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How finding Shakespeare’s lost London home could unlock secrets to his most popular plays

William Shakespeare William Shakespeare
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In the late 16th century, Shakespeare lived in the capital. Nick Smurthwaite meets historian Geoff Marsh to find out what his new research reveals about where and how it could shed new light on his influences

Where did William Shakespeare live in the City of London in the late 16th century, and who were his influential friends? These questions prompted theatre historian Geoff Marsh to undertake almost a decade of  painstaking research.

What he concluded from cross-referencing various tax and leasehold documents of the time, was that the playwright – then in his early 30s – almost certainly lodged in St Helen’s Place, Bishopsgate, just south of Liverpool Street station. It was one of the City’s more affluent parishes, and he would have been living among well-travelled physicians, merchants, lawyers, musicians and writers.

“We know that the young Shakespeare was extremely driven and aspirational, and that living in this corner of London, among these movers and shakers, would have enhanced his status,” says Marsh, whose day job is running the theatre and performance department of the Victoria and Albert Museum. “It was a bit like being in with the trendy set of Notting Hill today.”

Geoff Marsh in front of St Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate
Geoff Marsh in front of St Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate

Although he has yet to publish his findings, Marsh’s research is the most significant piece of Shakespearean scholarship since Charles Nicholl’s 2007 book The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, which fictionalised the build-up to a real-life court case in which the writer was called to give evidence in the matter of an unpaid dowry. That legal deposition proved Shakespeare was a lodger at Christopher Mountjoy’s house in 1602 or 1604. But what about before?

The main source of Marsh’s findings was the centuries-old Leathersellers’ Company, one of the livery companies of the City of London, which still owns  properties in and around St Helen’s Place  500 years on. More importantly, it has the leasehold documents for St Helen’s dating back to the 1550s. Shakespeare himself is not mentioned as a tenant in any of the Leathersellers’ documents, but Marsh was able to reconstruct who lived where by cross-referencing the Leathersellers’ documents with the wealth-tax returns for 1598, in which Shakespeare is listed alongside one of the St Helen’s leaseholders.

He says: “Everything we know about Shakespeare’s life has been picked over ad nauseum, but curiously little has been written about the tax document from the parish of St Helen’s, which lists 49 people who were rich enough to pay this wealth tax. The richest person in the parish was Sir John Spencer, a one-time lord mayor of London, who was valued at £300. while Shakespeare is valued at £5.”

Marsh believes that what attracted the  playwright to St Helen’s Place was its reputation as a fashionable enclave where he would be mixing with men of influence, wealth  and education. He says: “If you accept that he lived in St Helen’s Place, he would have known these people. At that time everyone was expected to attend church – you were fined if you did not – and so Shakespeare would have met his neighbours there. Basically, he was a provincial boy from Stratford-upon-Avon who wanted to be considered a success in a very competitive environment.”

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Undoubtedly, the most intriguing aspect of Marsh’s research is the conclusion he reached about the possible influence of Shakespeare’s neighbours on the plays he was writing at the time, which included Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth. The merchants living in St Helen’s had connections across Europe and two highly distinguished physicians – Peter Turner and Edward Jorden – were linked to the latest progressive medical thinking in universities in Italy and Germany. There were also five musicians living in the parish, most notably Thomas Morley, who is thought to have composed the music for It Was a Lover and his Lass in As You Like It.

How did Shakespeare acquire the knowledge to set so many of his plays abroad?

Since there is no record of Shakespeare having travelled to foreign lands, how did he acquire the knowledge and insight needed to set more than three quarters of his plays abroad?

One of the reasons Shakespeare favoured Italy as a backdrop – at least in part – for 14 of his plays, is that Elizabethan theatregoers were drawn to anything with an Italian flavour, seeing it as a promise of passion, sex and, better still, violence

Marsh conjectures that Shakespeare became friendly with Dr Jorden, who had travelled and studied widely in Italy, and specialised  in women’s health, both physical and mental.  He says: “We can’t prove they sat down to  dinner together, but we do now believe that Jorden lived 50 yards away from Shakespeare, and I think we can assume that conversations took place.”

London tax commissioner document listing Shakespeare among the tax defaulters
London tax commissioner document listing Shakespeare among the tax defaulters

Is it fanciful to suppose that the intelligence the playwright gleaned from Dr Jorden’s extensive knowledge of Italy and female psychology contributed to Romeo and Juliet, and, later, Macbeth? Jorden was called as an expert witness in a witch trial in 1602 – shortly before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth – and he might even have given his neighbour a few pointers for Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness.

What has been the response from Shakespeare scholars to Marsh’s findings? James Shapiro, professor of English Literature at Columbia University, and author of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, said it helped us to see how Shakespeare, “a writer we like to think of as universal, was, like the rest of us, very much a product of his time and place”. Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford, has declared the research “very significant”.

Marsh says he hopes to publish his research “at some point”, although his busy day job at the V&A makes it difficult to find the time to “put all the pieces of this three-dimensional puzzle together”.

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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