Stratford-upon-Avon and the Making of Master William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (1623)

By 1597 Shakespeare had established himself as the freeholder of New Place, the largest dwelling in the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon. It had a theatrical-looking gatehouse entrance. Just across its threshold was a courtyard, perhaps evocative of an inn-yard performance venue. Archaeological investigations have shown that Shakespeare modernized and improved the property. At the far end of the courtyard was the focal point for social gatherings, the medieval hall (New Place had been built in 1483), to which Shakespeare added a chimney. He entirely re-modelled the front of the house by adding an impressive five gables and a long gallery, a place for displaying prize possessions such as portraits, and perhaps a library. New Place had between twenty to thirty rooms, so there was ample space for the whole of the Shakespeare’s immediate and wider family. Resident with them from 1603-1611 were their two lodgers, Shakespeare’s ‘cousin’, Thomas Greene, who was clerk to the Stratford Corporation, his wife Lettice, and their two children, who were born at New Place and named William and Anne after the Shakespeares, presumably their godparents.

Shakespeare was alone among his contemporary playwrights, actors, and theatrical shareholders in owning a freehold by the age of thirty-three, and outside London, let alone a dwelling as impressive as New Place. He seems to have wanted to put down significant roots in his hometown as a writer, landowner, and gentleman, whilst at the same time styling himself as a theatrical entrepreneur who would only ever be an intermittent lodger in London.

We do not know where Shakespeare wrote any of his works but New Place must have provided a haven for Shakespeare during times of plague in London, or when the theatres were seasonally closed, or while other members of the company were on tour. A record of 1637, relating to his daughter, Susanna Hall, mentions a study at New Place. Owning a large house away from London gave Shakespeare the space to research, ruminate, and write, and the opportunity to spend time with his family. Stratford-upon-Avon was only a two- to three-day journey on horseback from the nation’s capital.

References to Shakespeare in London after 1604 are few, which might suggest he was spending more time in his hometown. After the burning of the Globe Theatre in June 1613, it is likely that Shakespeare retreated full-time to Stratford-upon-Avon and that there he began to conceive a collection of his works for publication, and to preserve them against the risk of future fires, as much for his company as for himself.

His old friend Ben Jonson beat him to it with the appearance of his Works, published in folio in 1616. In the spring of that year, Shakespeare and Jonson had a ‘merry meeting’ for which they were joined by their fellow poet and playwright, Michael Drayton, who liked to stay with the Rainsford family, in the village of Clifford Chambers, one mile from Stratford-upon-Avon. Perhaps they met to celebrate Jonson’s folio project, his being recognized as England’s premier poet, and to envision Shakespeare’s own folio, which would be an even more ambitious and financially risky undertaking than Jonson’s.

There is no reason to disbelieve the local history first recorded in the early 1660s that Shakespeare died of a fever soon after that ‘merry meeting’, and died a few weeks later. His last will and testament roots him, as New Place had done, in his hometown: 21 out of the 25 names mentioned in it were connected to Stratford-upon-Avon. He bequeathed one mark (26 s 8d) to each of his London-based theatre friends and co-shareholders, Richard Burbage, John Heminges and Henry Condell, to buy mourning rings. Stanley Wells has plausibly interpreted these bequests as evidence of an agreement that they would complete the folio that Shakespeare had very likely started to work on in New Place. Shakespeare’s good friend, Thomas Russell, from nearby Alderminster, was the main overseer of the will and had several London connections through the inns of court, the universities, and the nobility, including, for example, the Earl of Southampton, the only person to whom Shakespeare dedicated anything. Russell’s second wife, Anne, was the mother of Leonard Digges and lived near Heminges and Condell in the parish of St Mary’s, Aldermanbury. Digges contributed a commendatory poem to the 1623 folio which specifically mentions Shakespeare’s ‘Stratford monument’, the memorial bust in Holy Trinity Church, above Shakespeare’s grave.

Close examination of the plays’ printed texts suggests that several of them have a special affinity with what textual scholars call the author’s ‘foul papers’, or authorial drafts. Three of these appeared in print for the first time in the 1623 folio: The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, or what you will, and Antony and Cleopatra. The first two had been performed at inns of court in 1594 and 1602, and perhaps their promptbooks were lost in the fire at the Globe. But there is no evidence that Antony and Cleopatra was ever performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The play as it has come down to us in its folio text requires a lot of attention by a modern editor to be comprehensible to readers or actors.

In assembling plays previously published and unpublished, Heminges and Condell, and let us plausibly suppose, Ben Jonson, had the company’s archives and eighteen already-published quartos to work on. They also had Shakespeare’s own papers, some of which might have needed to be consulted in or retrieved from New Place. The Shakespeare folio was well underway by the summer of 1622, when Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues in The King’s Men arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon and were paid six shillings not to perform. The Corporation’s puritan streak had become well established by then, and England’s leading, royal theatre company was definitely not welcome.

The King’s Men no doubt appreciated the irony of this civic put-down, but perhaps their main reasons for being there were to visit their late friend William Shakespeare’s hometown, the church where he used to worship, to look upon his likeness in his memorial bust, pay their respects at his graveside, and to visit his widow and his surviving family in New Place. Perhaps they were feasted and lodged there for a few days, spending time with Shakespeare’s books and objects, and consulting as many of his surviving manuscripts as they needed to in order to complete their great folio enterprise.

Paul Edmondson
20 November 2023

The sketched image above, used with kind permission, is an artistic and archaeological reconstruction of Shakespeare’s New Place by Phillip Watson.

Paul Edmondson, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Paul Edmondson
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust