Stratford-upon-Avon, 1564, saw the birth of a boy who would become one of our defining cultural figures. 450 years later, that figure continues to inspire, entertain, puzzle and delight audiences around the world.
William Shakespeare was a Warwickshire lad, but he found fame and fortune in the playhouses and courts of London. How did a boy from a small provincial town become one of the most celebrated men of his age, and of all time?
That question has fascinated academics and audiences, actors and directors. I have been lucky to have performed in many of his plays, and was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company for three happy years. As an actor, it’s very easy to bury your head in the plays, and forget about the man behind the words. I wanted to discover more about the journey of that man, and discovered ‘Shakespeare’s Way’, a 146-mile footpath from Stratford-upon-Avon to London’s Globe Theatre.
There is no better a place to begin our pilgrimage than the Holy Trinity Church in which Shakespeare was baptised and buried. We know he was baptised on 26 April 1564, so his birth has always been assumed as 23 April – also the date he died 54 years later. The famous curse on his tomb warns against moving his bones, and he is surrounded by the gravestones of his wife and family.
The poet’s monument also stands as testimony to the high esteem in which he was held at the time of his death. Indeed, we only need to walk around the town to see how far Shakespeare had come since his birth above his father’s glover’s shop. New Place, the site of his final home, was the second largest house in Stratford. Unfortunately, the house was demolished in 1759 in an act of civic spite by the owner Reverend Francis Gastrell, who was fed up with being disturbed by the first wave of Shakespeare ‘pilgrims’.
The site continues to be excavated for clues, but we can be in no doubt that by the time Shakespeare retired to Stratford, he was a very wealthy and esteemed gentleman.
The Rollright Stones and Woodstock
Leaving Stratford over Clopton Bridge, Shakespeare would have started his journey towards London, travelling through tiny hamlets and villages, and passing by the mysterious Rollright Stones. The King’s Men are a man-sized ring of stones looking out over the Warwickshire countryside. Nearby are a group known as the Whispering Knights, huddled as if plotting against their masters. And across the road stands the solitary King’s Stone, frozen in time but twisted as he turned to flee. What did Shakespeare see when he passed these stones, and did the tales of treacherous kings and stories of witchcraft inspire his creation of the ‘Scottish play’?
From here, it was a short journey to Woodstock, home at the time to a Palace in which Queen Elizabeth I had been imprisoned as a princess, but today home to the magnificent Blenheim Palace. Built in the 18th century by Sir John Vanbrugh, it has a more modern-day Shakespeare connection. It was used by Sir Kenneth Branagh as Elsinore Castle during the filming of his epic adaptation of Hamlet. The Duke of Marlborough made a small guest appearance as a Norwegian captain, and the grounds were covered in acres of fake snow.
Hidden away from the bustling high street of Oxford lies a small room, which tells a fascinating story of Shakespeare’s journey. The Crown Tavern was owned by a close friend, John Davenant, and it is believed Shakespeare would spend the night in the Painted Room, so called because of the beautiful Elizabethan wall paintings adorning the walls of the room. Here Shakespeare would have heard tales of the university city and mingled with the academics and students, which would inspire his more intellectual creations in plays such as Love’s Labour’s Lost. Shakespeare was godfather to Davenant’s son, William, the future Poet Laureate – although there were also rumours that he may have in fact been father to the boy.
And so we journey into London and arrive at Bankside, Shakespeare’s theatrical playground. This part of London had a much seedier reputation than today, as a neighbourhood of taverns, brothels and playhouses. All life was there, and would have provided much inspiration for the Bard’s fertile imagination.
We know that he worked, wrote and performed in many other theatres around the city, but the Globe is the playhouse most closely connected to his success. He not only wrote many of his masterpieces for that space, he was also a shareholder, and would have done very nicely from the profits of his big hits.
Fittingly, the reconstructed Globe has now been joined by a smaller, more intimate playhouse, modelled on the indoor Blackfriars Theatre. With these two spaces, we can now understand how actors and audiences experienced Shakespeare’s plays in their different environments. His plays spoke to the ordinary man who would have paid one penny to stand in the Globe, but he also wrote for the aristocracy and nobles who sat higher in the galleries, or in the warmth and comfort of the indoor theatre.
We don’t know for sure how Shakespeare travelled, which route he took, or how often he made the long trek. But the journey itself is a symbolic, as well as physical revelation. From the small town in Warwickshire, through the Oxfordshire countryside and into the heart of the bustling capital, we can begin to understand how a simple poet and playwright transformed into the leading cultural figure of his age.