“Shakespeare Country” is a 20th century invention, but it exists! Geographically, the area occupies a swathe of English countryside between Stratford-upon-Avon, Wellesborne, and the county capital of Warwick. Within the narrow triangular patch of farmland cornered by these three towns, one of the world’s most famous literary figures, and arguably the greatest playwright who ever lived, was born, grew up, and made his home.
William Shakespeare died 400 years ago, on 23rd April 1616. He was born in the Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 – the exact date isn’t known, but it was some time in mid-April. It is occasionally assumed, somewhat poetically, that he died on his birthday, perhaps as a consequence of revelry and excess.
He spent his early life in and around Stratford. His parents were fairly well-to-do; father John being a glove maker and Alderman of the town, and his mother Mary (née Arden) the daughter of a wealthy Warwickshire landowner. For a young man growing up in Elizabethan England, William enjoyed a fairly good Grammar School education, and would have benefited from a strong foundation in classical literature.
Perhaps frustrated by being expected to follow into his father’s failing business, Shakespeare fell under the spell of a captivating older woman. Anne Hathaway, who lived in nearby Shottery, was 26 years old – a mature age to be unmarried at that time, but not unusual for an orphan. She was expected to care for her younger siblings and run the family farm, so could have been seen as quite a ‘catch’ for William, eight years her junior. They married in haste, in 1582, and six months later, Anne gave birth to a daughter; Susanna. Twins followed two years later, and then five further children arrived over the course of their 34-year marriage.
As a hopeful actor and poet, it is thought that Shakespeare moved to London shortly after the birth of the twins. Theories abound as to why he chose London, and why he left his family behind in Stratford, but the romantically inclined like to believe he was fleeing prosecution, having been caught poaching deer on the Charlecote estate of local squire Thomas Lucy.
By the early 1590s, he was already established not only as a capable actor, but also as a playwright. He certainly earned the scorn of his contemporaries, having risen from relatively humble stock to be vying with the likes of university-educated Robert Greene (who called him an “upstart crow”), Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. Crow or not, the jibes flowed off Shakespeare like water off a duck’s back, and he rapidly became the pre-eminent court writer of the late Elizabethan period.
His portfolio would eventually exceed 37 plays and 154 sonnets, which not only brought him fame and celebrity, but also wealth. Although his work kept him in London, he travelled widely as a writer and performer, yet returned regularly to his home and family in Stratford. In 1597 he purchased The New Place in the heart of the town; one of the most prestigious and desirable residences in Stratford at the time, and subsequently expanded his holding to include other properties and land. He also had a home in London and was co-owner of the Globe Theatre.
From 1608 Bubonic Plague was rife in London, and it was enough to persuade Shakespeare to ‘retire’ to Stratford. He continued to travel occasionally to London, and he also wrote several more plays, including some in conjunction with John Fletcher, who succeeded him as “house playwright” to the King’s Men, but his heart rested in the Warwickshire town on the banks of the River Avon. He was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, where an impressive monument (erected several years after his death) marks his grave.
Today there are many calls on Shakespeare’s past from the towns, villages and riverside communities that border the Avon between Stratford and Warwick, and it is this heritage that governs the boundary of what we know today as Shakespeare Country. Join us on one of our tours and we will show you the sights, and explain some of the history of William Shakespeare; his life and legacy.