Shakespeare’s London was a bustling City, wary of large gatherings that might spread the deadly plague. Much like now. Come with me and discover the London that the Bard knew.
During lockdown just enjoy reading about the places that you can visit when life returns to normal.
Shakespeare’s London Theatres
Back in the sixteenth century the fear that the plague might spread in large crowds meant that theatres were kept outside the city limits. The first purpose built theatres in London were in Shoreditch around the Curtain Lane area. Following the success of the Shoreditch theatres two more were built over the river in Southwark.
When Shakespeare first started out in the play business there were no purpose built theatres shows were put on in the courtyards of galleried inns. The George Inn on Borough High Street is the last galleried inn left in London. You can still pop in for a pint and pie but no theatrical performances nowadays.
The Curtain opened 1577. Shakespeare’s troupe of players the Lord Chamberlain’s Men used the Curtain 1597 – 1599. Henry V and Romeo and Juliet would have been performed here as new plays. Recently a Museum of London excavation discovered the remains of the Curtain. There plans for a visitor centre, maybe even performances in the remains. At moment it is a building site, watch this space for future developments.
Just behind the present Globe is the site of the Rose Theatre, the first to be built in Southwark. At present the site is operated as a theatre and you can visit the site on special open days.
Look over the road from the Rose and you will see some lines on the pavement, this marks the boundaries of the original Globe Theatre.
Walk in Shakespeare’s London Footsteps
Much of the London that Shakespeare would have known was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. There are still places where you walk in the same rooms that the Bard would have done.
Queen Elizabeth was a great fan of plays but couldn’t actually visit a theatre and so the plays came to her. Performances were put on in the lost palaces of Greenwich and Whitehall. Twelfth Night had its premiere in Middle Temple Hall with Shakespeare and the Queen both in the audience. With careful planning it is possible to visit Middle Temple Hall and even eat lunch beneath its magnificent hammerbeam roof.
St John’s Gate
In Shakespeare’s time St John’s Gate was the office of the Master of the Revels. He would have had to come here to get his plays passed as fit for performance. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing are a couple of the scripts that he would have bought along for scrutiny.
Hampton Court Palace
King James was so keen on the theatre that he had Shakespeare’s players change their name from the Lord Chamberlain’s Players to the King’s Players. They often performed for the King at Hampton Court.
In Shakespeare’s day Southwark Cathedral was simply a church officially called St Saviour’s but still known as St Mary Overie to many people. He would have known the church well. His brother is buried here and has a rather fine tomb.
Where to see Shakespeare plays in London
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
The Shakespeare’s Globe that you see today is not the building, or even on the site, that Shakespeare knew but rather a twentieth century imaging of what the original. Don’t let that worry you. Stepping into the auditorium is like stepping back four hundred years. Watching Shakespeare plays here makes them spring to life. Even better the tickets are not expensive as London theatre tickets go. During the winter when sitting in a roofless auditorium holds little appeal go to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse a reconstruction of a Jacobean theatre on the same site.
RSC at the Barbican
Every year the Royal Shakespeare Company has a winter London residency at the Barbican Theatre. Just as I love seeing Shakespeare performed in the authentic spaces at the Globe there is something equally amazing about seeing ancient plays surrounded by Brutalist architecture.
London Shakespeare loose connections
OK that’s a catch all heading but I couldn’t think of a neater sassier one. Suggestions welcome. Anyway this includes the London places that Shakespeare would have known, just not as they are now and a book.
After Shakespeare died two of his colleagues decided to publish his Comedies, Histories and Tragedies together in one book, known to us as the First Folio. Both The British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum hold copies of the first folio.
St Mary Aldermanbury Garden
A pretty park which houses the remains of St Mary Aldermanbury Church and a bust of Shakespeare. Henry Condell and John Hemmings, the two men responsible for the First Folio are buried in the churchyard here and this is memorial to all three of them.
Between St Paul’s and The Thames is a tiny road called Playhouse Yard. Nothing much to see here but this is the site of the Blackfriars Theatre built by Richard Burbage which was the first covered theatre ever built in England. The Chamberlain’s Men were based here, Shakespeare would have been here. Hard to imagine now.
At the end of Playhouse Yard walk down Ireland Yard and on the corner of St Andrew’s Hill you will find the Cockpit Pub. Shakespeare bought a house on this site, he never lived here but left it to his daughter in his will. Raise a glass to Shakespeare whilst you’re there.