William Shakespeare is the world’s best-loved dramatist. Today he’s more popular than in his own lifetime when audiences thronged to his plays in Elizabethan playhouses, guildhalls, and inn yards.
The Bard’s plays and poems have been translated into 80 languages and many have been made into Hollywood films. The wonder of William Shakespeare continues to thrill us.
This month marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death on 23 April, 1616. There’s a surprising number of places where you can still discover Shakespeare today… so I took a journey to bring you the best of the Bard.
1. Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon
Brush up on your Shakespeare by travelling to Stratford-upon-Avon, the Bard’s birthplace and home to the Royal Shakespeare Company.
This is ‘Shakespeare Central’. Everywhere you look there are Shakespearian references from the Hathaway Tea Rooms, Othello’s Brasserie and the Shakespeare Hotel to Iago’s emporium and Cordelia’s wedding shop.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust runs a group of five attractions associated with the Bard for which visitors can buy a ‘combined’ ticket.
First stop should be Shakespeare’s Birthplace where the dramatist was born on 26 April, 1564. The Bard spent the first five years of married life in the house with his wife, Anne Hathaway.
Once you’ve fought back the crowds and coach parties, take a trip around other properties associated with Shakespeare in Stratford.
Walk over to nearby New Place, stopping outside the the King Edward VI School on the way. This is where young William is thought to have attended the local grammar school. Details of Shakespeare’s early life and schooling are sketchy but it’s likely that he studied here.
Its curriculum had a strong emphasis on the Greek classics and pupils learned plays in Latin. Religious education also featured heavily. It is possible that Shakespeare drew on these influences in his plays which are full of classical and religious imagery.
Continue your walk to New Place where Shakespeare lived when he wasn’t working in London. It is thought that he wrote some of his later plays here including The Tempest.
Today the building is long gone, but the gardens have a memorial to Shakespeare plus several modern statues celebrating the Bard’s plays and poetry.
New Place was Shakespeare’s last home and he died in the house in 1616 at the relatively young age of 52.
There are no contemporary stories of Shakespeare’s death, although he made his will a month before he died, in which he claimed to be in “perfect health”.
It is thought that Shakespeare may have died of a fever contracted after a “merry meeting” where he “drank too hard”, an interesting theory, but there is no concrete evidence to support this claim.
New Place is currently being transformed into a major heritage attraction to tie-in with the worldwide celebrations of 400 years of Shakespeare so check for the latest opening dates.
Next door is Nash’s House, a lovely building named after Thomas Nash, the first husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Elizabeth. Take a stroll around its rooms to get a flavour of family life in the Tudor and Jacobean periods.
My favourite ‘Shakespeare house’ is Hall’s Croft, about 1/4 mile up the road in the Georgian quarter of Stratford-upon-Avon. Hall’s Croft was the home of Susanna Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s oldest daughter, and her husband, Dr John Hall.
Built in 1613 the Tudor house reflects the Hall family’s relative wealth with beautifully decorated and heavily wooded rooms. It’s worth a trip around its atmospheric interior where the ghosts of Tudor times lurk in the shadows.
Nearby is the Church of the Holy Trinity where Shakespeare is buried and there’s a memorial celebrating his life in the chapel.
Famously, Shakespeare wrote a curse for his gravestone, defying anyone to move his bones. Recent reports suggest that the Bard’s skull may have been stolen from the church by thieves in the 1790s. The mystery continues to baffle historians.
Further afield are two important Shakespeare houses – Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife. It’s a lovely walk across the fields to Shottery – you get a real sense of rural life in Tudor England.
Also on the outskirts of Stratford is Mary Arden’s Farm, the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother. You can step back in time on this Tudor farm whilst trying your hand at threshing, animal tending, bread making and basket weaving. Needless to say, my skills were found lacking!
2. The Rose Theatre – London
One of the most under-rated Shakespeare sites is The Rose Theatre which for too long has been overshadowed by its famous neighbour, The Globe.
The Rose was the first purpose-built Elizabethan theatre built south of the River Thames in Southwark in 1587. The Bankside area was renowned for its leisure attractions including brothels, gaming dens, and bull and bear-baiting arenas.
The first acting company in residence at the Rose was a theatre troupe under the patronage of Ferdinando Stanley, known by the fabulous name of Lord Strange. Shakespeare worked with the group, wrote some of his plays here and may have acted on The Rose stage.
The Rose fell out of use and was abandoned as a theatre by 1606 and vanished from the map altogether. Today it’s easy to miss the concealed entrance, beyond which lies the stage and foundations of the original theatre. You can discover what The Rose would have looked like in Shakespeare’s time in this reconstructed animated video.
In 1989, the remains of the Rose were threatened with destruction by an office development, resulting in a campaign to save The Rose backed by Ian McKellen, Ralph Fiennes and Derek Jacobi.
Archaeologists from the Museum of London carried out excavation work and discovered sections of the theatre’s foundations, and remains of fruit seeds and hazelnut shells discarded by Tudor audiences. Could these have been the equivalent of Tudor popcorn?
There are displays of some of the archaeological finds at The Rose although most are in storage at the Museum of London.
Work is continuing to excavate this historic site and develop a heritage project designed to bring The Rose back to life. This will take many years but in the meantime take a trip to this wonderful venue to see a play.
Walk along the viewing platform from which red rope lights indicate the site plan of the original playhouse, its pit and two stages.
Become an online adventurer and watch the Lost Valley of London’s film about The Rose Theatre or head out around the streets on London’s Southbank to discover the underbelly of Shakespeare’s London.
This is my favourite area of the capital with its alleyways, nooks and crannies, bursting with history.
There are clues to the area’s Elizabethan past in many of its street names.
Start your walk from The Rose on 56 Park Street, and head down the back streets to an alleyway called Bear Gardens.
This was once the site of the bear and bull-baiting ring in Tudor times and crowds would have thronged here.
At the top of the alley look out for the Ferryman’s Seat which is almost hidden in a recess in the wall.
When playhouses were built on the London’s Southbank, there is a boom in demand for transport for theatre goers travelling across the Thames.
This is the seat where the ferrymen would sit in between transporting Elizabethan audiences to and forth in small boats to enjoy performances at the new theatres on the Southbank.
3. The Globe Theatre – London
The best known Shakespeare site on London’s Southbank is The Globe Theatre. The original playhouse was built by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. This acting troupe performed many of Shakespeare’s works and William Shakespeare was himself a shareholder in the company.
It was named The Globe because it was the place where the audience could see “all the world” on the stage.
This was reflected in the flag flying over the theatre featuring the figure of Hercules carrying a Globe on his shoulders to announce the first performance, Julius Caesar, in 1599. It bore the motto – “the whole world is a playhouse”.
Disaster struck in 1613 when The Globe burned down following a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII when the firing of stage cannons set fire to the thatch. It took only an hour for the theatre to be destroyed completely.
A new Globe was built on the foundations of the first during the following year, this time with a tiled rather than a thatched roof!
But the Globe’s golden age was to come to an end in the 1640s when the Puritans closed down many London theatres. In 1644 the Globe was pulled down to make way for tenements and it was to disappear from view for nearly 350 years.
Today’s Globe is the third version of the theatre. The famous American actor and director Sam Wanamaker spearheaded a campaign to rebuild The Globe in the 1970s.
It took more than 20 years to raise the money and reconstruct the Globe. Wanamaker died in 1993, while the building was still under construction, but his legacy lives on.
Although today’s Globe is a reconstruction of the original playhouse, it provides a great example of what the theatre would have looked like. Take the guided tour, drop in to the museum or, better still, grab tickets for one of the Shakespeare productions on the main stage.
The modern Globe opened its doors in 1997, and is located about 230 metres from the site of the original theatre.
Why not take a walk and discover the original site of The Globe?
Historic records reveal that it was located on a plot of land in the vicinity of Park Street and Anchor Terrace in Southwark. Today, you can walk to this spot which is a stone’s throw from the current Rose Theatre and the Tate Modern.
There’s nothing much to see on the ground except a memorial and historical information boards, but it’s fun to imagine how this area would have looked 400 years ago.
4. St Mary Aldermanbury – City of London
London boasts many Shakespeare monuments but my favourite lies in quiet corner of the City in St Mary’s Aldermanbury Churchyard on Love Lane.
The memorial celebrates both Shakespeare, resplendent on top of a plinth, and his friend, the Elizabethan actor, John Heminge.
John Heminge published the world-famous First Folio of Shakespeare’s works with Henry Condell in 1623, seven years after the Bard’s death. Without it, 18 Shakespeare plays, including Macbeth and The Tempest, could have been lost forever.
If you want to see the First Folio for yourself, take a trip to the British Library where it is now on public view.
If you’re feeling fit, walk from here over London Bridge to Southwark Cathedral on the Southbank where you can take in another famous Shakespeare memorial.
5. Southwark Cathedral – London
Southwark Cathedral lies on the south bank of the river Thames close to London Bridge. Also known as the The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, it is rich in Shakespeare associations.
The cathedral’s fascinating collection of monuments and tombs includes the Shakespeare Memorial which commemorates William Shakespeare’s life in Southwark. At the base of the memorial there is an alabaster statue representing Shakespeare reclining and holding a quill.
The famous Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyne, who played in Shakespeare’s theatrical troupe, is also buried in the cathedral as is The Bard’s brother, Edmund Shakespeare. Look out for the plain stone bearing Edmund’s name, located on the floor in the central aisle..
Edmund Shakespeare was 27- years-old when he died in 1607. It is thought that Edmund was a theatrical player like his elder brother, but he was probably a minor actor or apprentice.
Nearby look out for the famous Shakespeare stained glass windows which contain characters from the Bard’s plays. See how many you can spot.
Look out for events and services celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary throughout 2016 in the church.
6. Shakespeare theatres
Back in Stratford, don’t miss a trip to the Royal Shakespeare theatre, a must-see attraction with live performances, theatre tours and exhibition spaces as well as an observation tower with fine views across Stratford-upon-Avon.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre opened in 1932 on the site next to the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre which was destroyed by fire in 1926.
It was renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1961 and became the home of the UK’s leading theatre group, the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Recently renovated, I love watching plays in this space which reaches out into the audience who are seated on three sides of it, a truly personal and intimate experience.
Next door is the smaller Swan Theatre with is Victorian Gothic facade and interior. It is dedicated to featuring the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and some plays by The Bard.
There’s also a cool bar where you have a good chance of bumping into the RSC’s famous actors in between shows.
Discover the world of Shakespeare’s plays by delving into the RSC’s past productions online including production photos and videos for all of Shakespeare’s plays.
7. Hardwick Hall – Derbyshire
Hardwich Hall is a stunning Elizabethan house which may have been among the first locations where Shakespeare’s early plays were performed outside of London.
Hardwick was home to one of the wealthiest women in England, Elizabeth Talbot, known as ‘Bess of Hardwick’. Pembroke’s Men were one of the first theatre troupes to perform Shakespeare at the house in February, 1600.
Shakespeare may have performed himself but the historic evidence to support this has never been found. Today, you can visit the house and enjoy its authentic Tudor atmosphere and Great Hall.
8. ‘The Plague Tour’
In the summer of 1592, London was hit by the Plague and the capital’s main theatres were closed due to fears that the pestilence would spread and become endemic.
It was the cue for Shakespeare’s plays to be taken outside of London.
Lord Strange’s Men were forced to go out on a provincial tour which first took them on a circuit through South East England to Maidstone, Rye, Folkestone, Canterbury, and Faversham. This was followed by a trip to the West Country where they played in Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford, and Coventry.
Many of the venues were guildhalls and you can visit several of them today. One of the best preserved is Coventry’s St Mary’s Guildhall with its Tudor hall which can be visited by appointment or for public functions.
9. Fordwich – Kent
Fordwich in Kent is a rare example of a surviving venue where Shakespeare’s plays were performed during his lifetime. William Shakespeare’s company visited Fordwich near Canterbury as The King’s Men in 1605-6- records show the players were paid 10 shillings by the town.
10. ‘Shakespeare Streets’ – Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne has a long association with Shakespeare. It is thought that some of Shakespeare’s acting troupes may have visited the city in the 16oos. In modern times, Newcastle was the RSC’s northern home for 40 years, bringing its productions to the Theatre Royal and People’s Theatre.
But the biggest puzzle is why there are so many street names associated with the Bard in the small suburb of Heaton. A group of streets are named after Shakespeare characters and locations including Hotspur, Bolingbroke, Mowbray, Warwick, and Stratford.
But how did this come about? It could be down to one of the local residents, George Stanley, who was involved with the Tyne Theatre and had a deep love of Shakespeare.
It’s possible that he wanted to mark the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and was involved in a scheme to name the streets. It’s a great story for Shakespeare sleuths – read more here
Nearby, there’s another mystery – a brick Shakespeare mural on the end of a house gable built 30 years ago. It’s a surprising sight if you walk these streets.
The brickies who built it used three colours – red, black and cream – to create this remarkable celebration of the Bard. They recall that is was a “a bit like painting by numbers”.
But they can’t remember why it was commissioned. Today you can walk the Shakespeare streets and visit the mural which is located on South View West in Heaton.
11. ‘Elsinore’ – Kronborg – Helsingor – Denmark
Looking to find the home of Hamlet? Then why not embark on a bit of detective work at Helsingor in Copenhagen?
Kronborg in Helsingor is the real castle where Shakespeare set Hamlet, but the jury is out on whether Shakespeare ever visited in person.
The castle is known as Elsinore in the Bard’s famous play. Today, it features regular performances of the Bard’s masterpiece as part of its annual Hamlet Festival.
12. The Folger Library – Washington DC
Looking for Shakespeare archives and exhibitions?
The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, USA is a great place to immerse yourself in the Bard’s works.
The Library’s founders, Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger, established the Folger in 1932 as a gift to the American people.
They thought that Shakespeare was “one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought, our faith and our hope”.
The Folgers went on to build the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials, expanding its archives to become a world-class research centre and the main place for Shakespeare studies and resources outside of England.
The main neo-classical building, a block away from the US Capitol, is a landmark in its own right, featuring gardens, art works, and beautiful indoor spaces.
Read the digital version of the First Folio online if you want to brush up on Shakespeare’s original plays. It’s a wonderful read and demonstrates the lasting power of the Bard.