Shakespearean scenes. The Seniors presented “Merchant of Venice,” the Juniors “Much Ado About Nothing,” the Sophomores “As You Like It,” the Lee Society “Julius Caesar,” the Lanier Society “Twelfth Night,” and the Stratford Society “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” with the Freshmen Class relegated to the role of portraying flowers. (Perhaps the Freshmen were either a bit disappointed, or full of relief at their underwhelming role in the festivities!)stsk06 copy copy(JMU Special Collections Historic Photographs, #Stsk06)

For more information on celebrating Shakespeare in Shenandoah and other Shakespeare events across the state, please visit the Virginia Shakespeare Initiative website.


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