Shakespeare’s Suffolk: Discovering how The Bard as actor-writer visited East Anglia
- Credit: BBC/Colin Hutton
Shakespeare is synonymous with Stratford Upon Avon and The Globe theatre but as an actor he was frequently on tour and research has unearthed records of his visits to Suffolk
Shakespeare is renowned as The Bard of Avon and rightly celebrated as a playwright. He's the man who penned some of the greatest pieces of theatre ever written: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Richard III, Henry V and Macbeth all sprang from his pen.
But, before his triumphs as a writer Shakespeare was a humble player. He learnt his craft on stage as a jobbing actor and when the theatres in London were closed because of an outbreak of plague, the company toured the regions.
Shakespeare was no stranger to East Anglia and was a regular to Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire as a young man.
Suffolk, being not too far from London, was a regular stopover. Companies on tour would not perform in theatres. Like a travelling circus they would pitch up at roadside inns and play in courtyards or perform for the great and the good at special invitation performances at town's Guildhall or at the local Manor House. These performances could be lucrative receiving fat fees from the town's officers while public performances could also gather a substantial income from what was known as The Gathering when a hat or bucket was passed round a large and hugely entertained audience.
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His visits to the region and his life as an actor were researched and published in the book Shakespeare The Player: A Life In The Theatre, by the late John Southworth, former artistic director of the Ipswich Arts Theatre in Tower Street.
Using documentation held in Suffolk Record Office, the British Library, the RSC archives in Stratford Upon Avon and London, he managed to piece together a surprisingly detailed picture of the life of Shakespeare as a working man of the theatre.
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Roads at that time were notoriously poor, so the large theatre companies would often hire a boat and sail from London up the coast, bringing all their props, costumes and musical instruments with them.
The first stop was Maldon in Essex, then onto the growing seaport of Harwich, then the short trip up the River Orwell to Ipswich where they abandoned their craft. They would remain in the town for several weeks, performing a wide range of plays within their repertoire and while in the town would buy wagons horses or oxen to sustain them on their journey westwards.
Moving on from Ipswich, there is evidence that Shakespeare's company visited Hadleigh, Lavenham, Bury St Edmunds and then onto Cambridge. They not only would they perform for the public they also were put up in the great houses and invited to give private performances for the local nobility.
So when could have the people of East Anglia have seen William Shakespeare in person? Records show that Worchester's Men came to Ipswich at least seven times when Shakespeare was a young actor.
Shakespeare's next company, The Admiral's Men, his first as an adult, was also a regular visitor and they played the town every year between 1586-89. Surviving records show that they were in Ipswich on February 1586 and again in May 1587.
By the time Shakespeare joined The Chamberlain's Men it is believed that he had already started writing – although, for the time being, he also remained a popular actor. His play Titus Andronicus appeared in print as early as 1594.
It is recorded that they were well rewarded by the town's bailiffs in November 1595 for a performance of A Mid-Summer Night's Dream. They were handed a record fee of 40 shillings by the highly impressed gentle-folk of Ipswich.
But, it is the winter tour of 1603/04 that has attracted a lot of attention. The theatres were shut in London and starting in October 1603, Shakespeare along with The Chamberlain's Men, travelled first to Maldon and then onto a residency in Ipswich which is believed to have lasted several weeks.
During their stay they performed four plays which included Hamlet and Alls Well That Ends Well and something called The Mayor's Play. These were performed in The Moot Hall which stood on The Cornhill.
It is not known how long they remained in the town but, presumably, they were performing to packed houses otherwise they wouldn't have lingered. From Ipswich they moved to Hadleigh, then Sudbury before next appearing at Cambridge. But, although records don't survive it is safe to assume that they also spent a day or two in Bury St Edmunds before their week-long stay in Cambridge.
This is thought to be the last time that Shakespeare himself appeared in Suffolk because he was soon to retire from the stage and devote himself to writing which he did largely from his home in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
The Chamberlain's Men obviously knew the value of having Shakespeare on board because they allowed him to buy himself a directorship of the company, one of five named individuals, and this meant that he was one of the few playwrights who was earning money from his work.
In the early days of theatre, the playwright didn't own the plays they wrote, the company did, and now that Shakespeare was a shareholder he could receive a slice of the profits.
Shakespeare's status as an actor-playwright is irrefutable evidence that William Shakespeare, not some anonymous aristocrat, wrote the plays attributed to him.
You can't ignore the fact that his fellow players and rival playwrights knew of him. His arch-rival Ben Johnson became involved in a long and bitter pamphlet war with Shakespeare as they both claimed ownership of a story.
Johnson, who incidentally recognised Shakespeare's brilliance and was one of those who helped with the publication of the First Folio after Shakespeare's death, didn't accuse the Earl of Oxford or Sir Francis Bacon of stealing his ideas, he accused William Shakespeare.
He contributed two poems to the preface of the First Folio in which he mourns the passing of the naturally brilliant playwright. Although he had previously accused Shakespeare of having 'small Latine, and lesse Greeke', he did acknowledge in his passing, the value of Shakespeare's works: 'To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR, Mr. William Shakespeare: And what he hath left us,'
Therefore, we have written evidence that Shakespeare was a working, living, breathing actor and playwright. He wasn't a pseudonym. What was the secret of Shakespeare's success? He never forgot that he was creating a public entertainment. He was a great storyteller.