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SHAKESPEARE AND ST MARY’S GUILDHALL  

April 23, 2024
Author: Denise Wolff, Volunteer Blogger.

SHAKESPEARE AND ST MARY’S GUILDHALL  

“Farewell, sweet lords. Let’s meet at Coventry.” Henry VI, Part 3

In this volunteer blog post, we discuss the links England’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare, may have had with St Mary’s, as his birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon was only 20 miles away. 

Carving often identified as William Shakespeare on the south side of the Old Cathedral in Coventry (Source: https://www.historiccoventry.co.uk/tour/content.php?pg=guildhall)

Shakespeare was born on 23rd April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. At the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children: Susanna (born in 1583), and twins Hamnet and Judith born in 1585.  After their birth the next record for Shakespeare appears around 1592 when he already had a successful career in London as an actor, playwright, part of Pembroke’s Men, then the Admiral’s Men, and from 1594 part-owner of a theatre company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became the King’s Men on receiving the royal patent from James I. In 1597 he purchased the second-largest house in Stratford, New Place to which he retired around 1613, and where he died three years later on 23rd April 1616. Shakespeare is buried in Holy Trinity Church.

Funerary monument erected (pre-1623) in Shakespeare’s memory on the north wall of Holy Trinity Church.

When and why Shakespeare may have visited St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry?

St Mary’s Guildhall is particularly suitable for use as a performance space, given the design of the Great Hall with its raised dais, minstrel’s gallery and size (30 foot wide by 72 foot long). Consequently, it would have been the venue of choice for the performances held in Coventry when the players toured the Midlands.

The first recorded visit of travelling players to Stratford-upon-Avon occurred during the summer of 1569, coinciding with the tenure of Shakespeare’s father, John, as bailiff. Among these visiting troupes were the Queen’s players and Worcester’s Men, the latter making six appearances in Stratford between 1569 and 1584. Given that William Shakespeare was born in 1564, it’s conceivable that he may have encountered these players during his youth in Stratford, especially considering that he had already begun his family life by 1586 with Anne Hathaway. There’s talk about Shakespeare possibly joining Worcester’s Men as an apprentice actor at 16 in 1580 when they performed in Coventry. However, this idea needs more evidence for confirmation. While it’s possible Shakespeare was acting from a young age, we should be careful about making firm conclusions without solid historical evidence. (1)

Pembroke’s company, possibly including Shakespeare, performed in Coventry on their 1593 tour when all three Henry VI plays were available to them – probably around the same time that they visited the Berkeley family at Cauldon Castle nearby. The King’s Men appeared at Coventry between 19th May and 31st October 1603, with a reward of 40 shillings when they left their London base due to an outbreak of the plague. They also performed  on 29th October 1608 for a payment of 20 shillings; sometime during a year running from 1st November 1613 to 31st October 1614, again for 40 shillings; and on 10th January 1620 (after Shakespeare’s death), with 33 shillings received from the mayor’s purse. [1]

What Plays may have been performed at St Mary’s Guildhall?

Assuming the company performed the latest written plays on their visits, these would have included:[1]

1603 Visit

  • Hamlet Dated around 1600, registered for publication in summer 1602.
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor Estimated, 1597 – 1601
  • Twelfth Night, 1601
  • Troilus and Cressida Dated, 1601-02

1608 Visit

  • Antony and Cleopatra Dated, 1606-07,
  • Coriolanus, perhaps written in 1608
  • Pericles, 1608

1613-14 Visit

  • The Winter’s Tale, 1611
  • The Tempest, 1611
  • Henry VIII, 1613
  • The Two Noble Kinsmen, 1613-14

The Players who performed at St Mary’s would also have had some of Shakespeare’s history plays in their repertory. These could have been popular as Coventry features in several of the plays. For example in Richard II the scene in which Mowbray and Bolingbroke come to combat each other before being banished takes place in Coventry. This references the “Battle of Gosford Green” which took place in 1398 in front of the king and many nobles who came to witness a fight to the death between Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk and Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford. In Henry IV Part 1 Falstaff talks about the poor, unsuitable men he has “pressed” to be soldiers and states: “No eye hath seen such scarecrows. I’ll not march through Coventry with them, that’s flat.” [1]

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare portrayed a troupe of “rude mechanicals,” tradesmen actors, maybe caricatures of the artisans who performed in such dramas as the Coventry Corpus Christi plays which Shakespeare would have known from his youth.[2]

Thus, although there is no documented performance by Shakespeare and his players at St Mary’s Guildhall, it may be assumed that these did in fact take place.

If you’re fascinated by history and eager to delve into the rich heritage of St Mary’s Guildhall and Coventry, why not plan a visit? Step inside and uncover the intriguing stories and vibrant history that this iconic building holds. From its medieval origins to its role in the city’s cultural tapestry, St Mary’s Guildhall offers a captivating journey through time. Don’t miss the chance to explore this historic gem and immerse yourself in Coventry’s fascinating past.

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Sources 

https://www.historiccoventry.co.uk/tour/content.php?pg=guildhall

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1fl6K69ySRTH6pW0pD8Wf92/st-marys-hall-coventry-a-miraculous-survival

 John  Southworth  Shakespeare the Player: A Life in the Theatre . Hardcover – 24 Sept. 2000 (Kindle edition used)

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1fl6K69ySRTH6pW0pD8Wf92/st-marys-hall-coventry-a-miraculous-survival By Sally-Beth MacLean, REED (Records of Early English Drama) General Editor

HTTPS://WWW.RSC.ORG.UK/SHAKESPEARES-LIFE-AND-TIMES

 Joseph. M, Ortiz, Shakespeare and Music,

https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.1190

Footnotes 

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1fl6K69ySRTH6pW0pD8Wf92/st-marys-hall-coventry-a-miraculous-survival By Sally-Beth MacLean, REED General Editor

[2] HTTPS://WWW.RSC.ORG.UK/SHAKESPEARES-LIFE-AND-TIMES

[3] https://theshakespeareblog.com/2017/12/coventry-uk-city-of-culture-2021/

[4] Ortiz, Joseph. M, Shakespeare and Music, p17.

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Please note: the Guildhall will close early at 2pm on 13th June. Additionally, it will be closed all day on Monday 3rd June and Friday 7th June, for private events. The Tales of Tea restaurant will remain open during these times. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Kilo Sale due to take place this Sunday, 26th May, at the Guildhall has now been cancelled. Therefore the Guildhall will be open as usual. We are sorry for any inconvenience this has caused.
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