Looking for Shakespeare: A Heritage trail in search of The Bard

By Richard Moss | 22 April 2016

To celebrate Shakespeare 400 we look the best places to visit and the finest collections to seek out when tracking down William Shakespeare. Follow our guide to follow in the footsteps of The Bard...

Stratford and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

a photo of an Elizabethan style house with timber frame
Shakespeare's Birthplace © Copyright David P Howard and licensed for reuse under CC by-SA 2.0
More than any other place in the world, Stafford-upon-Avon is a place defined by its association with The Bard, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is the main custodian of that literary and tourist legacy.

They oversee no less than five houses that will help you explore the life and times of the man and his era.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Henley Street is the world’s number one place of pilgrimage for fans of William Shakespeare, who was born here on April 26 1854 and lived a great portion of his young adult life there before he was lured to London to make his fortune. A visit today is an atmospheric and evocative experience with the interior perfectly - including the room where he was born - preserved or at least restored to its sixteenth century décor.

But to get the full Stratford-opon-Avon Shakespeare experience you need to visit the Trust’s other properties in the town.

Ann Hathaway's Cottage

A photo of a rural cottage with a lush garden in front of it
© Courtesy The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
Ann Hathaway’s Cottage, the bucolic family cottage of Shakespeare’s wife, is just a one mile stroll from the town centre and Mary Arden’s Farm, the childhood home of his mother, is just 3.5 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon town centre, or a short walk from Wilmcote train station. Both offer a redolent evocation of Shakespeare's world in his hometown.  

Halls Croft, the former home of Shakespeare’s sister, is arguably the grandest of the surviving Shakespeare family residences boasting period furniture, decoration and a beautiful walled garden. 

A pass will give you entry to all of these evocative residences - as well as Shakespeare’s final resting place at Holy Trinity Church.

Shakespeare's last home

a photo of a topiary garden with a church in the distance
New Place Garden© Copyright Steve Fareham and licensed for reuse under CC-by-SA 2.0
Even when he was working in London, Shakespeare’s ties with his hometown remained strong and for 19 years he owned the second largest house there, New Place on the corner of Chapel Street and Chapel Lane.

Shakespeare died here on April 23 1616. The house was demolished in 1759 - much to the disgust of local residents - but today the ruins and a sizeable garden are administered by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust who are currently restoring them - together with the Museum which acts as the garden entrance in Nash's House, which was next door to Shakespeare's.

The attraction is due to open to the public in July 2016.

Shakespeare’s Schoolroom

A photo of a medieval wall painting of John the Baptist found at Shakespeare's Schoolroom and Guildhall
Trustees have spent more than ten years planning the new attraction, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund© SS&G
An exciting new edition to the rich Shakespeare tourist trail in Stratford is the opening on April 23 of Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall, following a £1.8 million restoration. The opening, which has been ten years in development, promises visitors a place to discover where the world’s greatest playwright spent his school years and first experienced theatre.

The Guildhall where the schoolroom was situated also doubled as a theatre space where William first witnessed performances by the country’s greatest actors, including the Earl of Leicester’s Men, who came to the Guildhall fresh from performances at the Royal Court and Kenilworth Castle.

The Guildhall also served as the Council Chamber where Shakespeare’s father, John, served his year as Bailiff (Mayor) in 1568-9.

The Royal Shakespeare Company

a photo of a circular building in red brick
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon© Tony Hisgett. CC BY 2.0,
Most visitors to Stratford-Upon-Avon see a play or two, and the world renowned Royal Shakespeare Company is the best place to do this.

But as well as bagging a Richard III or Othello, you can limber up by exploring one of their exhibitions, either in the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre or in the Reading Room of the famous Swan Theatre next door.

At the time of writing the exhibition, The Play's The Thing, is scheduled to open showcasing over 100 years of sets, costumes and artworks from the RSC's vast Museum and Archive.

In the meantime there are also backstage and front of hours tours and the chance to take in Stratford-upon-Avon panorama from the RSC Tower. See the RSC website for more information.

Shakespeare's tavern

a photo of a pub exterior with three external galleries
The George Inn, London's oldest boozer.© Copyright N Chadwick and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0
Conventional notions of Shakespeare cast him as the sober playwright amidst his boozy peers, but somehow the tavern still seems like a fitting place in which to pay homage to The Bard.

Sadly the bawdy Elizabethan and Jacobean boozers of yore were largely seen off by the Great Fire of London, The Blitz or just the ravages of time.

But there is one which is still very much in existence; The George Inn, in Southwark, although not in its original medieval guise (it was rebuilt in the 1660s after a fire) is London’s oldest boozer and has long laid claim to being a place frequented by Shakespeare – on his way to the Globe or the Rose.

It’s worth grabbing a pint amidst its wood panelled, galleried coaching inn interior to weigh up this theory for yourself.

a photo of a stone carved boar's head
There is evidence of another ‘Shakespeare tavern’, but all that remains of the Boars Head in Eastcheap is the sign that once hung above the door.

It is now in the collection of the Museum of London and is a reminder of a place that served as the setting for Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and the watering hole of one of Shakespeare's most famous and much-loved characters, Sir John Falstaff. Surely The Bard must have had a pot of ale or two in here?

Certainly in the absence of Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses such as The Globe, which was pulled down in 1644, and The Theatre, which succumbed even before, The Boar became a site of pilgrimage in London for people wishing to pay homage to Shakespeare, until the late 18th century.

Shakespeare’s London theatres

a photo of an ornately decorated wooden stage
The stage at the Globe© Richard Law. Licensed for re-use under CC by-SA 2.0

The Globe receives more than 700,000 visitors each year in what is effectively a pretty a facsimile recreation of the original theatre. The original Globe was first built in 1599 by the theatre company Shakespeare was part of - the Lord Chamberlain’s Men - then rebuilt in 1614 following a fire before succumbing to demolition as a result of pressure from the Puritans in 1644.

Located on Bankside, about 230 metres (750 ft) from the original site, a visit to the Globe today to see a play is probably the closest you will come to experiencing Shakespeare as it was performed in The Bard’s day. There is also a permanent Shakespeare exhibition and tours of the theatre. 

Hardy Shakesperians will want to head across town to The Rose Theatre, which was arguably a more important location for the performance of Shakespeare’s plays in his lifetime. Today the archaeological footprint of the theatre is marked out for all to see and a modern theatre by the same name stages Shakespeare and other performances.

Another site where early performances of Romeo and Juliet and Richard III were staged, is the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch, recently unearthed by Museum of London Archaeology and commemorated by a simple plaque in nearby Hewett Street. Plans have been afoot to turn the site into a visitor centre for some time and tours are planned for Shakespeare400.  

The First Folios

An image of an ancient book
© Craven District Council
If gazing at manuscripts is your thing, then the Holy Grail for Shakespeare fans has to be the First Folio. 

Without the First Folio, published in 1623 by Shakespeare's colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, it is highly likely that many of Shakespeare’s plays – and with them the man himself – would have disappeared into the Elizabethan ether.

All but a handful of the plays are included in the First Folio – handily grouped into histories, comedies and tragedies - and there are versions at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the British Library, the V&A and the Craven Museum in Yorkshire.

At the Bodleian the venerable tome makes occasional appearances, but the best way to explore its history, significance and contents is via its online digital facsimile

The British Library owns five of the 233 surviving First Folios (around 750 First Folios are said to have been printed) and one of them – complete with its frontispiece engraving and glowing introduction by Ben Johnson – can be seen in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery in the company of other literary treasures including the Gutenburg’s Bible and the lyric sheets of The Beatles .

The BL is also home to an array of Shakespeare treasures including the First Quarto of Hamlet, an Engraved view of London by C.J. Visscher showing The Globe and the Original mortgage deed of William Shakespeare with a verified signature. See the British Library's excellent Discovering Literature: Shakespeare mini site for more.

Other places you might encounter a First folio include The V&A which has three First Folios. You can see one of them in the wonderful Theatre and Performance Galleries where you will find other Shakespeare related costumes and ephemera including Richard Burton’s Henry V outfit. See the V&A blog for more on their Shakespeare First Folios. 

At Craven Museum in Yorkshire they have one of the few First Folios on display (pictured above) displayed with information about the folio’s history and an audio-visual interpretation voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart.

The last will and testament of William Shakespeare

a photo of a hand written document with writing all over it
Shakespeare's Last Will and Testament© Courtesy The National Archives
Beyond the plays and the poetry, The National Archives has the best collection of Shakespeare documents in the UK.

Among a 120 strong collection, the most iconic and poured over piece is the playwright’s last will and testament – but tax summonses, bills, the wills of relatives and a letter authorising Shakespeare and his companions to perform plays under royal patronage also paint a fascinating picture of a businessman, family man, servant to the king and even a tax dodger. The collection also includes four of his six known signatures. 

For another journey into Shakespeare’s London through some of the surviving documents in collections worldwide see this British Library article, Shakespeare's Life.

Find more places to find William Shakespeare exhibits in UK museums

For full details of Shakespeare400 exhibitions and events see the Shakespeare400 website.
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Hi. I specialise in literary guided tours and bespoke events entertainment. Currently developing a Shakespeare and Oxford walking tour with street theatre. Already offering Shakespeare in Stratford upon Avon costumed guided tours plus Jane Austen themed costumed tours and Mad Hatter Alice costumed, themed tours. See www.mrdarcytours.com and www.madhatterteaparties.com or see all activities at www.iloveoxford.com
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