William Shakespeare once proclaimed that “all the world is a stage“. Little did he know that 400 years after his death, he would be the headliner, as Britain becomes awash with events and experiences in honour of its most celebrated writer.
As I type this, a whopping selection of cultural institutions are putting together exhibitions and tributes celebrating the Bard’s legacy all through England and beyond; public art, film festivals, behind-the-scenes visits, foodie experiences, and creative large-scale exhibitions will shortly be taking place all around Britain in April and the rest of the year.
Unsure where to start? I put together a comprehensive guide from London to Stratford-upon-Avon containing all the specially commissioned highlights and can’t-miss activities in the #Shakespeare400 programme. Happy travels!
Shakespeare in London
Shakespeare highlights in Bankside
As the home of Shakespeare’s original theatre and as the place where he penned some of his most celebrated pieces, Bankside plays a special role (har-de-har) in this year’s celebrations. A month-long programme of special activities starting April 22 will mark the writer’s legacy in the area:
- The Complete Walk (April 23-24): Shakespeare neophytes, as well as lifelong admirers, will have the opportunity to watch 37 short films (shot on each play’s individual sets, like Venice and Denmark) on 37 different screens spread over 2.5 miles along the River Thames.
- Shakespeare’s Bankside Walks: two walking tours will be offered to visitors in Bankside; the first walk will be led by historian and playwright John Constable and will visit the Shakespeare highlights in the area including his former playhouses and not-always-kosher hangouts (free of charge; register by emailing [email protected]). The second, organised by the famous London Walks, will be meeting at the Duke St exit of London Bridge Station on April 23 at 10:45 and April 24 at 2:30pm. It will cost £10, to be paid in cash.
- George Inn: the only remaining galleried coaching inn in London is generally thought to have been Shakespeare’s local.
Cocktails at London Hilton Bankside
As one of the most popular hotels in London’s Bankside, the Hilton’s Distillery Bar mixologists have put together an imaginative selection of Shakespeare-inspired cocktails (with seldom used alcohols like absinth and sherry) available all through April — going as far as presenting them on their own stage! Worth noting: the price tag. At just £15 for three classy cocktails in a stunning modern setting, this is excellent value as far as London standards go.
Although it is not the original Globe, this majestic Elizabethan-like theatre is one of the most popular Shakespeare things to do in London – and with reason! The guided tours of this reconstructed open-air playhouse are downright fascinating and provide plenty of trivia on the Bard himself, life in London in the early 1600s, and many more cheeky fun facts.
Want to get the full experience? Get tickets to one of the Globe’s many plays, which run between April and October.
Cocktail at The Hamptons Bar
Not only is the courtyard at St. James Court Hotel a gorgeous place, it’s also home to Europe’s longest frieze; and it so just happens that what is depicted in those carvings is a series of Shakespearian Sylvan plays. Will you be able to identify them? Perhaps Dutch courage will help, with cocktails like MacBramble and the Taming of the Sea Breeze, which were all specifically concocted in honour of the courtyard’s star.
Shakespeare in Ten Acts at the British Library
Opting to focus on the performance aspects of Shakespeare’s works instead of his literary feats, the British Library will unveil a brand new and multisensory exhibition on April 15 showcasing over 200 rare items that will make any Shakespeare fan wiggle in excitement; highlights include Vivian Leigh’s Lady Macbeth costume and the only surviving play-script in Shakespeare’s hand. The exhibition will help visitors understand how groundbreaking the Bard’s work was and how it shaped the future generations of theatre-goers, including the first stage appearance by a woman in 1660 and the first British performance of Othello by a black actor in 1825.
The Rose Playhouse
As Bankside’s first theatre and as the place where Shakespeare learned his craft and later on first performed two of his plays, archeological-remains-turned-into-theatre The Rose is perhaps the epitome of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations in London. It has therefore put together intimate and affordable productions of Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, and Titus Andronicus – which should definitely not be missed.
Shakespeare in Windsor
Shakespeare in the Royal Library exhibition
Set to last until January 2017, the small but impressive display of Shakespeare-related items from the Royal Library (including a first folio and drawings by Queen Victoria) examines the Bard’s life in addition to celebrating his longstanding association with the Royal Court and his well-known play The Merry Wives of Windsor, his only work to be set in England in its entirety.
Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall
Set foot in the very place where Shakespeare went to school and was first initiated to professional theatre; not only that, but this superbly maintained guildhall, which dates back from 1420, is one of the few 12 remaining in the entire country. In terms of visitor experience, truly historical visits will be offered, as well as quill writing workshops and Tudor lessons with a “master”.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
The Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre will be running many Shakespearian productions in 2016, including a surprisingly modern version of Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, King Lear, and The Tempest. To highlight the exact day of Shakespeare’s death, the RSC will host a special event headlined by David Tennant and broadcasted live on BBC2.
The RSC also organised a new theatre tour named Page to Stage, which takes visitors on a journey from the first day of rehearsals to the first performance, and includes a jaw-dropping peek in the vast Costume Hire room, where over 30,000 costumes (including those used in many noteworthy Shakespeare plays) are stored.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace + Archives
If you’re going to go all the way to Stratford-upon-Avon, you’ll want to spend some time in the Bard’s birthplace. The house-now-turned-museum is where he spent his childhood years and five first years of marriage with Anne Hathaway; the guided visits are highly informative and led by knowledgeable, passionate guides that will happily recite passages of the plays if you ask nicely. Come learn how Charles Dickens saved the day and how Shakespeare got his business skills!
If you are a true Shakespeare fan, you will also want to book ahead and pay a visit to the Collections, where you will be able to see a first folio up close and printed materials and books relating to Shakespeare’s works life and times.
Shakespeare was buried in the church’s choir in 1616 (next to his wife and other members of his family) in what is believed to have been a rather pompous funeral, considering he was the richest man in the county. What makes his resting place so interesting is the rumour that his skull might actually be missing, perhaps after having been stolen by fanatics. Whether or not this is true, a visit to the Holy Trinity Church is definitely a must-do in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Anne Hathaway Cottage & Gardens & Mary Arden’s Farm
Discover the Hathaway family cottage where the young William Shakespeare courted his bride-to-be Anne. The vast lands contain stunning fragrant gardens and a quaint thatched farmhouse, which itself holds many original pieces of furniture. Further afield is the Mary Arden farm, where the Bard’s mother was born and brought up; it has been transformed into a working Tudor farm and offers a whimsical yet educational glimpse of daily country life in the 1570s.
Shakespeare England: Know Before You Go
- Most of the celebrations in London culminate at Shakespeare’s estimated birth date, i.e., April 23. Best to book your trip right away if you don’t want to miss out on anything!
- There are millions of books about Shakespeare out there, each with its own pros and cons. After speaking with a few specialists, I can wholeheartedly recommend Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare Without The Boring Bits biography + analysis as well as The Shakespeare Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained). The beautifully illustrated collection of Shakespeare’s Love Sonnets makes for a great gift; and if you just happen to be the Bard’s greatest fan, you’ll want to read his Complete Works.
- Works of the Bard will dominate the BBC’s schedules in the coming months with over 100 hours of specially commissioned programming set to air, with household names like Benedict Cumberbatch, Dame Judi Dench, and Sir Ian McKellen.
- Other London highlights include the British Film Institute‘s Shakespeare On Film showings of Shakespeare movies (including Romeo + Juliet, Titus, and Henry V) over two months in their London cinema; the UK’s leading chamber orchestra London Concertante will perform a memorable programme of works based on Shakespeare’s plays on May 7. In Stratford-upon-Avon, Devon Glover will perform a sonnet rap marathon on April 24; a procession will symbolise Shakespeare’s life journey all across town on April 23.
- For a complete list of events across the UK, make sure to consult Shakespeare400.org.
I was hosted by Visit Britain on this trip. All opinions are my own.