Shakespeare’s Life Through Buildings

William Shakespeare is arguably England’s most famous poet, playwright, and actor, and was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon.

His birthday is most commonly celebrated on 23 April, which is also believed to be the date he died in 1616.

Here we look at his life through buildings, most of them still standing today:

Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Grade I

Shakespeare's birthplace
Shakespeare’s Birthplace © Helmut Schulenburg. Source Historic England Archive IOE01/14259/35

Although we’re not sure of the exact date, this is believed to be the house in which William Shakespeare was born in 1564. His father John lived and worked here from 1551, and was joined by Mary Arden on their marriage in 1557.

They had eight children of which William was the third. William inherited the house, as the eldest surviving child, on John’s death in 1601.

William leased part of the property and it became an inn called the Maidenhead (and later the Swan and Maidenhead) until 1847, when it was bought by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The house had been a tourist attraction since the 1740s.

Shakespeare’s School, Grade I

King Edward VI Grammar School
King Edward VI Grammar School © Helmut Schulenburg. Source Historic England Archive Ref: IOE01/13920/17

Although there is no record of his attendance, it is likely that Shakespeare would have gone to this grammar school due to his father’s position as Mayor of Stratford, and its location – a short walk from his home.

The Guild of the Holy Cross established this school to teach the Guild members’ sons in 1295. It was refounded as The King’s New School by Edward VI in 1547. The school’s gruelling curriculum included Latin; studying classical writers such as Ovid and Virgil, and drama.

The school is known today as ‘Shakespeare’s school’ and holds an annual parade on his birthday.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Grade I

Anne Hathaway's cottage
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage © Peter Harnwell. Source Historic England Archive. Ref: IOE01/12742/14

Shakespeare’s wife Anne was born here in 1556 and it is said to be the site of their courtship.

The house saw 13 generations on the Hathaway family live here until it was bought by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1892 from the then landlord, Mary Baker (a Hathaway) and her family. They were paid a wage of £75 a year to share family stories and care for the cottage.

The house was originally a farmhouse built in 1463. The kitchen and parlour still remain from the original medieval construction.

Church of All Saints

There are a handful of churches that claim to be the church where Shakespeare wed Anne in November 1582, as the documents that survive in the diocesan archives don’t specify the parish. Pictured, we have the Church of All Saints in Luddington, and the Church of All Saints in Billesley.

At the time of their marriage William was 18, while Anne was 26 – and pregnant. To avoid any scandal surrounding Anne’s pregnancy, William sped up proceedings by applying to the Bishop’s Court in Worcester.

This licence also authorised the marriage to take place outside the parish of normal residence, allowing William and Anne to be married outside of Stratford-upon-Avon. They remained married until his death.

The Theatre Playhouse, Scheduled Monument

Graffiti on New inn Broadway reading 'The original Globe theatre was built on this site in 1576)
3-5 New Inn Broadway. Photograph taken by Dominic Martin.

The remains of The Theatre were revealed following initial indications of an Elizabethan playhouse from trenches in 2008. In 2016 The Theatre was scheduled, coinciding with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

It was built in 1576-7 and is the earliest known example of a polygonal playhouse in London. Comparable to The Globe, its design was inspired by classical Roman theatres, with three tiers of galleries and an open yard into which extended a raised stage.

It is thought that Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ was premiered there in 1596 with Richard Burbage as the lead.

The George Inn, Grade I

The George Inn
The George Inn, photograph taken by Philip Carlisle

The George Inn is the last remaining galleried inn in London. It is largely unchanged since being rebuilt after a serious fire that destroyed most of Southwark in the 17th century.

A number of famous wordsmiths are said to have frequented the pub, from Shakespeare to Chaucer, even getting a mention in Dickens’ Little Dorrit.

As Shakespeare lived in Southwark for around ten years to be close to the Globe Theatre, it is likely he would have popped in for an ale, or even watched a show as it was also an Elizabethan inn-yard theatre.

Shakespeare’s Gardens, Grade II

An illustation of New Place
View of New Place, c1740. Halliwell, J. (1848) The Life of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s success in the London theatres made him considerably wealthy, and by 1597 he was able to purchase New Place, the largest house in the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon. Today’s tourists keen to pay homage to ‘The Bard’ are often surprised to find the house he lived in no longer exists.

‘New Place’ was demolished in 1759 by its then owner the Reverend Francis Gastrell, an act of spite supposedly due to the hordes of visitors disturbing his peace. More likely it was a combination of tax avoidance and ill-will towards local officials, but regardless of motivation the building bore little resemblance to Shakespeare’s home anyway due to earlier extensive alterations.

However he did chop down a Mulberry tree planted, it was said, by the playwright himself, in an effort to stem the tide of sightseers. Perhaps the irate owner had read Timon of Athens:

I have a tree, which grows here in my close
That mine own use invites me to cut down

The Globe Theatre, Scheduled Monument

The Globe Theatre, London
The Globe Theatre, 2008. Courtesy of Wiki Commons

Built in 1599, the Globe theatre (described in the prologue to Henry V as “this wooden O”) represents one of the earliest purpose-built commercial playhouses in England, and was one of an important cluster of four known Tudor-Jacobean theatres on the south bank of London. Of the small group of documented sites only the Globe, along with its near neighbour the Rose, have been identified by excavation.

Shakespeare was a part owner and many of his major works, including Hamlet, Othello, Henry VIII, Lear and Macbeth had their first performance here.

The original theatre was destroyed by fire in 1613 (following a discharge of a cannon during the first performance of Henry VIII), rebuilt in 1614, and then pulled down on Cromwell’s orders in 1644.

Church of the Holy Trinity, Grade I

Church of the Holy Trinity
Church of the Holy Trinity © Helmut Schulenburg. Source Historic England Archive
IOE01/13921/03

Shakespeare’s burial is recorded in Stratford’s parish register on 25 April 1616. We do not know the cause of Shakespeare’s death.

A monument to Shakespeare, still standing inside this Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, states that he died on 23 April. His gravestone does not bear his name, but it was believed to be his from at least 1656, as it is the first in a row which commemorates other members of his family.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Grade II*

Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Royal Shakespeare Theatre © Historic England. Ref: DP154486

The tercentenary of the playwright’s birth in 1864 prompted a national campaign to erect a permanent monument. In 1875 the Memorial Theatre Scheme was established and an architectural competition produced a winning design by the little-known, London practice of William Frederick Unsworth and Edward John Dodgshun.

In 1926 the theatre was largely destroyed by a fire. Following the fire, an open architectural competition was organised, and was won by Elisabeth Scott. It was the first large public building in England to be designed by a woman. The theatre was renovated in 2007-2010 as part of the Transformation project.

Visited any of the buildings mentioned here? Share your knowledge and help us enrich the list.

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Further Reading

1 response to Shakespeare’s Life Through Buildings

  1. artculturetourism says:

    A wonderful heritage blog! Many thanks for sharing, from Robin Hood Land!

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