Every 23 April the world celebrates William Shakespeare’s birth, and to help mark the occasion, we explore the bard’s life as it was lived in the country’s capital, visiting some of the places and objects that helped define him.
Sometime in the 1580s, a new actor appeared on the London theatre scene. Young William Shakespeare was born a country lad in Stratford-upon-Avon, a large town two days’ horse-ride from the capital.
He joined the ranks of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a theatre company set up by the Burbage family and run out of theatres in Shoreditch, before transferring to The Globe in Southwark.
At the time, London was one of the world’s great cities, outdone in terms of size only by Paris and Naples. The capital was nonetheless considerably smaller than the London we know today, bound within the limits of the city walls, remnants of which can still be seen to this day.
The area of Southwark, south of the Thames and part of the Diocese of Winchester, was a veritable den of iniquity. It was home not only to The Globe Theatre but also to the neighbouring Rose Theatre, a bear-baiting arena, skittle alleys and a number of taverns.
The Globe – part-owned by Shakespeare and his colleagues – represented a creative turning point for Shakespeare. It was here that he debuted his greatest plays, including Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear.
Much of what Shakespeare wrote would have been lost if it wasn’t for two of his closest colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell. When he died, Shakespeare left no instructions for what should be done with his literary estate – he didn’t consider his reputation at all.
Heminges and Condell published Shakespeare’s collected plays eight years after he died, in a volume now known as the First Folio. If it wasn’t for Heminges and Condell, we’d be without half of Shakespeare’s plays, because no trace of them exists outside the First Folio.
American actor and director Sam Wanamaker first had the idea of building a replica of the original Globe Theatre back in the 1970s. His dream was eventually realised in 1997 when the venue – built using materials and building methods of the period – opened its doors to the public.
The theatre now specialises in plays from the time of its original incarnation, with a particular focus on Shakespeare’s cultural legacy. You can catch performances in the main, open-air theatre during the summer season (usually between May and October), and in the adjacent Sam Wanamaker Playhouse all year round. The Globe’s tour and exhibition is also worth checking out, as it offers a great insight into life and theatre-going during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Back in the day, audiences at the Globe were a mixed bunch, and the venue catered for nobility and commoners alike. If you were low on cash, a penny would buy you a standing ticket in the area directly in front of the stage called ‘the pit’. The better-off clientele paid for seats in the raised galleries around the theatre’s edge and the boxes either side of the stage, and would look on disdainfully at the ‘groundlings’ below – or worse, the ‘stinkards’ or ‘penny-stinkers’.
On permanent display at the British Library you’ll find a copy of the First Folio – the original collection of Shakespeare’s plays assembled by his colleagues, actors John Heminges and Henry Condell. It’s estimated that around 750 copies of this edition were printed, and a remarkable 240 still survive, not all of them in great shape. Also, on show at the British Library are various other early editions of Shakespeare’s work, including a pleasingly petite first edition of the narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece.
As well as performing at theatres in the city’s grimy suburbs, Shakespeare’s theatrical company often played at court. In fact, they were so popular among the ruling classes that King James I became their patron after he assumed the throne in 1603. As part of their duties, Shakespeare’s company, now known as the King’s Men, performed Hamlet and Macbeth at Hampton Court. Aside from hosting the Bard, Hampton Court is a remarkable Tudor palace that’s well worth a visit.