From Birmingham to Milton Keynes – Shakespeare’s legacy exists far beyond the confines of his Stratford-upon-Avon birthplace. Many English locations that appear in his plays or are closely connected to them can still be visited, although they are often now drastically different places.
Go to Leicester in search of its Blue Boar Inn and, chances are, you may be left feeling a little disorientated.
Once, the Blue Boar was a famous stopping-off point for travellers. It was, so legend has it, one of the last places Richard III rested his head before meeting his fate at Bosworth.
Today, weary travellers are still resting their heads on the site of the Blue Boar – but it is no longer the half-timbered medieval building of yore.
“It’s now a Travelodge on the Leicester ring road and, my word, it’s horrible,” said Royal Shakespeare Company actor Nick Asbury, who has written a book in which he records travelling to all the locations mentioned in Shakespeare’s history plays.
“Shakespeare depicts Richard III having nightmares prior to the Battle of Bosworth,” he said. “I like to think whoever designed that Travelodge is suffering from similar pangs of conscience.”
Leicester also has links to a second Shakespearean king – King Lear, for whom the city is supposed to be named.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the king’s dutiful daughter Cordelia is meant to have buried the king beneath Leicester’s Temple of Janus – a piece of Roman architecture today known as the Jewry Wall.
However, Mathew Morris, from the University of Leicester, who was the site director for the team that found the remains of Richard III in a car park in the city, has said he has no plans to search for King Lear’s remains.
The Forest of Arden
The Forest of Arden, near Shakespeare’s Warwickshire birthplace, crops up as a significant location in the comedy As You Like It.
It seems likely the woodland imagery he conjures up would have come from his memories of his local wood.
However, much of the ancient forest has now been cleared and modern visitors are now more likely to find themselves in the suburbs of Birmingham.
There is, in fact, some debate among academics about whether the play is meant to be set in Arden – or the Ardennes, in France.
“I think it’s undoubtedly a French setting,” said Dr Paul Edmondson, head of research and knowledge at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
“All of the people in the play have French names and it’s based upon a French source. But the references to Arden are interesting – it’s as if he’s trying to Frenchify the area where he grew up.”
Today, apart from a few areas of woodland, the trust says the forest has largely disappeared.
Interestingly, Stratford-upon-Avon is not described in Shakespeare’s plays, although in the Taming of the Shrew nearby Wilmcote gets a mention – the home of Shakespeare’s mother.
As you would expect, London – Shakespeare’s home for several years – is frequently referenced in his plays.
Vast sections of Henry IV take place in the brothels of London – today the far more salubrious South Bank.
“The brothels were near the theatres, so in a sense they were his neighbours,” said Dr Edmondson. “He would have known that area well.”
“One of the extraordinary things about Shakespeare is this question of why he chose to focus on these particular places,” said Mr Asbury.
“In two plays he places characters very specifically at the house of the Bishop of Ely, which is in modern-day Holborn.”
In one of these plays, Richard III, the king mentions the delicious strawberries in the bishop’s garden.
And in Richard II, Shakespeare uses the area as the place where John of Gaunt makes his famous “sceptred isle” speech.
“In Shakespeare’s day, Ely Place was home to Sir Christopher Hatton, a tolerant Catholic,” said Mr Asbury. “I think Shakespeare was saying something about the religious schism which was ripping his country apart.”