Skip to content

In Search Of Shakespeare’s London

July 30, 2020
by the gentle author

Sir William Pickering, St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, 1574.

Ever since the discovery of the site of  William Shakespeare’s first theatre in Shoreditch, I have 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.”

You may like to read these:

At Shakespeare’s First Theatre

The Door to Shakespeare’s London

Shakespearian Actors in Shoreditch

Shakespeare in Spitalfields

Shakespeare’s Younger Brother, Edmund

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Barbara Anglezarke permalink
    July 30, 2020

    Thank you so much for this GA – so evocative! I loved the journey – and yesterday’s trip to Roman London too. Enjoying these themed guided walks very much.

  2. Annie Green permalink
    July 30, 2020

    Lovely post on a wet, grey morning. Two Christmases ago, my husband and I spent some time down in London and found, by chance, that A Christmas Carol was being performed in Middle Temple Hall so we got tickets. It was the most magical, the most Christmassy thing I have ever done – the dark night, the hundreds of white fairy lights, beautiful tree and wreaths and ropes of evergreens…music, dancing, singing…it felt like an honour just to be there. You have made me think of it all over again. Thanks.

  3. Leana Pooley permalink
    July 30, 2020

    Very interesting. You were the most suitable person I can think of to write this.

  4. Sarah Swan permalink
    July 30, 2020

    Dear GA, thank you for this piece keeping the drama of history alive.

  5. Milo permalink
    July 30, 2020

    Nice of that porter to let you steep yourself in the great hall. I probably wouldn’t have dared ask.

  6. Colin Lennon permalink
    July 30, 2020

    Another great post GA, you’ve brought to life some wonderful venues there, most of which also have personal memories for me. In particular Middle Temple Hall, where I have been fortunate to see a small, but excellent, theatre company perform Shakespeare on several occasions. They’re called ‘Antic Disposition’ and you may well have come across them – if you haven’t then they are worth seeing, whenever Coronavirus permits that is.

  7. Adele Lester permalink
    July 30, 2020

    Fascinating! If I make another trip ‘back home’ after this pandemic you’ve just added some more ‘must sees’ to my list GA.

  8. July 30, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a great jaunt through London looking for those places where Shakespeare trod in his lifetime.

    Loved those views of the Middle Temple and that magnificent 29- foot oak table. Wonderful. And let’s not forget the lovely stained glass window behind.

  9. David Antscherl permalink
    July 30, 2020

    Fascinating and evocative! Thank you for the guided tour, G.A.

  10. July 30, 2020

    Stepping back through time: what a lovely way to spend a day.

  11. ken permalink
    July 30, 2020

    is anything known regarding an elevated stage in front of the screen? how was the seating?
    tantalising questions .

  12. Bernie permalink
    July 30, 2020

    “alone in the finest Elizabethan hall in Britain” Then surely the finest Elizabethan hall in the whole wide world?

  13. Harriet Williamson permalink
    July 30, 2020

    Dear Gentle Author,

    Thank you so very much for taking me on this splendid tour. Your blog helps to sustain me in my quarantine in east central Illinois when those of us in this country are not welcome in Europe because of our inability to control our behavior and thus the virus.

    Best wishes and gratitude.

  14. Bernie (again) permalink
    July 30, 2020

    This post brings history and Shakespeare to life in a magical fashion. Delightful and precious!

  15. Dr jonathan van Haslbert permalink
    July 30, 2020

    The works of the William Shakespeare Performing Theatres Company were indeed

    wonderfull.. However they were NOT most certainly all written by One Man..

    This is another of British History’s Greatest Porkys…

  16. July 30, 2020

    Such Gorgeous Vintage Pictures!! Yhese I MUST keep!!! ????????

  17. Mohankrishnavel permalink
    July 31, 2020

    Hi sir.. I wrote a screenplay of an english movie with regard to the life history of William Shakespeare.. In consultation with NFDC OF INDIA
    I need to get clear some doubts with regard to some
    Records. Again I need to shoot some locations pertaining to Stratford Avon globe theatre palace of Elizabeth queen London bridge and his old and new home along with his tomb.
    Can you direct me to the exact office to where I move officially in this matter.
    Waiting for your revert in this extend
    Mohan krishnavel

  18. Veronica Giménez permalink
    August 1, 2020

    How delightful it is to be taken out for such an enthralling walk in these times of pandemic and quarantine! Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS