It’s a great year to go all Shakespearean, 400 years since his death. I had such fun and learned so much at Stratford last year (look here for the full story) so I hope you too get to The Shakespeare Houses this year.
The new visitor experience at Shakespeare’s own house, New Place, opens this July.
But what to do if you can’t get to Stratford? I thought it might be fun to look at some other ways to get in touch with Shakespeare in other parts of the UK.
First stop, the National Trust’s Charlecote Park in Warwickshire. Less than 5 miles from Shakespeare’s front door in Stratford, I can’t resist the legend that finds young Shakespeare being caught poaching deer from Sir Thomas Lucy, who lived here. Facts are few, beyond the plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor which may lampoon Lucy as Justice Shallow and certainly harps on about deer stealing. The deer, however, have been here since before Shakespeare’s time and today you don’t have to steal them, you can try the venison in the Orangery Restaurant or buy some to take home. This neo-Elizabethan house of treasures has some early Shakespeare editions as well as several pieces bought after the death of eccentric collector William Beckford of Fonthill.
Another 5 miles into Warwickshire takes you to the doors of Compton Verney, a gracious 18th century house remodelled by Robert Adam and Capability Brown and now an art gallery. Compton Verney is mad for Shakespeare this year with two major exhibitions, Tempests, Tyrants and Tragedy, which combines paintings, photography and installation with reading from RSC actors and Boydell’s Vision which intriguingly re-imagines The Shakespeare Gallery, a popular 18th century tourist attraction in Pall Mall celebrating the Bard. There are also talks, walks, games and trails for all the family and a screening of Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which was filmed at Compton Verney) on 13 May for Museums at Night.
Of course, Shakespeare may not have been Shakespeare. Or so various academics have suggested since the 1840s. One of the earliest candidates was Sir Walter Raleigh, soldier, adventurer, author, poet and irresistible hero of the Elizabethan age, famous for his mythical exploits with cloaks and puddles as well as the founding of Virginia and his eventual disgrace and beheading. Raleigh built himself a grand house at Sherborne Castle in Devon in 1594. It is still there, now owned by the Wingfield-Digby family, and you can sit in Raleigh’s Seat in the gardens to admire the house across the lake and landscape, one of Capability Brown’s earliest commissions. This Seat is where Raleigh is supposed to have had ale thrown over him by a servant who thought he was on fire having stumbled on him smoking tobacco, then a brand new import from the New World.
Perhaps a more convincing candidate was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford proposed as the author of the plays in the 1920s by the suggestively named J T Looney. Make up your own mind at Hedingham Castle, his home in Suffolk and one of the best preserved Norman keeps in Britain. De Vere was certainly accomplished and well travelled but was he Shakespeare? A visit to his home reveals little but is a beautiful place that conjures up the Norman conquest and after all, Elizabeth I is supposed to have visited too.
If you are in Scotland and not a Shakespeare sceptic then there are treats in store this year. In March, the librarian at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute stumbled a previously unknown First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. This collection of his work, compiled and published in 1623 by his colleagues Henry Condell and John Heminge, consists of the earliest known edition of 36 plays. Although widely distributed, copies are rare and this First Folio is one of only 234 known in the world. It had belonged to Shakespeare scholar John Reed in the 1780s and was part of the library collected by the 3rd Marquess of Bute at Mount Stuart. This library consists of over 25,000 volumes and papers, now mostly preserved in the Blue, Red and Purple Libraries. The house is an extraordinary Gothic Revival palace, crammed with the fine art and furnishings collected by generations of the Bute family.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth lived at Glamis Castle in Tayside and it was there that he brutally murdered Duncan, his rival for the throne of Scotland. Yes, Macbeth did exist, yes he was King of Scotland, yes, he did kill King Duncan II but in battle not in his bed. Even if Shakespeare moved the facts around a bit, Glamis is central to the story. Duncan’s grandfather Malcolm II died here, King Malcolm’s Room has gorgeous 17th century embroidered hangings’, and a Pictish stone in the grounds today may have been his gravestone. Shakespeare probably heard about Glamis at the court of King James I and VI from Patrick, 9th Lord Glamis who accompanied the King to London in the early 1600s, just the time that Shakespeare was performing plays at court. His Macbeth is nothing like the real ruler who was a successful King for 17 years, but then Shakespeare wanted to flatter his new royal patron’s Stuart ancestors rather than the line of Macbeth. At Glamis, Duncan’s Hall captures the atmosphere of this ancient place whose thick walls and steep stone stairs remind us that the castle was here as early at Malcolm’s death in 1034. But above these lower rooms the history of Glamis continued to play out alongside the history of Scotland up to the honeymoon of its most famous recent resident, the Queen Mother, and its current owner, the Earl of Strathmore.
Or of course you could just go to a play.