The Seven Wonders Of Shakespeare
William Shakespeare’s birthday is on 23 April, and there’s nowhere better to celebrate it than in London, where The Bard spent much of his life. From Macbeth at the National Theatre (to 23 Jun), to Sh*T-Faced Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice at Leicester Square Theatre (from 18 Apr), there’s something for everyone this spring. Alternatively, try walking in Shakespeare’s footsteps, and visiting some of the landmarks associated with him. For more inspiration, take a look at our list of places, twinned with events nearby.
1. THE THEATRE, SHOREDITCH
This was London’s first playhouse, built by James Burbage – father of the actor and friend of Shakespeare, Richard Burbage – in 1576. The open-air timber structure, resembling the future Globe Theatre, played host to many acting companies but was used chiefly by Shakespeare’s acting troupe after 1594. Although some spectators sat in the covered galleries, many stood in the main ‘yard’ during the performances. The theatre was closed in 1597 and dismantled the following year, forcing Shakespeare’s troupe to find another venue. In 2008, archaeologists discovered the foundation of a structure they believed to be remains of the Curtain Theatre, and you can visit the original site in New Inn Broadway. Shoreditch is also the starting point for one of this year’s Sonnet Walks created by Shakespeare’s Globe, on which you can watch actors bringing Shakespeare’s texts to life.
2. SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE
Built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s playing company, in an area famous for bear-baiting and other entertainment, the original Globe was the London theatre most closely associated with The Bard. It was intended to rival The Rose – Bankside’s first theatre – which was erected 12 years before. But it went up in flames during a 1613 performance of Henry VIII, before being rebuilt, and then eventually pulled down in the mid-17th century. A reconstruction of the Globe opened nearby in 1997, and is still the main London home for Shakespeare’s plays. Like the original, it is open-air, and those craving the genuine Elizabethan experience can buy standing tickets (£5) to any of the productions. This spring you can see Hamlet, As You Like It and Twelfth Night.
3. ST HELEN’S, BISHOPSGATE
For some time this was Shakespeare’s parish church, and it’s assumed that he worshipped here. It’s a rare survivor of the Great Fire of 1666 and, unusually, has two naves: one for the parishioners and one for the Benedictine nuns who lived there. In 1597, it was noted that, out of the parish’s notable residents, Shakespeare failed to pay tax on goods worth £5. The church is just around the corner from the Barbican Centre, where you can catch Shakespeare’s Pericles (6-21 Apr) staged by the company Cheek by Jowl.
4. BANQUETING HOUSE, WHITEHALL
Some Shakespeare performances took place in royal settings, notably in the Banqueting House at the Palace of Whitehall. This is where Othello premiered, as well as King Lear and Measure for Measure. Originally made out of wood, it was rebuilt in extravagant style by Inigo Jones in 1619 and, as the only surviving part of the original palace, is well worth a visit. It’s just a stone’s throw from Westminster Abbey, where Sir Mark Rylance will lead a company of actors in a promenade performance to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday (26-28 Apr). www.hrp.org.uk/banqueting-house; www.shakespearesglobe.com
5. BLACKFRIARS PLAYHOUSE, BLACKFRIARS
Housed at the old Blackfriars monastery site, this was the most important Jacobean London theatre and, from 1609, the only indoor theatre of the Shakespeare company, or ‘King’s Men’. They used it during the winter when it was too cold to perform outdoors at the Globe, often entertaining members of the elite including Charles I’s wife Henrietta Maria. Following the English Revolution, the theatre was closed and, despite the King’s Men’s pleas, it was torn down in 1655. But you can see where it stood on Playhouse Yard, a quiet backstreet leading to an obscured churchyard and a maze of alleys. To get an idea of how the building might have looked, check out the beautiful Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. The indoor Jacobean-style structure is loosely modelled on the Blackfriars theatre and lit by candles. Listen to a lecture there on Shakespeare and the Wandering Mind (10 May).
6. ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL
Pamphlets of Shakespeare’s plays were sold here, and he would probably have enjoyed browsing the area for poetry books. He would have regularly made the journey past St Paul’s Cathedral to have his plays registered at Stationers’ Hall, the headquarters of the bookselling trade. On other occasions, he might have wandered east of the cathedral to have a drink at the Mermaid Tavern on Cheapside, the site of a drinking club that included some of the Elizabethan era’s leading literary figures. The tavern was destroyed in 1666 during the Great Fire of London, but you can stroll through the surrounding area, perhaps on your way to the Museum of London for a Shakespeare’s Fame talk (8 May). The talk looks at Shakespeare’s relationship with classical antiquity, and shows how he helped to immortalise the famous figures of ancient Greece and Rome in his plays.
www.stpauls.co.uk; www.stationers.org; www.museumoflondon.org.uk
7. TOWER OF LONDON
Ever since its founding in 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest, this imposing castle by the Thames has played a huge role in English history, serving as a royal palace, armoury,
prison, execution chamber, zoo, barracks and jewel house. No wonder it has inspired several writers, not least Shakespeare himself. He famously evoked it in Richard III, where it sets the scene for Richard’s seizure of the throne and the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Talking of historical drama, you can catch a promenade staging of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s political thriller, at the nearby Bridge Theatre (to 15 Apr). It’s directed by Nicholas Hytner, the former artistic director of the National Theatre.