Today would have been William Shakespeare’s 449th birthday. We’ve included here an excerpt from our 2012 bestseller Shakespeare: staging the world, shedding light on Shakespeare’s world in his first year of life.
“William Shakespeare was born in 1564, on or about 23 April, St George’s Day. He was baptized in Holy Trinity Church in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the Midland county of Warwickshire, on 26 April. His father was John Shakespeare (c. 1531 – 1601), a glove-maker. His mother, Mary Shakespeare (c. 1537 – 1608) was born Mary Arden, daughter of a yeoman farmer from the nearby village of Wilmcote.
Stratford was a crossroads between very different worlds. The ancient forest of Arden lay to the north, while there was rich farming land to the south. Within a hard day’s walk was the university city of Oxford. To the east, and closer, were Kenilworth, home of Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532 – 1588), and Warwick, where stood (in considerable disrepair) the castle of the Earls of Warwick. Just beyond that lay Coventry, the fourth largest city in the land. At the time of Shakespeare’s birth, the old biblical plays from medieval times – Creation and Flood, Crucifixion and Judgement – where still performed there annually on pageant carts stationed around town. The country and the city, the old rural ways and the new learning, the traditions of play-acting and the powerful presence of the aristocracy: some of the key resources for the creation of Shakespeare’s imaginary worlds were present in his very childhood environment.
Playing cards with maps of English and Welsh counties. Stratford is marked with an S on the map of Warwickshire. Designed by William Bowes and engraved by Augustine Ryther in 1590, this is the earliest known set of cards with English county maps. Hand-coloured engravings, 9.5 x 5.7 cm. British Museum, London.
For centuries the administration of government and of the law in England had depended on the king or queen, or their representatives, notably the judges, travelling the country on ‘circuits’. Shakespeare was born on the margin between the Midland circuit, which consisted of Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland and Lincolnshire, and the Oxford circuit, which covered Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Among the many hundreds of stage plays that arrive from his lifetime, the only ones that include scenes located in Warwickshire and Gloucestershire are his. His territory, then, was the Midlands. In the national imagination, ‘Shakespeare country’ would eventually become synonymous with ‘Middle England’.
In the year that he was born it became possible to visualize the shape and disposition of the counties or shire for the first time. Laurence Nowell’s ‘A general description of England and Ireland’ was made for Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley (1521 – 158). Stratford-upon-Avon is marked near its centre. Six years into the reign of Elizabeth I, it shows a view of Englishness and nationhood as Shakespeare’s generation experienced it.”
Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Shakespeare: staging the world, written by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, is available for £25 in paperback and £30 in hardback from the British Museum online shop.