Maybe the least celebrated of the British patron saints' days, England's St George's Day falls on April 23but the day also marks another important day in English history and culture.

Eastern Daily Press: William Shakespeare. Photo: TonyBaggett/Getty Images/iStockphotoWilliam Shakespeare. Photo: TonyBaggett/Getty Images/iStockphoto (Image: Archant)

April 23 is William Shakespeare's birthday... he would have been 453. And, it is also reckoned to be the date of the playwright's death.

You might wonder what more could possibly be written on the subject of the Bard; the man who brought us most of our best quotes, including, of course: 'Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!' which appears in Henry V.

But, without further ado and leaving aside the very significant claim of St Edmund to be England's patron saint, I am going to defer to Shakespeare or, more specifically, to some of the men who knew him well, East Anglian men.

Today, we tend to know the celebrities who hail from these parts, Olivia Colman from Norfolk; Sir Trevor Nunn from Suffolk but what about Shakespeare's contemporaries? Men who were in the same actors' company, who appeared on the same stage, touring and in rep at The Globe?

Eastern Daily Press: Man of letters: William Shakespeare may have been a Midlander, but he had several East Anglian connections in his life and career. Photo: YaleShutter/GettyImages/iStockphotoMan of letters: William Shakespeare may have been a Midlander, but he had several East Anglian connections in his life and career. Photo: YaleShutter/GettyImages/iStockphoto (Image: YaleShutter)

Actors were dimly regarded in the early Elizabethan era, thought to be little better than rogues and vagabonds, but their standing improved when purpose-built theatres were introduced and some actors became the equivalent of today's superstars.

King's Lynn's Robert Armin, for example.

The son of a tailor and born in 1568, Robert was a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men) company of actors and succeeded the better-known Will Kempe as principal comedian at the Globe Theatre. His Shakespearean roles included the Fool in King Lear, Feste in Twelfth Night, Lavache in All's Well That Ends Well and Touchstone in As You Like It.

One can but hope the clowns in Will's plays were not so unfunny in the 16th and 17th centuries as they seem today!

Armin was listed as one of the principal players in the First Folio of William Shakespeare which was published in 1623.

He had not set out to be an actor having been an apprentice goldsmith but he began to write plays and started performing, first as a player for the Chandos company before joining the Chamberlain's men. One of William Shakespeare's closest associates, Armin died in November 1615 in London.

And then there was Henry Condell, born in Norfolk in 1568, possibly in or near St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, to a mother from New Buckenham. He is believed to have been the son of fishmonger Robert Condell but we do know he went on to marry an heiress, Elizabeth Smart, in 1596.

An actor with the Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men he became a co-owner of the Globe Theatre in 1605 and a co-owner in the Blackfriars' playhouse in 1608. Condell and John Heminges were the editors of the first definitive collection of William Shakespeare plays known as the First Folio. Without their efforts, the world might not have had the likes of The Tempest, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, and Antony and Cleopatra handed down to posterity.

He died in December 1627 in London.

In his will, Shakespeare left a bequest to 'my ffellowes John Hemynge Richard Burbage & Henry Cundell [Condell] a peece to buy them Ringes.'

In the First Folio, John Heminges and Henry Condell stated that they published the Folio 'onely to keepe the memory of so worthy a Friend, & Fellow alive, as was our Shakespeare, by humble offer of his playes.'

Another famous name associated with East Anglia. Will Kempe, Shakespeare's go-to funny man, is renowned as 'The nine days' wonder' for Morris dancing from London to Norwich in early 1600.

He started out from Whitechapel and danced his way through Chelmsford, Braintree, Sudbury, Clare, Bury St Edmunds, Thetford, Hingham and on to Norwich.

Not all the Bard's contemporaries were fans. In a pamphlet, Norwich-born writer Robert Greene famously berated Shakespeare for being an 'upstart Crow'.

There is a strong tradition in Lynn that Shakespeare visited the Guildhall of St George – in King Street – as an actor in 1593. There is, sadly, no definitive documentary evidence... unlike Ipswich, which was one of the most visited towns on Shakespeare's players' schedule.

The company came 10 times to the town, with the Bard himself among the actors. The first visit was in 1594-5, the year in which the troupe became known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

James Stokes, Suffolk editor from the Records of Early English Drama, wrote that Ipswich was among the richest provincial cities during the period and paid Shakespeare's company 40 shillings for its performance. The troupe next visited in 1603, now as the newly-formed King's Men. For that performance they received 26 shillings 8 pence... a bit of a drop. They were also there in May 1609, by which time Shakespeare had written all the great tragedies, and two of the romances and again in 1617-18. The final four appearances of The King's Players in Ipswich occurred during the reign of Charles I, but only one of the four resulted in a performance. It seems they were effectively paid to go away!

Shakespeare featured Ipswich's most famous historical figure, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in Henry VIII, and Ipswich school gets a prestigious mention in the play:

'Those twins of learning that he raised in you,

Ipswich and Oxford! one of which [Ipswich] fell with him'.

The voyage of Bartholomew Gosnold from Otley Hall to America in 1602 is thought to have been the inspiration for The Tempest.

In Norfolk, John of Gaunt, a leading character in Richard II, was an absentee Lord of the Manor in Aylsham and Sir Thomas Erpingham, linked with the village of Erpingham, appears in Henry V, giving his cloak to the king on the eve of Agincourt. The character of Sir John Falstaff was inspired – in name only – by Norfolk's Sir John Fastolf, who in real life was the exact opposite of Shakespeare's clownish and cowardly creation.

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