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When Did Shakespeare Go to London?

For the third episode of Let’s Talk Shakespeare, we asked “When Did Shakespeare Go to London?”

There are some lost years in Shakespeare’s life, one of which is the period from around 1585 until 1592, the year that the first reference to him as a playwright appears in print. In this episode, I talk to our guests about all the myths and stories that are told around why Shakespeare set out for London. We talk about how he would have travelled and where he would have stayed, as well as the idea of him as a “literary commuter”, travelling between London and Stratford for most of his life. 

Image: John Norden's map shows how London Bridge would have looked when Shakespeare made his way across the river from his lodgings on silver street to the playhouses.

This week's guests (in order of appearance) are:

- Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute
- Professor Sir Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the SBT
- Revered Dr Paul Edmondson, Head of Research and Knowledge at the SBT
- Ben Crystal, actor, director, and producer
- Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT

Narrator: Jennifer Reid


REID: Hello, and welcome to “Let’s Talk Shakespeare”, a podcast brought to you from Stratford-upon-Avon by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I’m Jennifer Reid, and today we are asking, “When Did Shakespeare Go to London?”

Now there are a lot of theories about this one based around a few facts that we know about the timeline of Shakespeare’s life, and others are based on circumstantial evidence or pure speculation.

So first up we have Michael Dobson - he’s a director of the Shakespeare Institute also in Stratford - to discuss some of the circumstances around Shakespeare’s departure for the city.

DOBSON: I don’t know when Shakespeare went to London. Probably in the mid-1580s, sometime after the birth of the twins. That seems to me the key factor. Speaking as somebody who is supposed to write for a living and who has twins, I can imagine that after the birth of the twins might be a moment when you might need seventy-odd miles between you and the housework if you were going to get any writing done, but I honestly don’t know.

He doesn’t turn up in records in London until the early 1590s, but from plays he is familiar with as you can tell from his writings, it looks as though he is already active in London probably as an actor first from sort of ‘87/’88.

REID: Okay, so we can place Shakespeare’s arrival in London in the mid-1580s, and that’s something pretty much everyone agrees on. Let’s think a bit more now about the evidence for that, that Michael touched on there.

Professor Stanley Wells is the honorary Chairman of the SBT, and in the next clip, Stanley goes into a bit more detail about the start of Shakespeare’s life in London and his first published works after arriving in the city, as well as giving some of the different theories on his motivations for leaving.

WELLS: We don’t know exactly when Shakespeare went to London. In 1585, his children - the twins - were born, and that’s the last record we have of him for certain in Stratford. In 1592, seven years later, there’s an oblique but clear reference to him as already being established as a playwright - this is in a book called Greenes, Groats-worth of Wit of 1592, where he is referred to as somebody who thinks himself the only ‘Shake-scene’ in a country. It’s a sneering reference. It’s interesting because it’s the only reference to Shakespeare in all the references to him that’s not nice about him. [laughter] Everybody else who talks about him, talks about him as ‘sweet master Shakespeare’ or something like that. But, it was clear that he’d aroused the envy of some of his early contemporary writers for the theatre. And so, it’s clear also from that reference that he was already established as a playwright; he’d already written at least one of the History plays which is referred to in that book. So, it’s reasonable to suppose that he started basing himself in London anytime really after 1585. We can’t say for certain. We don’t know when his first plays were written. We do know that his first printed work was Venus and Adonis, the long poem which was printed in 1593. It was printed, interestingly, by a fellow townsman, Richard Field, whose family lived quite close to the Shakespeare’s. Field was two and a half years older than Shakespeare - pretty certain he went to the grammar school too - and so Shakespeare had a personal connection with the printer and publisher of his first poem, Venus and Adonis. It was a rousing success, it went on being reprinted; it was reprinted more often than any of his plays were. It’s not much read nowadays unfortunately, perhaps because it seemed a bit dated. He followed that the following year with The Rape of Lucrece, another long poem also based on Ovid, and a much more serious poem, being described as ‘wittily comic, though elegiac towards the end’ when Adonis dies, gored by a boar. The Rape of Lucrece is totally serious throughout; it’s more difficult to read, and therefore rather less popular. But even so, that was popular too in Shakespeare’s time, and frequently reprinted, though not as frequently as Venus and Adonis.

So, we don’t know when Shakespeare first went to London. We don’t know in what capacity he went to London: whether he went as a travelling player (which is possible, it’s possible that he joined a company of players when they came to Stratford; touring players did come to Stratford), or it’s possible that he just went there to “make his fortune”, as it were. There’s also a recent theory that he might have gone partly to help his father. His father, who was a dealer in wool, there’s a theory which will appear in a book which Paul Edmondson and I have just edited which will appear in November of this year, in which we float the theory that Shakespeare’s father, rather than becoming impoverished in the middle of his career, actually went on making quite a lot of money as a dealer in wool. And the author of that article speculates that Shakespeare might even have gone to London partly in order to advance his father’s wool business. There’s a lot we don’t know and a lot we have to be content not to know. And of course, people make up theories about it, quite understandably, deductions which change over the years, as more becomes known, about the not only about Shakespeare himself but also about the social environment in which he lived.

REID: Stanley mentioned there a recently popular theory regarding William’s father, John Shakespeare, and his wool dealing business as an impetus for Shakespeare heading off to London. Paul Edmondson is the head of Research and Knowledge at the SBT, and if you were listening closely Stanley just mentioned him in that clip. But Paul really likes this theory, and he explained why he likes it to me when I spoke to him.

EDMONDSON: Another theory which I find compelling is that his father John was dealing in wool - this is a theory of David Fallow from the University of Exeter - and the theory goes there that Shakespeare first goes to London to represent his father’s business interest in the wool dealing industry which we know John Shakespeare was involved with - clear evidence for that - and that he then becomes involved in the theatre world through those initial wool connections. I like that theory best of all because it grounds it in the sort of everyday experience without having to imagine Shakespeare as some kind of Dick Whittington hero who up-sticks and goes with his knotted red and white handkerchief at the end of a pole on his shoulder.

So, that’s not quite enough about Shakespeare in London because I think what I want to also reiterate is the everyday connection between Stratford and London with the traffic to and from these two centres. Stratford was not a backwater, Stratford had a lively market and trading commercial world and relied heavily on exchanges with the capital. The carrier ‘Greenaway’ regularly - who lived opposite the Shakespeares on Henley Street - regularly went up and down the byways and the highways from Stratford to London. It took about three days, if you did it quickly; four if you did it more comfortably, perhaps. And things were coming up from London all the time, things were being taken to London. The bailiff - twice the bailiff, Richard Quiney - there are letters from him to Stratford folk in London and in the other direction. John Shakespeare went to London in the 1570s. It wasn’t an unusual thing to be going down to the capital, by any stretch of the imagination. It was simply what you did and what could be done in that day and age, it just took a lot longer than it takes now.

So there was news coming in from London all the time. There were spices, there were books, there were other goods coming from London to be traded in Stratford. And Stratford, goods were being taken to London as well. So the image I want to convey there is of a kind of porous, commercial, cultural world that links Stratford with London. And that Shakespeare’s work, Shakespeare’s livelihood, the way Shakespeare thought about these two sentences in his life were to some extent determined by those kinds of contexts.

REID: Paul there described a bit about what Stratford was like at the time when Shakespeare was alive. But what was London like? Was it the thriving metropolis that we know it as today? Ben Crystal painted a lovely picture of London in the late sixteenth century when I spoke to him, which is slightly ironic as we were recording in a park in the middle of London, so apologies for the sound quality on this clip.

CRYSTAL: Three hundred thousand people, a big city by our standards, for that time. A very confusing place, because it had the city of Westminster, the rich nobles living on the Strand, one bridge crossing the river where most people would enter the town through with heads of traitors on spikes warning you to not to, you know, warning you to behave. The equivalent of the red light district of Suffolk where the bear baiting and the prostitutes and taverns and the theatres were. And then this... terrible wave of death that would appear every now and again with the plague coming: it would have been a markedly different and very differently exciting, but still very exciting city.

REID: One of the most popular stories are theories for Shakespeare leaving Stratford is, of course, the infamous deer poaching story which most of us will have heard at one point or another in some form. Now, a lovely story this may be, there are a few problems with it.

Liz Dollimore, who is the Outreach and Primary Learning manager at the SBT, outlines this story for us in the next clip, as well as describing a couple of the less popular stories that people may not have heard.

DOLLIMORE: So, there are several theories as to why he went from Stratford to London, one of the most popular is that he got into trouble for stealing or poaching a deer from Charlecote. Charlecote Manor is still an existing manor house that you can visit, it belongs to the National Trust - bit of a plug there for the National Trust. It’s very nice; very nice grounds, and if you go there you will see that there are lots of nice deer running around in the grounds of Charlecote. And it’s said that one of the ancestors of those deer was the deer that Shakespeare poached and got into trouble from Sir Thomas Lucy, the then owner of Charlecote Manor. However, history has a few problems with that story. And one of those problems is that Sir Thomas Lucy didn’t actually have a licence for running deer at the house at the time. So, if Shakespeare did poach something, what he had a licence for having on his land was conies or hares, rabbits - probably hares really - hence the phrase ‘coney catcher’, somebody who was a poacher. But it’s a bit less of a romantic story that he poached a hare from Sir Thomas Lucy, so I think it might have got exaggerated over the years. But anyway, the full story goes that he poached this whatever from Sir Thomas Lucy, and Sir Thomas Lucy got disproportionately annoyed with him. And in order to kind of poke fun at Sir Thomas Lucy, Shakespeare apparently wrote a rude ballard about him and that angered Sir Thomas Lucy even more and Shakespeare felt he had to run away to London to get away from it. You can see that that story has obviously become elaborated over the years and quite possibly is completely untrue. But it does go back quite a long way; it goes back to, sort of, the generation after Shakespeare, so, there isn’t a sort of hundred year gap before someone invented that story.

Other ideas involve various religious questions and the question of whether or not Shakespeare was a good Protestant as people were supposed to be in that time period, or whether he was brought up secretly as a Catholic. Some people think that Shakespeare was sent to be a tutor in a Catholic household, and there are various places which purport to be the household he was sent to. One of them was in Lancaster, but anyway, that is possible. Very little if anything, in fact nothing, is known about Shakespeare’s actual religious beliefs, and anything that you try to extrapolate about that has to come from his plays which is a very, very spurious way of trying to decide what somebody actually believed by what they wrote about. But, that’s another possible idea.

Early stories of Shakespeare’s life in London have him holding the horses outside the theatre as a sort of rather menial job, and the idea of being that then he worked his way up to becoming first an actor perhaps and then a playwright.

REID: And one question we get asked quite a lot at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is how Shakespeare would have gotten to London. I guess it’s hard nowadays to imagine just packing a bag and setting off to walk for a couple of days to get somewhere, but, that’s exactly what they would have done. So in my next clip, Liz again fleshes out in a bit more detail what the journey would have been like and how long it would have taken Shakespeare to get to London.

DOLLIMORE: In the early days before he was wealthier, he would have no doubt walked. In the later days when he was better off, he probably rode. There is still a footpath that you can follow that’s been created, “The Shakespeare Way”, which follows, approximately at least, the line that Shakespeare would have taken in between Stratford and London - avoiding, of course, the modern conurbations which have grown up since, and not sending you down the M40 which would perhaps be part of the route nowadays.

But, anyhow, it would’ve taken… five days to a week to walk? To ride, three days, four days, depending on how fast you went. It’s not an improbable distance to cover. For those people who listening who aren’t from England, remember, England is a small place, actually, compared to pretty much anywhere else in the world, so the fact that he walked or rode is by no means improbable - that is how trades people travelled around. I mean, you know, people taking goods to market, to trade in different market towns, would’ve travelled hundreds of miles on foot with their wares, so that kind of travel was fairly normal in that day and age.

REID: Okay, my next clip is Paul Edmondson again, and he’s going to talk about the idea of William Shakespeare being a literary commuter. It’s common for people to think of Shakespeare heading off to London with his bags packed, abandoning his wife and young family and the town he was born in, only to return there to retire and die. But all evidence points to a very different relationship with the town, a relationship that saw him return regularly and invest a great deal of money in the town that he thought of as his home.

EDMONDSON: It’s good, I think, to think of Shakespeare as a literary commuter travelling to and from London, and I think the way this portrait can be fleshed out is to think about the importance of New Place in Shakespeare’s life. And depending on how you start with New Place, will depend on the effect that you think it has on Shakespeare. So, let’s suppose then we start with New Place as being a really significantly large house, an expensive house when Shakespeare buys it in 1597. And, if that’s a starting point, as it were, a domestic space that Shakespeare’s investing in, putting down significant roots in for his family to live in, it seems to me odd to think that he then spends most of his time away from it. In fact, you might even take as your starting point that, unless Shakespeare knew he could spend a significant and an enjoyable amount of time in New Place in 1597, he wouldn’t have bought it in the first place. I mean, why would you have done that and then spent most of your time away from it? It was a prestigious dwelling, it stood on an entire burgage plot, it was technically the largest house in the town, the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon. There were larger houses over the borough border, as it were, out of the jurisdiction of the town, near Holy Trinity Church. You know, but looking at it objectively, the town of Stratford had its limits of jurisdiction, and New Place was the largest dwelling within that boundary. And Shakespeare’s colleagues were in London - his working life, his professional life for the theatre, of course, centred around London - that doesn’t mean to say he’s had to spend, you know, years and years there in order for that work to come to fruition. The theatre world of course is full of daily rehearsals, touring in Shakespeare’s time when the theatres were closed because of the plague as they were significantly from 1592 to 1594, and from 1603 to 1605. And in fact, for four and a half years out of the first six years of James I’s reign from 1603, the theatres were actually closed in London which meant that the King’s Men had to be on tour. Now I honestly don’t think the main playwright, who is trying to write their next blockbuster, is wanting to be going on tour very much if he can avoid it. And in fact, he didn’t have to. I think Shakespeare was probably doing everything he could from becoming a shareholder with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594 onwards to devote himself to more or less full-time writing, wherever that might happen to be. And Stratford was a compelling place for that. He never owned property in London; he didn’t have that same degree of settlement and focus in London as he did in Stratford. He was always a lodger in London, you know, in rented accommodation, and I think that also adds to the picture, of how Shakespeare divided his time up between these two centres of Stratford and London.

REID: Well that’s us out of time for today’s podcast. Just before I finish, Stanley mentioned there at the beginning a book that he and Paul had edited that’s coming out later this year. Well, that book is out, and it is called The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography and I can highly recommend it; it’s a very good read.

Thanks for joining us today and thank you to all the people who spoke to me for today’s podcast: Paul, Stanley, Michael, Liz and Ben. A huge thanks to the friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, without who this podcast would not be possible. And don’t forget to join us next week when we will be asking “How Did Actors Learn Their Lines?

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