8 places that shaped the life of William Shakespeare
Famed Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) is considered by many to be the greatest playwright of all time, credited with leaving a profound mark on Britain's culture and heritage. Where are the places most associated with Shakespeare's life? Where in Stratford-upon-Avon was William Shakespeare born? And where did the great playwright die? Journey into Shakespeare’s England, exploring the places famously associated with the writer, as well many connections that have been forgotten…
Here, Zoe Bramley, author of The Shakespeare Trail, a guidebook of the sites related to Shakespeare’s life and works, rounds up eight places Shakespeare fans should visit…
William Shakespeare was a well-travelled fellow. He may not have ventured as far as Verona, Venice, Denmark, or that non-existent ‘coast of Bohemia’ (which features in The Winter's Tale), but he certainly knew England.
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, William Shakespeare spent most of his working life in London, but also did a fair bit of traipsing around the provinces while on tour with his various theatre companies.
Considering the devastation of the Great Fire of London, and later the Blitz, Shakespeare would still likely recognise a surprising number of Britain’s buildings today.
This honey-coloured building on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon is usually the first port of call for anyone on ‘the Shakespeare trail’. With its thatched roof, gables and timbered facade, it was the quintessential Tudor cottage.
William was the third-born of eight children to his parents, John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. It would have been a crowded household, especially after William’s marriage to the pregnant Anne Hathaway, who moved in to give birth there. The noise and smells emanating from John Shakespeare’s glove-making workshop, located in a room behind the house, would have formed the sensory background to William’s boyhood.
Today the house is run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The rooms have been furnished to replicate the interior of the house as it would been in Shakespeare’s day, giving the visitor an authentic glimpse into the domestic life of an ordinary Tudor family.
The red sandstone ruins of Kenilworth Castle are today a haunting silhouette on the Warwickshire landscape. Partially destroyed during the Civil War, the medieval castle of Kenilworth was once a jewel of the English Renaissance, lovingly restored and rebuilt by Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.
It was here on 9 July 1575 that Dudley entertained Elizabeth I during a 19-day orgy of parties, pageants, dances and open-air theatre. Some scholars suggest that a young Shakespeare may have attended with his father and witnessed a spectacle that he would later recall in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (first performed in 1605).
On that mysterious evening an actor sailed a dolphin-shaped boat around the lake outside the castle to the accompaniment of soft music, as an explosion of fireworks lit up the night sky. This seems to echo Oberon’s line: “Once I sat upon a promontory, and heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath that the rude sea grew civil…”
Kenilworth Castle is today run by English Heritage, and it is now possible, thanks to the construction of a dizzying series of open-air walkways and stairs, to peek into Elizabeth’s chambers at the top of Leicester’s building. Look out for the half-timbered stable block built by Leicester’s father, John, during the reign of Edward VI.
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Rufford Old Hall
We know for sure that Shakespeare spent time in Warwickshire and London, but an intriguing theory could also place him in Lancashire for a short spell during his youth.
Rufford Old Hall near Ormskirk is famous among ghost hunters for the spooks and spirits that are said to haunt the rooms. It has two wings, the oldest of which dates from 1530 when the Hesketh family began construction work. Legend has it that William Shakespeare, along with a certain Fulk Gillam, worked here as an actor for a short period in 1581. They would have performed in the atmospheric great hall, a space adorned with intricate wall carvings and a hammer-beamed roof (an English medieval timber roof system).
St Helen’s Bishopsgate
Most of the medieval churches in the City of London have been destroyed over the years, but if Shakespeare returned today he would surely recognise St Helen’s Bishopsgate. He lived in the parish for some time after his arrival in London, a fact handed down to us thanks to the tax collectors who searched (in vain) for him when it was time to pay up.
Shakespeare’s local church was St Helen’s, a building that still stands – albeit in a vastly different architectural context. Dwarfed now by glass skyscrapers and office blocks, it looks like a ghostly remnant from a more spiritual past. The church was once part of a Benedictine nunnery, and has an unusual appearance from the outside, as if two churches have been pushed together.
Although the church runs a busy schedule of meetings and classes, visitors are today welcome to wander about the shadowy interior, admiring the many Tudor-era monuments dotted about. Look out for the Shakespeare window in the nave, a feature that commemorates his association with the church.
Shakespeare is most often associated with the Globe theatre on Bankside, but we know that his plays were also performed at the nearby Rose. Philip Henslowe, the theatre impresario, built the playhouse on the site of a Bankside tenement in 1587. Bankside was notorious for its brothels and gambling dens, and is usually described as the entertainment district of the early modern era.
Shakespeare’s early play, Henry VI, part I, was performed at the Rose in 1592, and on 24 January 1594 it was the venue for his gruesome tragedy Titus Andronicus. Whether the blood-soaked action of the play delighted or appalled those first playgoers is unknown.
Not far away, traitors’ heads leered down at the people crossing over London Bridge, and in the bear-baiting rings, ravenous dogs tore their fangs into the animals – it was hardly a fair match, as the bears were chained up and de-clawed.
The archaeological remains of the Rose were uncovered in 1989. The site today boasts a fascinating exhibition about the history of the playhouse, and hosts modern theatre companies.
St John’s Gate
Shakespeare lived and worked during a rather paranoid age, so everything he wrote needed to be passed by the official censor before it could be performed in public. The man to whom he reported was Sir Edmund Tilney, who operated from an office within the former priory of St John of Jerusalem.
Located in Clerkenwell, the priory fell victim to the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536–41), and gradually fell into ruin before being dismantled. The only surviving remnant of the building is the 16th-century gatehouse that was later used as a storeroom by Henry VIII. Tilney is also said to have worked from this building.
The gatehouse is today a museum dedicated to the Order of St John, and offers free, guided tours.
Middle Temple Hall
Middle Temple Hall in central London is a somewhat under-appreciated location on the Shakespeare trail. It is easy to forget that this Elizabethan great hall, tucked away in the alleyways of the Middle Temple, offers guided tours of its magnificent interior. It was here on 2 February 1602 that a student of the Middle Temple recorded seeing a performance of Twelfth Night. His favourite scene of the play seems to have been the humbling of Malvolio.
Look out for the dining table known as the ‘cup board’ – legend says it was made from wood stripped from the Golden Hind (the ship Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the globe between 1577 and 1580). Film fans may also recognise the hall from the scene in Shakespeare in Love (1998) in which Elizabeth I enjoys a command performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
This final destination may seem an unusual addition to the list, but Shakespeare was very familiar with the white cliffs of Dover. The King’s Men (the acting company to which Shakespeare belonged most of his career) performed in the town in 1605 and 1610, and Shakespeare uses a scene in King Lear (1606) to describe in detail the dizzying heights of the clifftops. Edgar says: “How fearful and dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eye so low!”
He goes on to describe the fishermen on the beach below as small as mice, then appears to have a dizzy turn: “I’ll look no more, lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight topple down headlong”.
The cliff described in King Lear is appropriately known as Shakespeare’s Cliff.
On 23 April 1616, just days after his birthday and four years after his last performance in Dover, Shakespeare died. Compared to some of the brutally short lives of his contemporaries, Shakespeare was lucky to have lived to the age of 52, having created a massive catalogue of plays, poems and sonnets.
The man whose soaring flights of fancy gave us A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605), The Tempest (1611) and Macbeth (1611) could not have imagined that centuries later he would be the most celebrated Englishman in history.
Zoe Bramley is the author of The Shakespeare Trail: A Journey into Shakespeare’s England (Amberley Publishing), which is out now. To find out more, click here.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in October 2016.