If you did a straw poll and asked around the world to name a famous Englishman the chances are Shakespeare would appear in the top five. While we know he was born (and died) in Stratford on Avon, to a local businessman and he wasn’t formally educated and independently wealthy from birth, it would have been no surprise to find that during his life time he was a poor struggling artist whose fame depended on his many works surviving to be appreciated by future generations.
In truth he was well known in Tudor and Stuart England, a wealthy man of property and with the sort of high profile reserved today for pop stars. He spent his productive years, earning that reputation and accumulating that wealth in London.
You would think therefore, with London a major tourist attraction, that it would make the most of this connection.
Yesterday I went on a tour – the Lawyer’s Christmas present to me – to view Shakespeare’s London. It was led by an Irishman (note – not English) Declan McHugh. Here’s a link to his tour. And he moaned fit to bust at the lack of recognition of this most famous of Englishmen. Why is he ignored, Declan asked?
Was it because he was from humble stock? A mere scribe? A bisexual? A closet Catholic? Any and all of these? Who knows? But he made a convincing case that more should be done to bring to the fore the places and links that are still with us.
As Declan pointed out the most famous Shakespeare link today is the reconstructed Globe – albeit not built where the original was – it’s existence owing everything to the passion of an American – Sam Wannamaker. And probably the greatest Shakespearean historian who uncovered more original links to Shakespeare’s London than anyone else was Charles William Wallace, another American. There are six authenticated examples of Shakespeare’s signature and three of these were found by Wallace. We don’t seem to treasure our, erm, national treasure.
We started at Blackfriars station heading to the Embankment to view the façade of the old City of London School building (the school is now in a new building further along the river; this grand edifice is part of JP Morgan’s London HQ – a good example of how London today recycles its buildings without destroying them).
Along the roofline are four statutes: Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton and Newton (the two above are Shakespeare and Milton). For a Victorian structure this is an oddly unbalanced set of heroes leaning as it does to the arts side. If we were minded to suggest Bacon authored any of Shakespeare’s plays, Declan made it clear it was a futile exercise.
From here we retraced our steps to the Blackfriars Inn and heard a detailed explanation of the changes being wrought in Tudor London post the monastery dissolution that allowed Shakespeare to set up, with others, a theatre (the Blackfriars Playhouse) to work alongside the Globe on the south bank. Here the wealthier classes, lawyers, bankers etc could watch in a smaller more intimate theatre these famous plays for 6 pence a show. Interestingly Shakespeare made little money from the plays themselves and all his wealth through his co-ownership of the theatres. And boy did he make some money, raking in about £100,000 a year in today’s money.
The beauty of this walk was to wander the old medieval street pattern of lanes and courtyards that makes London still a cosy easy paced city, if you break away from the bustle of the main roads. And the street names are so evocative. Friar Street, Wardrobe Place.
Wardrobe Place, so named after its association with King James’ clothing store opened up a discussion that continued later about Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for the new Scottish King and, by extension, antipathy towards Elizabeth: perhaps evidence of his discreet Catholicism.
We moved on to a beautiful, compact Wren Church, on a more human scale than its grand neighbour St Paul’s. The name? St Andrew’s By the Wardrobe. Isn’t that splendid?
Inside is a lovely piece linking to Wallace’s discoveries (see below) as well as a plan of the old Blackfriars monastery that was destroyed in the Great Fire (I made a futile effort to photograph the map but the reflection of the glass defeated me). From this we could see where Shakespeare lodged. Today there is a small blue plaque; Declan told us that is a very recent addition. Why so long? We learnt here, also, about Baynard castle, mentioned in Richard III and also destroyed in the Great Fire.
Leaving St Andrew’s we crossed the bustle of Victoria Street and climbed into the concrete jungle around Baynard House. Ugly weeping brutalist concrete suddenly gives on to the most fascinating sculpture, based on the Seven Age’s of Man speech in As You Like It.
Declan recited it beautifully as we circled the totem pole depicting the seven characters. Here is it.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with a good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Of course it is brilliant but I love it for another reason. ‘Bearded like the Pard’ That’s me! The Bearded Pard, the ginger faced wildcat! My name in Shakespeare. Of course it’s dead cool!
Glowing at the personal tribute we meandered north to St Paul’s listening to Declan explain how, pre the Great Fire St Paul’s was HUGE. I mean seriously over the top. Today’s is pretty damn grand but the Tudors had this utterly massive cathedral, mentioned in the Henry plays by and about Falstaff. We learnt about Shakespeare’s poems too, the prolifically popular Venus and Adonis and the plagiarism that dogged Shakespeare. And the embarrassment at the unauthorised publication of his sonnets, revealing to the trained eye a love for a man that, if not autobiographical was unnecessarily dangerous in those times. ‘Shall I compare the to a summer’s day’ is about a man, not as I was taught at school (I’m pretty sure about this) a woman.
Next stop Cheapside and Wood Street. This area is populated by streets and passages with trading names (‘Cheap’ referring to vending not low priced or lacking quality). We have Goldsmith Street, Poultry (another cool name for a road) Milk Street, Honey lane, Ironmonger Lane, Bread Street and, of course, Love Lane.
We paused to consider St Lawrence Jewry, the centre, back then of the Jewish quarter (and of course, next to the Bank of England, Old Jewry) and the Jewish connections in Shakespeare. After that we continued to a monument, erected at the instigation of Charles Wallace in St Mary Aldermanbury’s garden to Henry Condell and John Hemmings, actors of Shakespeare’s time (the whole memorial is at the top of this blog) without whose efforts in producing the First Portfolio works such as Macbeth and Othello might well have been lost. The Church of St Mary incidentally, was rebuilt by Wren and then gutted in the Blitz. Its remains were dismantled and sent to Fulton in Missouri in memory of Churchill’s 1946 Iron Curtain speech there.
We headed up Wood Street and crossed the thundering London Wall, a rather desperate gamble by post war planners to create clean roads with high level walkways separating pedestrians and cars. All we now have is an ugly dual carriageway in the city and the Barbican Estate that even Alice would have thought impossible to find her way around if it had appeared in Wonderland. There is an apocryphal tale that the council employee, sent to put up signs directing confused visitors to the Barbican Tube station became so lost he had to give up.
Our last stop was St Giles Cripplegate Church and a stained glass window paying tribute to Edward Alleyn, actor manager, with whom Shakespeare had a famous legal battle as his Globe competed with Alleyn’s Rose theatre. Perhaps the end of this tour was fitting as I live on a road named after Alleyn and the Lawyer and the Vet both went to school at Alleyns, part of his Foundation, Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift.
Thank you Declan for a fun and informative tour.