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Where Did Shakespeare Live?

In the fifth episode of Let’s Talk Shakespeare, we ask “Where did Shakespeare live?”

To answer this question we must look at three different periods in his life: his youth, his life in London, and his married/family life. In this episode I talk to our guests about the different properties we know Shakespeare lived in, which ones he owned and when he bought them, and we also look at what life would have been like living in these very different properties, both for Shakespeare and his housemates. 

Image: Shakespeare's Birthplace before restoration, 1769.

This week's guests are:

- Professor Sir Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the SBT
- Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute
- Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT
- Dr Tara Hamling, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern history at Birmingham University
- Dr Paul Edmondson, Head of Research and Knowledge at the SBT

Narrator: Jennifer Reid


REID: Hello, and welcome to the fifth episode of “Let’s Talk Shakespeare”, a podcast brought to you from Stratford-upon-Avon by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I’m Jennifer Reid, and today I’m asking, “Where did Shakespeare live?”

Unlike some of our other questions that we’ve been asking in this series, we've got some good evidence about this one and we can give some pretty definite answers.

So, the first clip I have for you today is Michael Dobson, and Michael is the director of the Shakespeare Institute. He gives an introduction to where Shakespeare thought of his home and some of the topics that we’re going to be going into in more detail in this episode.

DOBSON: Mentally, he lived in Stratford. When he gives evidence in lawsuits in London, he calls himself William Shakespeare, gentleman of Stratford-upon-Avon in the county of Warwick. He identifies himself as coming from Stratford—this is where his family home is, this is where he leaves his wife and children, this is where he buys the whopping great house New Place after his son dies, apparently thinking that if he’s not going to have a male dynasty, at least he’s going to have a big house and a serious estate. He buys what had been Sir Hugh Clopton’s house. So yeah, he lived in Stratford, he worked in London.

REID: The next person I spoke to about this topic was Tara Hamling, who’s a senior lecturer at Birmingham University. And I’m going to keep going back to her throughout this episode in lots of clips, but the first clip I have for you looks at which properties William Shakespeare lived at during his lifetime.

HAMLING: When we think about the question of where Shakespeare lived, we have to think about what stage in his life we’re looking at because we’ve got a good deal of information about where he was living at different points in his life.

So obviously at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, we have Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Henley Street, and this has been long associated with the place of Shakespeare’s birth, and we know that John Shakespeare owned property in Henley Street, so it’s all consistent. So we can actually place the young Shakespeare, the baby Shakespeare, and the boy Shakespeare at that property in Henley Street, which is just wonderful and it’s great to be able to get a sense of the structure—the physical structure—that Shakespeare would have known and grown up with. But it’s, you know, a relatively modest structure, a relatively modest house, a reasonably good-sized house for someone of John Shakespeare’s status. And it looks like he perhaps extended it over the course of his life, so investing his money into making that property a little bit bigger, a little bit grander, probably having it decorated. So by walking around the birthplace, we can get a sense of where Shakespeare lived, and what he saw, and what he would have felt, and what he would have done in that space, which is just amazing. So the boy Shakespeare, we know quite a bit about where he lived.

What we kind of want to know about a little more probably, is when Shakespeare grew up and got to sort of assert his own start on an identity of a place—what that would have looked like. But of course, Shakespeare spent an awful lot of time living away from home. He lived as a lodger for a large part of his career. When he’s living in London, he’s living with other families. And we know from the brilliant book Shakespeare on Silver Street, it’s called The Lodger, what that kind of context was, what that context was like (having a living lodger), and how that worked, and his interactions with the family that he was staying with. It seems to have been a relatively close level of interaction because he gets involved in the marriage of the daughter to one of the apprentices in the house. So you get a sense of Shakespeare’s involvement in that.

We’ve got enough information about what London properties look like at that level to have a sense of what his lodgings might have looked like. He would have had a sort of private apartment within the house, so probably something that he called a chamber or a parlour, and a relatively modest suite of rooms within a quite grand London property. By this stage of course he’s starting himself as a gentleman, and he’s recognised as a gentleman, so he would have had to have had fairly good quality, good standard lodgings.

Then we know that as he becomes a gentleman—as his father is given a grant of arms to become a member of the gentry—Shakespeare buys New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is a property that was built in the fifteenth century in Stratford - a grand town house built by Hugh Clopton, who is a member of the local elite family, the landed family. This was a very grand property when it was built in the fifteenth century. By the time Shakespeare buys it in 1597, it’s probably a little bit run down but still has that kind of sense of age and prestige that comes from the association with the first owner. That first owner had also invested in the town, improved the bridge, and been a patron for the church, so you get the sense that Shakespeare is buying into that identity by buying New Place. This house that he lived in from 1590s through to his death in 1616—his mansion house, his gentleman’s house, in Stratford—really set up his status in the community.

It was in Stratford that he wanted to have his home, not in London. So while he bought up property in London, that seems very much to be a business interest. Where he lived, was in lodgings. He spends his money on a very grand town house in Stratford, and almost certainly invested money in that property. He probably had it decorated, he probably had it fixed up. That was the expectation of the people of Shakespeare’s status at the time—that they would show their status by investing in fixtures and furnishings for their home. He probably invested in things like wall paintings, and possibly plasterwork ceilings, and chimney pieces. He probably invested in tapestry cushion covers.

So we can get a sense that New Place would have been quite grand and quite a sight to see. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist anymore. But we know the site, so we get a sense of the scale of the property. Clearly this was a house that had a certain reputation within the town, even by the time Shakespeare bought it, and presumably Shakespeare’s ownership just made it even more conspicuous within the town because all this investment would have been going on, and people would have then been able to go and presumably socialise and mix with Shakespeare and his family in that house.

There’s also a sense that Shakespeare may have shared that house for a period of time with his so-called cousin Thomas Greene. Thomas Greene and his family of a wife and two children, it appears, lived at New Place for some period of time, maybe a year, maybe as much as eight years. So this house was big enough to accommodate his own lodgers as well as his own family. So, we do know quite a bit about where Shakespeare lived at these different points in his life.

REID: Ok great, so we can definitely place Shakespeare at a few different addresses during his life. But let’s for a second, think about his family—his wife and children. We know his wife Anne Hathaway grew up at a property in Shottery, which the Trust owns, and today is known as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. But where did she live when she married William? And what about once he left for work in London?

HAMLING: So there’s no tangible facts, nothing that we can kind of point towards, but it’s assumed that they would have carried on living in his childhood home, with his family. We can imagine them living at the birthplace for quite some time after Shakespeare goes to London. That’s likely, that’s plausible, but it’s also possible that he found other accommodation for them—rented accommodation that we just don’t know about.

Again, it’s this point—about the period between the 1560s and the 1580s/1590s—that’s very much a transitional time where expectations surrounding family life were changing. The expectation was, in that period, that at the point of marriage, the husband and wife would set up their own household. That was kind of part and parcel of being married, you then invest in your own home. So generally you would expect that to have happened, but because Shakespeare married so young, then it probably makes sense that they all lived at John Shakespeare’s property for a while. It seems, that as soon as Shakespeare could afford to buy his own property, he did, and he went for a really good one.

REID: Ok, so we are jumping ahead a little bit, and before we move on to talk in detail about New Place, Shakespeare’s grand family home in Stratford, I just want to pause for a wee second and think about Shakespeare’s life lodging in London. Today, to us, the idea of lodging is pretty alien, particularly if you’re a grown man with a wife and kids at home, but in Shakespeare’s time this is an extremely common thing to do, and we have mentioned that Shakespeare himself was a lodger, but he also had his own lodgers at New Place.

So, what about lodging in London? Well, thanks to a court case we do know a fair amount about his life lodging with the Mountjoy family on Silver Street. So my next clip is Professor Stanley Wells to tell us more about Shakespeare’s experience and his relationship with the Mountjoys.

WELLS: So, in Stratford, basically he lived a) in the birthplace, and then later in New Place. In London, interestingly he never bought a dwelling until very late in his life when he bought the Blackfriars Playhouse, probably not actually to live in. In London, we do have record of him living in lodgings, in more than one place. One of them is in Bishop’s Gate, there’s a record of him lodging there, and there’s also a record of him lodging in Silver Street—in the north of the city of London, not far from St. Giles Cripplegate, where he lodged with a family called the Mountjoys. There’s a fascinating book about that by Charles Nicholl called The Lodger, which is all about Shakespeare’s relationships with the family. We know that because of a court case in 1612, in which Shakespeare, who is described as William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, gives evidence of what had happened when he was staying with the Mountjoys about eight years before, when he’d actually been invited by the family to assist in the marriage negotiations for the daughter of the family, to marry the apprentice of Mr. Mountjoy. The Mountjoys were what were called tiremakers—that is, they made wigs, tiaras, and that sort of thing for great ladies, and possibly for the theatre as well. So we do know that Shakespeare lodged there—we don’t know for exactly how long—but clearly long enough to become quite close with the family, to be involved in these marriage negotiations for the daughter of the family.

Shakespeare’s basic home throughout his life was Stratford-upon-Avon. That’s where he was born, that’s where he bought a big house for his wife and family when he was relatively young (he was only 33 years old when he bought New Place), and he died there pretty certainly in 1616. In London, he lived in various lodging places, not bothering to purchase an establishment of his own, which suggests both that he didn’t have his family with him in London, and that he continued all his life to regard Stratford-upon-Avon as his hometown.

REID: Was that common for actors to lodge?

WELLS: No, it wasn’t all that common. In fact, some of Shakespeare’s company, actors we know, lived in London, had substantial houses in London. We know this of Heminges and Condell, two actors who had literally put together the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. No, Shakespeare was unusual in that respect—I once called him “the first great literary commuter”. Most of his colleagues and the other playwrights of the time would be firmly based in London. Which again, suggests to me, a greater degree of devotion to his native town, and to the family associations of that town, than his colleagues would have felt.

REID: So, back to New Place. 1597, William Shakespeare invests in a property known in the town as New Place, a large house down near the river. This is a pretty big jump to go from the Birthplace, to a lodger in London to buying the biggest house in town, and it certainly would have been a statement to his fellow townsmen. Tara Hamling told me a bit about what the house was like when Shakespeare bought it, and how much he would have paid.

HAMLING: It would have been a big jump from the Birthplace to New Place, except we don’t know the condition of New Place when Shakespeare bought it. So there’s a lot of conjecture about that because it seems, although this is dodgy as well in terms of facts, it seems that Shakespeare paid quite a low price for the property, which suggests that there was an issue around the condition. As I said, it was built in the fifteenth century, so it would have needed maintenance over that period.

We know that Shakespeare certainly invested in some stonework for New Place just shortly after he bought it, which is assumed to have been for patching up a fairly run-down property. He could have done a lot more than that if he wanted to make it special and grand and according to his status. Whether or not he had the time and energy to do that while he was busy doing other things in London, or whether he delegated that responsibility—possibly to Thomas Greene, possibly to his wife. But there was an expectation that a householder of Shakespeare’s status, buying a property like New Place, would then invest in that property, bring it up-to-date, invest in modern features like large glazed windows, chimneys, not to mention all the decorative work that would have made it look of appropriate status for somebody that has just become a member of the gentry.

REID: So perhaps it was a house in disrepair—Shakespeare had bought a bit of a doer-upper. We’ll never know the answer to that, and we’ll never know what work Shakespeare actually did to the property. Sadly, as we’ve mentioned, New Place is no longer standing, so we have to rely on lots of other evidence from the time to try to get a picture of what the house would have looked like. My last clip from Tara for this episode tells a bit about what the property would have been like.

HAMLING: Well unfortunately we don’t know very much about the exact form and layout of New Place because very little survives in the ground, but we can build up a picture of what that house probably looked like based on comparable houses of that date. And New Place almost certainly had wings and areas coming off one another. So there would have been a frontage to the property, there would have been a service wing, and there could well have been another block at the rear of the property that could have contained a hall and a parlour. This would have been quite a grand space. So this kind of property allows for sectioning off—sectioning off of service, all the sort of messy and smelly jobs get done in those areas—and presumably with New Place, with so much land, the right building is probably stretching down through what is now the gardens as well. But it also allows for sectioning off of things like lodgers, so Thomas Greene and his family could have occupied one wing, and it still would have allowed quite a lot of room for Shakespeare’s family because obviously while Shakespeare’s away, by the time he moves to New Place, it’s only his wife and two daughters living there. So it’s not a big household, but he probably also, by the time he becomes a gentleman and buys New Place, had at least one live-in servant as well, and possibly some day servants. So a sense that that’s a fairly full household, but they didn’t necessarily take up all the space, because New Place was that sort of house.

The Birthplace is a whole other matter. This is a house that is relatively small and cramped. We can imagine there, particularly in that earlier period of time as well, the family pretty much living on top of each other. So communal sleeping was very, very common in this period. You would certainly sleep with siblings, you would also have bedfellows that were not even related to you—so sons and daughters of somebody of John Shakespeare’s family status would probably sleep with servants or apprentices. So you can imagine beds everywhere, lots of children sleeping together, children and servants sleeping together, makeshift beds in rooms that could be put to one side and then pulled out as needed - so good storage solutions. So the Birthplace is a very different prospect, you can definitely get a sense of Shakespeare’s moving up in the world if you map the different houses that he lived in from the start to the end of his life.

REID: So that gives us a bit of an idea of what the property looked like, but what was life like in New Place? What was it like to live there? We know Shakespeare came and went to and from Stratford to London, but his family were left behind, and continued to live there after his death as well. Paul Edmondson is the head of Research and Knowledge at the SBT, and he’s been writing a book on New Place, so he is the perfect person to tell us what he thinks life was like in this grand home.

EDMONDSON: So we know from the hearth returns of 1663 that New Place is listed as having ten hearths, which is not quite the same as having ten chimneys. Ten hearths gives us an indication of how many rooms it had. The ratio was higher than two rooms to one hearth, so the view is that it had anything up to thirty rooms. In other words, it was an enormous house with plenty of space, lots of people to live in. Far, far bigger than the small dwelling on Henley street. So it seems to me, a perfectly plausible notion, that from 1597, when Shakespeare purchases that house, New Place, all of his immediate family, on the Shakespeare side, can move in to New Place—his brothers, his sister, his three children, even his mother and his father, and there would have been plenty of space for all of them.

And from 1603 onwards, Thomas Greene moves in there. Thomas Greene is another London connection in Shakespeare’s life. He was a lawyer, trained at the Middle Temple on the Strand, and he had strong links with London. Greene and his wife Lettice lodged with the Shakespeares in New Place for about eight years, and two of their children are born there, whom they name Anne and William, interestingly. They then move out to St. Mary’s, just opposite Holy Trinity Church, and have another child whom they name Elizabeth, apparently after Elizabeth Hall, Shakespeare’s granddaughter, which suggests that Susanna and John Hall were perhaps godparents for their third child, as Anne and William probably were godparents for their first two children.

So plenty of space, lots of people to live in New Place. What was it like? Well our archaeology tells us that it was a place of cottage industries, it was a place where malt was made, significantly. Malt was being made in all sorts of places, all over Stratford. Quite a complicated business making malt. Shakespeare is listed as storing malt there in 1598, and it’s a significant amount that is being held there - about two tons of malt is being stored at New Place. But that’s not unusual in the context of the malting industry in Stratford, it’s just something that lots of people were doing and Stratford malt was sold at the market, it was exported to towns round about, all for the brewing industry - for the making of beer, stronger ale, but also small beer, small ales, because the water wasn’t safe to drink - so you needed a constant supply of malt for the simple purpose of hydration ultimately.

Germaine Greer in her biography Shakespeare’s Wife has Anne Shakespeare kept very busy at New Place with all manner of small industries such as knitting, and textile industries, and making food stuffs at New Place. This is all quite plausible activity for a woman of her class and social position. And there has been a tendency since about 2007 and Germaine Greer’s biography, to think of Anne Shakespeare as a co-bread-earner, co-bread-winner, in her own right. And in a recent article by Lena Orlin, 'Anne by Indirection' in Shakespeare Quarterly, she puts over this view that it was a really equal marriage, and that Anne, like Elizabeth Quiney, who we know a lot about (Richard Quiney’s wife—also Stratford-upon-Avon), was engaged in all manner of business activities, including some financial commitments as well. She was an entirely trustworthy and able person, Anne Shakespeare.

So New Place as a serious money-making, economic venture, as well as a domestic space, I imagine it being a place also being able to give Shakespeare the peace and quiet, the sense of being removed from the business of life in order to write. So I imagine a place there of books, a place of retreat, a place of thinking, composing, walking along by the river banks into the countryside, with his reflections, and coming back and writing some more, taking notes as he wrote. I don’t think this is in any way too fanciful to suggest that New Place gave Shakespeare the peace and quiet that he needed in order to be the writer that he was.

New Place plays its own important part in the beginnings of Shakespeare’s consolidation of a writer, by which I mean the first folio of 1623, and a place that Heminges and Condell who were putting together that volume, would have had to visit in order to put that volume together—6 of the plays, are based it seems on the author’s own manuscripts, and where else would they be, apart from the author’s own house.

REID: Paul mentioned there the archaeology, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has done a great deal of archaeological digs at the New Place site over the years, giving us a large amount of information about the site and the property, not only when the Shakespeares lived there, but before and after as well. So back over to Paul to tell us a little bit of what the archaeology has taught us.

EDMONDSON: The archaeology at New Place has really been about more than only archaeology, it’s been about re-thinking New Place entirely and in its way, the archaeology has forced us to do that. It’s been this kind of extraordinary catalyst, so it’s taken us back to what we already know about New Place, what we think we already know, and to revisit that information—for example, what did New Place look like?

The sketch by Vertue has played its own important part in that. We’ve come to the conclusion that that Vertue sketch, far from being unreliable or impressionistic, is actually probably very good evidence. Vertue was a serious engraving series artist. But what that sketch tells us too, especially with Vertue’s notes, and him talking to Shakespeare’s great-nephew when he visited the town, is that New Place, at the front—the front range—was almost certainly remodelled by Shakespeare himself from what had stood there previously. Because Vertue’s sketch does not show a front range from the late fifteenth century into the sixteenth century, the time when New Place was built, but the kind of front range that is more characteristic of later, into the sixteenth century (i.e. from the time of Shakespeare). And given that the previous owners up to Shakespeare wouldn’t have afforded to remodel the front range, that makes Shakespeare the only plausible candidate to have done so. So that tells us a lot about what he intended for the house, his social status.

Vertue mentions a long gallery as part of that front range. The gentlemen class that Shakespeare was part of were absolutely fascinated consumers of art, pictures of monarchs, pictures of previous monarchs. And you can easily imagine a kind of place in which Shakespeare was displaying things he was especially proud of, possibly even with his own captions, or extracts of his speeches from his history plays alongside images of monarchs. This isn’t too fanciful a notion when we think about what galleries meant to the Elizabethan/early Jacobean mind and culture.

The archaeology has given evidence of cottage industries. It’s given us a complicated footprint of the inner courtyard. It’s complicated because New Place was significantly renovated by 1702, and remodelled, so the archaeology has had to sort of unpick a tangled series of remains from the 1702 house and try and retrieve as it were the original Shakespeare footprint of New Place from within the house. We found traces of Elizabethan flooring towards the back of the courtyard, which has presented clear evidence that that was where the hall, as it were, the central dwelling of the site was, the main family focus, where meals would have been partaken, the family gathered around the hearth, where visitors were welcome, and so on. And then ranges around that, making it a kind of quadrilateral, like a college I imagine, with a bit of green in the middle. Barns at the back, livestock at the back, perhaps feeling like an extensive farm at the back beyond this hall. At least three wells are known about on the site. Archaeology has given rise to some really fantastically informed, expertly informed, artists’ impressions, which the Birthplace Trust has been commissioning really in recent times, and talking now in November 2015, all of which will be put over in a book called Finding Shakespeare’s New Place: An Archaeological Biography, due to be published by Manchester University Press in July 2016.

I’d also add that the more work I did on New Place, the more it seems to me to be a game-changer as far as Shakespeare in biography is concerned, because it undeniably breaks the tradition of Shakespeare leaving everything behind for years and years, going to London, not coming back hardly, and then, as it were, retiring back to Stratford. Nothing in fact could be further from the truth. New Place demands the telling of Shakespeare’s life to be complicated and nuanced in a way which hitherto it hasn’t yet been fully.

REID: So, that’s probably some of the firmest answers we’ve had in this podcast so far, but just to mix things up a little bit, my final clip is from Ben Crystal. Ben himself is an actor, and he gives a very different view on the subject of where Shakespeare lived.

CRYSTAL: Well, he probably had a bed, we know he had a bed on Silver Street at one point in his life, obviously we know he had property in Stratford-upon-Avon. Where was his home? His home was the Globe. Home is where the heart is, right? He would have spent dawn till dusk there I would imagine once he became a shareholder, writing and producing and making his plays come alive. Did he sleep there? I’ve slept in theatres, so I don’t see why he shouldn’t have.

REID: Well, that’s about time for today’s podcast, but just to add one thing before we go, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is currently undertaking an incredibly exciting project to re-imagine the site of New Place, the only home that Shakespeare ever bought, and we have so much information and resources about the project and the New Place site itself over on the main Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website which is and I would encourage you to go check them out. I will of course be linking to them in the blog that accompanies this episode, which is on Finding Shakespeare.

So thanks for joining us today and thank you to all the lovely people who spoke to me Michael, Stanley, Tara, Paul, and Ben, and a huge thanks to the friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, without who this podcast would not be possible. Don’t forget to tune in next week where we’ll be discussing if Shakespeare would have known Queen Elizabeth 1.

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