Find out where William Shakespeare used to spend his time working, living and playing during his two decades in London.
William Shakespeare mural by Jimmy C on Bankside
Although he was born, died and spent a lot of his life in Stratford-upon-Avon, actor, playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616) found fame – and fortune – on the London stage. Over 400 years after The Bard’s death, his life and works continue to fascinate and entertain people around the world. Although many of Shakespeare’s former homes and haunts in Warwickshire are in good condition, it’s rather more difficult to find his London hotspots. Fires, plagues, war and redevelopment over the centuries have changed the fabric of the City of London and Bankside and left little of Shakespeare’s sights. However, fans of the great literary legend can make a pilgrimage to some Shakespearean landmarks, with some buildings still in existence or plaques marking his presence.
What was William Shakespeare’s life like in London?
Born in 1564, Shakespeare moved to the capital in his twenties. It’s been difficult to pinpoint exactly when he headed for the big city, as historians have referred to 1585 and 1592 as Shakespeare’s “lost years” due to lack of records. However, it’s certain that he was a married man and a father-of-three by the time he sought fame and fortune in the capital. He was definitely working in London by 1592 when he was mentioned by a rival dramatist Robert Greene.
Shakespeare lived in London for around two decades, but split his time between the city and Stratford-upon-Avon, where his wife Anne (1556-1623) remained bringing up their children. Soon after arriving in London, he began his career as an actor and playwright, with records showing his plays were being performed by 1592. He started acting with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later becoming the King’s Men, and became part owner of several theatres, including The Globe. He turned his attention from plays to poetry when theatres were closed during the plague outbreak of 1593. He remained in London for another 20 years or so, eventually retiring to Stratford in 1613, three years before he died.
Guide to William Shakespeare’s London landmarks
Today, the Crosse Keys is a Wetherspoons pub in a former Victorian bank. However, the pub takes its name from the former Crosse Keys Inn, which stood near the site in the late 16th century. Shakespeare’s troupe, the Chamberlain’s Men, performed for audiences of up to 500 people in the cobbled courtyard of the Inn on a regular basis in the early 1590s. The original Crosse Keys was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, with its replacement burning down in 1734.
– The Crosse Keys, 9 Gracechurch Street, City of London, EC3V 0DR. Nearest station: Bank.
By 1596, Shakespeare was living in the parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, while his family back in Stratford had moved into the recently bought New Place. The exact address is not known, but it is believed he was living near Leadenhall Street and St Mary Avenue. The Bard is listed as failing to pay 5 shillings on £5 worth of taxable goods in November 1597. Living locally, it was likely he worshipped at St Helen’s Bishopgate church and is commemorated inside with a stained glass window of his image.
– St Helen’s Bishopsgate, Great St Helen’s, EC3A 6AT. Nearest station: Liverpool Street.
Romeo and Juliet mural on the site of The Theatre
After the Plague led to plays being banned from the City of London, theatre troupes like Shakespeare and co started to move to just outside the jurisdiction of the City. The Theatre was built in 1576 on the site of the former Holywell Priory by actor and theatre impresario James Burbage – a colleague of Shakespeare at the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. By 1594, the group started performing The Bard’s plays exclusively and it soon became the leading acting company in London. Romeo & Juliet was believed to have been performed at The Theatre for the first time, with the tragedy estimated to have been written around 1591-95. However, The Theatre was dismantled in 1598, with some of its materials being used to build The Globe, after the company fell out with the land’s owner Giles Allen. Archaeologists discovered remains of the theatre in 2008. A building to house offices and a permanent exhibition about The Theatre is currently being constructed on site. Today, a mural of Romeo & Juliet commemorates Shakespeare’s spell in Shoreditch.
– New Inn Broadway, Shoreditch, EC2A 3PZ. Nearest stations: Shoreditch High Street or Old Street.
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