In Search Of William Shakespeare’s London
On the eve of William Shakespeare’s birthday, I present this account of my quest to find his London
Sir William Pickering, St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, 1574.
Ever since I visited the newly-discovered site of William Shakespeare’s first theatre in Shoreditch, I found myself thinking about where else in London I could locate Shakespeare. The city has changed so much that very little remains from his time and even though I might discover his whereabouts – such as his lodging in Silver St in 1612 – usually the terrain is unrecognisable. Silver St is lost beneath the Barbican now.
Yet, in spite of everything, there are buildings in London that Shakespeare would have known, and, in each case, there are greater or lesser reasons to believe he was there. As the mental list of places where I could enter the same air space as Shakespeare grew, so did my desire to visit them all and discover what remains to meet my eyes that he would also have seen.
Thus it was that I set out under a moody sky in search of Shakespeare’s London – walking first over to St Helen’s Bishopsgate where Shakespeare was a parishioner, according to the parish tax inspector who recorded his failure to pay tax on 15th November 1597. This ancient church is a miraculous survivor of the Fire of London, the Blitz and the terrorist bombings of the nineteen nineties, and contains spectacular monuments that Shakespeare could have seen if he came here, including the eerie somnolent figure of Sir William Pickering of 1574 illustrated above. There is great charm in the diverse collection of melancholic Elizabethan statuary residing here in this quaint medieval church with two naves, now surrounded by modernist towers upon all sides, and there is a colourful Shakespeare window of 1884, the first of several images of him that I encountered upon my walk.
From here, I followed the route that Shakespeare would have known, walking directly South over London Bridge to Southwark Cathedral, where he buried his younger brother Edmund, an actor aged just twenty-seven in 1607, at the cost of twenty shillings “with a forenoone knell of the great bell.” Again there is a Shakespeare window, with scenes from the plays, put up in 1964, and a memorial with an alabaster figure from 1912, yet neither is as touching as the simple stone to poor Edmund in the floor of the choir. I was fascinated by the medieval roof bosses, preserved at the rear of the nave since the Victorians replaced the wooden roof with stone. If Shakespeare had raised his bald pate during a service here, his eye might have caught sight of the appealingly grotesque imagery of these spirited medieval carvings. Most striking is Judas being devoured by Satan, with only a pair of legs protruding from the Devil’s hungry mouth, though I also like the sad face of the old king with icicles for a beard.
Crossing the river again, I looked out for the Cormorants that I delight to see as one of the living remnants of Shakespeare’s London, which he saw when he walked out from the theatre onto the river bank, and wrote of so often, employing these agile creatures that can swallow fish whole as as eloquent metaphors of all-consuming Time. My destination was St Giles Cripplegate, where Edmund’s sons who did not live beyond infancy were baptised and William Shakespeare was the witness. Marooned at the centre of the Barbican today like a galleon shipwrecked upon a beach, I did not linger long here because most of the cargo of history this church carried was swept overboard in a fire storm in nineteen forty, when it was bombed and then later rebuilt from a shell. Just as in that searching game where someone advises you if you are getting warmer, I began to feel my trail had started warm but was turning cold.
Yet, resolutely, I walked on through St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell where Shakespeare once brought the manuscripts of his plays for the approval by the Lord Chamberlain before they could be performed. And, from there, I directed my feet along the Strand to the Middle Temple, where, in one of my favourite corners of the city, there is a sense – as you step through the gates – of entering an earlier London, comprised of small squares and alleys arched over by old buildings. Here in Fountain Court, where venerable Mulberry trees supported by iron props surround the pool, stands the magnificent Middle Temple Hall where the first performance of “Twelfth Night” took place in 1602, with Shakespeare playing in the acting company. At last, I had a building where I could be certain that Shakespeare had been present – but it was closed.
I sat in the shade by the fountain and took stock, and questioned my own sentiment now my feet were weary. Yet I could not leave, my curiosity would not let me. Summoning my courage, I walked past all the signs, until I came to the porter’s lodge and asked the gentleman politely if I might see the hall. He stood up, introducing himself as John and assented with a smile, graciously leading me from the sunlight into the cavernous hundred-foot-long hall, with its great black double hammer-beam roof, like the hand of God with its fingers outstretched or the darkest stormcloud lowering overhead. It was overwhelming.
“You see this table,” said John, pointing to an old dining table at the centre of the hall, “We call this the ‘cup board’ and the top of it is made of the hatch from Sir Francis Drake’s ship ‘The Golden Hind’ that circumnavigated the globe” And then, before I could venture a comment, he continued, “You see that long table at the end – the one that’s the width of the room, twenty-nine feet long – that’s made from a single oak tree which was a gift from Elizabeth I, it was cut at Windsor Great Park, floated down the Thames and constructed in this hall while it was being built. It has never left this room.”
And then John left me alone in the finest Elizabethan hall in Britain. Looking back at the great carved screen, I realised this had served as the backdrop to the performance of ‘”Twelfth Night” and the gallery above was where the musicians played at the opening when Orsino says, “If music be the food of love, play on.” The hall was charged and resonant. Occasioned by the clouds outside, sunlight moved in dappled patterns across the floor from the tall windows above.
I walked back behind the screen where the actors, including Shakespeare, waited, and I walked again into the hall, absorbing the wonder of the scene, emphasised by the extraordinary intricate roof that appeared to defy gravity. It was a place for public display and the show of power, but its elegant proportion and fine detail also permitted it to be a place for quiet focus and poetry. I sat on my own at the head of the twenty-nine foot long table in the only surviving building where one of William Shakespeare’s plays was done in his lifetime, and it was a marvel. I could imagine him there.
Judas swallowed by Satan
An old king at Southwark
St Giles Cripplegate where Edmund’s sons were baptised and William Shakespeare was the witness.
St John’s Gate where William Shakespeare brought the manuscripts of his plays to the Lord Chamberlain’s office to seek approval.
The Middle Temple Hall where “Twelfth Night” was first performed in 1602.
The twenty-nine foot long table made from a single oak from Windsor Great Park.
The wooden screen that served as the backdrop to the first production of” Twelfth Night.”
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