Skip to main content

Art - In search of Shakespeare

Discover more about the playhouse boom in the Bard's London

A penny could buy a lot of entertainment in Shakespeare's London - a standing place in the yard of most playhouses, for instance - although it was only about #163;1 in today's money.

In 1600, a penny would also provide access to the monuments and effigies of past kings and queens in Westminster Abbey, where national pride could be bolstered by gazing on the sword, shield and helmet carried into the Battle of Agincourt by Henry V in 1415.

Today it is possible to combine the two, virtually free of charge, by searching for images of Shakespeare and learning about how he evolved from playwright to national treasure, while following trails that tell the story of London's incredible Tudor and Stuart playhouse boom.

Shakespearean London Theatres (ShaLT) has introduced five new trails, complete with map, and a soon-to-be-available app, which guide you around the sites of the 31 London playhouses and performance spaces that existed in Shakespeare's era. As well as the familiar Shakespeare's Globe, the tours take in lesser-known sites such as the Theatre in Shoreditch (opened in 1576), Bankside venues such as the Swan (1595), and four inns, such as the Bel Savage in Shoreditch, where plays were licensed to be performed after 1584.

Many of the buildings have physically disappeared, long since demolished and built over during the subsequent centuries. But vivid and detailed accounts are provided in the ShaLT guides by Gabriel Egan, professor of Shakespeare studies at De Montfort University in Leicester, and Andrew Gurr, a literary scholar who specialises in Shakespeare and English Renaissance theatre and was the chief academic adviser on rebuilding the Globe. They bring to life the nitty-gritty of how these theatres functioned and the influence they exerted on the playwriting of the era.

But you can orchestrate an alternative tour for students yourself. Base camp in the quest for Shakespeare's image should be the National Portrait Gallery and the Chandos portrait, named after its previous owner. It is believed to have been painted by John Taylor, a painter and, possibly, an actor. The informality of the playwright's pose was once the source of much controversy as Shakespeare is seen sporting an ostentatious earring, which was common among men in Tudor and Stuart times but which usually suggested a man who had spent time at sea.

Next, for a more conventional and roughly contemporary representation, small groups should head to Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Soane (1753-1837), one of England's most celebrated architects, transformed a tiny alcove in his former home into a Shakespearean shrine. Symptomatic of the kind of Bardolatry, or Shakespeare worship, that was fashionable in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the room contains a plaster cast reproduction of the playwright's funerary monument. The original by Gerard Johnson - an artist who never met his subject - is in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.

London is packed with later images of Shakespeare, all suggestive of his increasing fame and status of national darling and genius. A noteworthy example is the 1874 Giovanni Fontana sculpture of Shakespeare in Leicester Square (pictured, left). It bears the quote "There is no darkness but ignorance", from Twelfth Night, and is a replica of the 1740 Peter Scheemakers and William Kent sculpture in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Whenever an image of Shakespeare is encountered, however, it is wise to remember - and to remind your students - that Shakespeare's image in art was forever being altered to suit the tastes of what people of the time believed a genius playwright should look like. In the end, it is the plays themselves - and now, thanks to the ShaLT tours, the sites of the playhouses they filled - that are perhaps the most reliable and enduring monuments.

Other images of Shakespeare in London

- Martin Droeshout's engraving of the playwright, which appears on the title page of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, can be found in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library.

- Louis-Francois Roubiliac's 1757 sculpture of Shakespeare as an inspired genius, which was commissioned by actor David Garrick, can be found in the British Library's foyer.

- Henry McCarthy's statue of the Bard, created in 1912, is in Southwark Cathedral.

- The Shakespeare's Head pub in Soho has an intriguing sculpture of the Bard popping his head out of a window to survey the street. A nearby plaque suggests that the original 1735 pub owners, Thomas and John Shakespeare, were related to the Bard, but this could be bogus. The figure dates from the late 1930s, when the pub was substantially rebuilt - just in time for the statue to have its hand blown off in the Blitz.

- St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe church in London proudly boasts of its connection with Shakespeare and has an impressive memorial to the Bard.

The Guide to Shakespearean London Theatres is published by ShaLT, priced at #163;5.95. The app will be available from the date popularly accepted as Shakespeare's birthday, 23 April. Visit and


A PowerPoint lesson from mhesson explores the Globe theatre and its importance in Shakespeare's time. An amusing clip from Doctor Who illustrates the historical context.


Try ceesaw's kinaesthetic activities, with facts about Shakespeare's life and the themes of his work.


Make Shakespeare vivid, accessible and enjoyable using a rich selection of resources from TES partner Royal Shakespeare Company. bit.lyRSCresources.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you