William Shakespeare died 400 years ago today on 23rd April 1616. He was probably 52 years old at his untimely death. By strange coincidence 52 years ago last November at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, I had an encounter with another death which was also entirely unexpected.
In 1963 I was at school in Worcestershire and one Friday evening in November during my final year we were taken on a school trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard III. I think there were about 20 of us schoolgirls and, having arrived by bus, we took our seats in the theatre alongside many Americans and other visitors who flocked to watch Shakespeare’s plays in his home town. I remember so well my excitement at the start of this magnificent play with Ian Holm playing Richard III and Dame Peggy Ashcroft playing Margaret.
However something rather strange began to happen during the first half of the play. We became aware of a lot of whispering along the rows of seated audience. This was unusual. We had been to the theatre before and I had been fortunate enough to see Paul Scofield playing King Lear and Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind in As You Like It, and I did not recall any distracting noise from the audience at these performances. So I concentrated on Peggy Ashcroft stalking around the stage uttering curses.
When the interval began, I and my friends filed out to get ourselves fizzy drinks and sweets. It was clear that many of the Americans present had very worried expressions on their faces and there was obviously some bad news in the United States which was being transmitted across the Atlantic. The date was 22 November. I heard the words ‘President’ and ‘Dallas’ and it seemed that the iconic John F. Kennedy had been shot in a car and was wounded. No one was sure of what had happened. The bells rang and we were all ushered back to our seats for the second part of the play, to continue the gory saga of Richard III and the grisly murders he was perpetrating.
Perhaps I am imagining things, but it seemed to me that the actors were a little distracted too, although I was still electrified by the drama and the way that Margaret’s dire predictions were coming true. The performance of Ian Holm as the deformed king was magnificent. Here is a black and white photograph of him in the role in that 1963 production.
Although I was focusing on the play, it seemed that many of the people in the theatre could not. As the news spread like a forest fire around the auditorium, it became clear that John Kennedy was dead. He had been assassinated! Some stunned and distraught Americans got their feet and stumbled out in the midst of the play. Others sat there with shocked pale faces and openly wept. I felt rather sorry for the actors as they continued to perform and tried to ignore the fact that they had lost the attention of their audience.
The play came to an end and our teacher herded us all together to walk back to the bus. We were still unaware that the events of that day would shock the world. It was something that people would never forget and, like me, the date 22 November 1963 and where we had been at the time we heard the news of Kennedy’s death would remain etched in our memories forever. How strange that one of the most significant and visual assassinations in history since that of President Lincoln (which happened in a theatre) should be inextricably entangled in my memory with the history play by William Shakespeare on the subject of political assassination, about ‘crook-back Dick’, the murderous and violent king, Richard III.