This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
There’s no doubt about it: Stratford-upon-Avon is Shakespeare’s town. From Hathaway Tea Rooms to Bard’s Walk, every building, every street, it seems, wants to stake a claim to Stratford’s most famous son.
But the town’s most celebrated landmark is the 16th-century half-timbered house where William Shakespeare was born in 1564, and where he lived until his mid-twenties. Located on Henley Street, in the heart of Stratford, the house has been a site of pilgrimage for millions of Shakespeare lovers since the early 18th century.
“Shakespeare’s Birthplace is a major piece of the jigsaw puzzle that connects him to the town,” says Dr Paul Edmondson, head of research and knowledge at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. “For a poet and playwright whose works have been translated into hundreds of languages, we know remarkably little about the man himself – what he was like, how he wrote, what he thought. It is the search for answers to these most basic questions that draws people to the site.”
The house, which was bought by the trust for the nation in 1847 – following a national campaign to raise £3,000 – is the crown jewels for any literature lover. You enter the building by way of an exhibition, which boasts items relating to the playwright and Elizabethan drama – from a copy of his First Folio, to a gold seal ring bearing the initials ‘WS’, perhaps worn by Shakespeare himself.
Although no birth records survive, Shakespeare is believed to have been born on or around 23 April 1564, a date based on an entry in the parish register of the nearby Holy Trinity church, which records the baptism of Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare (William, son of John Shakespeare) on 26 April 1564.
Today, the climax of any visit to the house is the upstairs bedroom where it is believed Shakespeare was born – accompanied (if you time your visit right) by the strains of Elizabethan music, performed by the resident Shakespeare Aloud! actors.
Here, from the earliest days of public opening, visitors would carve their initials into the birthroom window with a diamond ring, or scrawl their names across the bedroom walls – leaving their mark in the room where a literary genius took his first breaths. The window is now on display in an adjoining room, and boasts the signatures of individuals such as 19th-century actress Ellen Terry. Its earliest carving dates to 1806. So hallowed is the room to some, that many have knelt, prayed and even wept here – what people bring to the room is as important as what they take from it, says Edmondson.
It is not unknown for visitors to remove their shoes to walk across the original stone floor in the downstairs parlour, seeking an even closer connection to the playwright through the grey slabs he played and walked on.
The third of eight children – two of whom died before his birth – Shakespeare attended the local boys’ grammar school from the age of about eight, where he would have been schooled in Latin, Greek, rhetoric and classical literature.
“Shakespeare’s time at grammar school was fundamental to his writing career”, says Edmondson. “There, he was taught how language was put together and how it could be used and wielded. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a work he would have studied at school, was a great influence on Shakespeare’s writing, as was Holinshed’s Chronicles – apparent in works like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and history plays like Henry V and Macbeth.
“Meanwhile, at home, Shakespeare would have been part of a great storytelling culture, gathering around the hearth of an evening to hear long-established oral folk tales and great medieval stories, such as the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood.”
Much of this storytelling would have taken place in the dining room, a space that has been filled with 16th-century furniture and that is dominated by the huge hearth. Here, in the heart of the home, Shakespeare would have eaten meals with his family, returning from school at about 11am for the main meal of the day.
As a young child, Shakespeare’s life would have revolved around his family. His father, John, was a glover who ran his business from a room located at the far end of the house, selling his wares from the window to customers in the main street outside. Today’s visitors can look round John Shakespeare’s workshop – re-imagined and featuring tools of the trade.
“One of the big sticking points in Shakespeare’s life is that he married too young, aged just 18”, says Edmondson. “But he had no choice: his lover, Anne Hathaway – eight years his senior – was already pregnant. Their marriage had more far-reaching consequences. Men were not allowed to take on, or continue, an apprenticeship after marrying, so any hopes Shakespeare may have had of legally taking on his father’s glove-making business would have been dashed. It’s likely he would have helped with the family business, but unlike some of his fellow actors – men such as grocer John Hemminges – Shakespeare had no other profession to fall back on.”
Yet Shakespeare may still have benefited from his father’s business dealings. “One of the debates about Shakespeare’s life is how, in 1594, he was able to afford shares in the company of players known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men,” comments Edmondson. “Shakespeare both acted and wrote for the company but becoming a shareholder, and buying one of the largest houses in Stratford (New Place) two years later, would certainly have set him back a huge amount financially. New Place – no longer standing – cost some £120 at a time when the average wage for a school teacher was £20 a year.
“One theory is that as well as making gloves, John Shakespeare, who became mayor of Stratford in 1568, was also investing significantly in wool, which was illegal at the time. We know he was accused of illegal wool dealing in 1572, but we don’t know if he continued wool dealing – it would certainly explain the family’s wealth. Economic historian David Fallow even goes so far as to assert that William Shakespeare left Stratford for London between 1587 and 1592 not to make his fortune or to become an actor, as is often thought, but to represent his father’s wool dealings in the city.”
After Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne in November 1582, the pair resided at the family home in Henley Street – possibly living in the two-roomed cottage that had been added onto the western end. Their first child, Susanna, was born in 1583, followed by twins Judith and Hamnet in February 1585. But between 1587 and 1592 little is known of Shakespeare’s life, other than the works he produced during this time, including The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew and Henry VI. The ‘lost years’ end in 1592, when records place him in London, although his wife and children probably remained in Stratford.
There are many misconceptions about what, when and why Shakespeare began writing,” says Edmondson. “But we need to remember that he wasn’t an impoverished writer, submitting works in the vain hope they would be taken up by acting companies. The content of his plays was discussed and planned with members of the company, and commissioned according to what they felt audiences wanted. Although some of his plays are hard to date, we’re fairly sure Henry V and Julius Caesar were written in 1599, meaning that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – a company that became known as the King’s Men after the accession of James VI and I in 1603 – presented a play in which a ruler is assassinated (Julius Caesar), and a play in which a ruler is glorified (Henry V) in the same year. Elizabethan audiences would have noticed and appreciated the contrast. For me, this brings together Shakespeare’s roles as writer, shareholder and theatrical entrepreneur.
“Shakespeare was a shrewd businessman: it’s probably fair to say his fortune wasn’t made through his writing – it was the shares he held in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and later the Globe Theatre, that kept the money flowing into his coffers.”
Shakespeare was also a well-respected actor in his own right, performing with (and writing for) acting companies such as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It is with this group that he found the most success, performing at court on more than 170 occasions, often with his own plays.
But his works were also influenced by his life in Stratford. One example of this is the death in 1596 of his son, Hamnet, aged 11 – it’s no coincidence, says Edmondson, that Shakespeare later writes Hamlet (another spelling of Hamnet). For Elizabethans, losing a male child was deeply significant and, in Shakespeare’s case, meant the death of the family line. Anne, by then in her 40s, was unlikely to conceive another male heir.
By 1613, Shakespeare is thought to have returned to Stratford, having inherited his childhood home after his father’s death in 1601. Ever the businessman, he had leased part of the property, which subsequently became a pub, the Swan and Maidenhead. But in April 1616, aged 52, Shakespeare died and the house was left to his eldest daughter, Susanna, remaining in the family until the late 18th century.
Says Edmondson: “For more than 250 years people have flocked to Shakespeare’s Birthplace to form their own conclusions about the life of Britain’s most famous author. And it’s a tradition that shows no sign of abating.”
Five more places to explore
The Globe, London
Where Shakespeare is remembered
The reconstructed Globe Theatre, sited on the south bank of the Thames, in the suburb of Southwark, opened in 1997, just metres away from where the 1599 building once stood. The original open-roofed, roughly circular structure played host to many of Shakespeare’s plays, but burned down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII.
Holy Trinity church, Stratford-upon-Avon
Where the great playwright is buried
Thought to have died on 23 April 1616 – the same day he is believed to have been born – Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of his local church. A few years after his death, a memorial was erected on the side wall nearby – the bust is said to be a good likeness of the playwright. His wife and eldest daughter are buried alongside him.
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey
Where Shakespeare played for a king
The Great Hall at Hampton Court was often used as a theatre by Elizabeth I, and Shakespeare’s company performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream there before James VI and I on new year’s day, 1604. An adjoining chamber served as a dressing room for the players, while the Great Watching Chamber was reportedly used for rehearsals. The hall is still open to the public.
Where Shakespeare is honoured
Designed by William Kent, a life-size marble statue – depicted in Elizabethan dress with cloak – can be found in the abbey’s Poets’ Corner. The memorial is dated 1740 and features the Latin inscription: “William Shakespeare [erected] 124 years after [his] death by public esteem.”
Where theatrical troupes performed
Dating back to the 14th century, the timber-framed building, which is now open to the public as a museum, has had many roles in its long history. Its Great Hall was often used for theatrical performances by travelling troupes of actors including, very likely, Shakespeare himself.
Dr Paul Edmondson is head of research and knowledge at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.