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The Bard's Birthday

On the Bard's birthday, this blog explores his link to Bankside, including the tomb he ordered.

The 23rd of April is Saint George’s day, but also William Shakespeare’s birthday (1564) and death day (1616). He was born and died in Stratford-Upon Avon, where you can visit his childhood home and actually stand in the room he was (probably) born in. As a young man Shakespeare moved to London, although scholars are not sure when or indeed why.

One of the first records of Shakespeare in London is when the drunk, drugged and hugely bitter critic Robert Greene in 1592 refers to the new writer in town as “an up start crow’. He accuses the actor, now turning to writing plays, of plagiarism. Clearly this young man from the provinces with no Oxford or Cambridge education could not write these plays himself! Soon Greene drank himself to death, while Shakespeare went on to be the immortal bard.

Shakespeare has an important association with Bankside. The original Shakespearean theatre, the Curtain, was to the north of the city (just behind today’s Liverpool Street station). After a disagreement with the landlord they took down the whole building, shipped it across the Thames and rebuilt it over the Christmas break in 1599. The Globe was in the heart of Tudor theatre land and only yards from its main rival the Rose, home to playwright Christoper Marlow, the man Greene accused Shakespeare of plagiarising.

The location of the original Globe is not the Thames-side site of the wonderful 1990s reconstruction, but set back under the approach to Southwark Bridge, its foundations now marked in the ground. The Globe burnt down in 1613 during a performance when a cannon let off caused the thatched roof to catch fire. Rebuilt it was eventually was pulled down by those fun-hating Puritans in the 1640s.

Research published this year suggests that Shakespeare’s tomb’s effigy which sits in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon was ordered by the man himself. It was ordered from a famous tomb maker based yards away from today’s Globe Theatre in London’s Bankside. It is, the research claims, the only known “portrait” done from life. I have to admit, though, it looks a lot like all those other images we have of the bard.

Dr Stephen King is a Westminster Tour Guide who delivers guided walks and private tours in London. View all of Stephen’s walking tours.

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