You might have noticed, amongst all the other anniversaries being celebrated at present (such as HM Queen turning 90, or Charlotte Brontë turning 200), that it is also the 400th anniversary of the death of a Warwickshire playwright who made good on the stage in London all those centuries ago. And he wrote a few plays (possibly), from which we quote on a daily basis – whether you realise you do or not. William Shakespeare is now celebrated around the world as one of the greatest playwrights of the English language, and his plays have been translated into almost every written language. So what connects this man, son of a Stratford-upon-Avon glover and favourite of Queens and Kings, to a town that was, during his lifetime, a parochial wool town with little to recommend it save the crumbling remains of some Roman hot springs.
Perhaps the first question we should ask is whether Will ever visited Bath. Maybe. Well, there’s no direct evidence that he was here, only a few references that imply that it’s possible. They were highlighted in an essay written to celebrate Shakespeare’s 300th anniversary in 1916 . The Lord Chamberlain’s Men visited in the 1590s and the King’s Men visited a few years later – both the same company by another name – and there is an entry in the City Chamberlain’s accounts for the payment of 30 shillings to the King’s Players in 1603-4 during the celebrations of the accession of King James. Shakespeare’s plays were exclusively performed by these companies, and he even took one or two minor roles on occasion. No list of the players attending Bath on either occasion exists, so it is impossible to state categorically that Shakespeare was here. But it’s possible. There are a couple of references in two of his later sonnets that could imply an acquaintance with the hot springs in Bath, although it is possible that he is touching on the experiences of his fellow players and their descriptions on their return from the West Country.
Both sonnets are based on a Greek poem relating to the story of Cupid’s brand being stolen by nymphs who, in attempting to quench the brand’s heat, only succeed in heating up the water of the fountain . In Sonnet 153 Shakespeare alludes to the water’s curative properties:
A dateless lively heat, still to endure,
And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.
Again in Sonnet 154 a similar reference:
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy,
For men diseased;
It does sound very similar to Bath’s hot water being used for medicinal purposes. Whether Shakespeare experienced them for himself is unknown. But it would be nice to think he might have done.
Perhaps a more conventional connection between Bath and Shakespeare is the production of his plays in the theatre. John Palmer Sr.’s theatre in Orchard Street opened to a performance of Henry IV part 1 on Saturday 27 October 1750, and many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed throughout the life of this theatre. Sarah Siddons trod its boards before departing for Sheridan’s Drury Lane Theatre, and began to make her reputation in some of her most famous roles, including that of Lady Macbeth, whilst performing in Bath. The Orchard Street Theatre Royal closed in 1805 when it was moved to the new site at Beauford Square (the entrance was off the square, not Sawclose as today). The first performance here was also a Shakespeare play, Richard III. Perhaps not the first choice today, but it was the second most popular Shakespeare in the Theatre Royal after Hamlet, so the proprietors would know they would have a sure-fire hit on their first night. And besides, Richard III is full of intrigue, fiesty women, murders, conspiracies and a really, really good villain.
Not all Shakespeare connections are as obvious as a performance of a play. In August 1807 an advertisement appeared in the Bath Chronicle for a new book in four volumes to be published that day. The publisher was the son of banker from Box, and it was edited by his sister. The book was The Family Shakespeare. This book may not be familiar to you, but the editor and publisher’s name might be – Bowdler. To bowdlerise, as in to expurgate a text to remove seemly offensive material, has entered the English language due to this set of four volumes. Thomas Bowdler, and his elder sister Henrietta, were brought up listening to the plays of Shakespeare as spoken by his father. Later in life Thomas Jr. realised his father had edited the text to remove material he thought offensive and unsuitable for women and children. Bowdler published a suitably expurgated version to relieve other fathers of the pressure of having to do this themselves, allowing them to freely read the plays aloud to their families. Bowdler never added anything to the texts, unlike some adaptations, only removing or revising situations that he deemed inappropriate: in Henry IV the prostitute, Doll Tearsheet, is completely removed, though Mistress Quickly remains; in Hamlet, Ophelia’s death is re-imagined as an accidental drowning to remove any inference of suicide from the text. Today this might seem extreme, and not all critics approved of the notion at the time, but Shakespeare’s plays are often edited and altered to suit actors or audiences: Taming of the Shrew was never produced at the Theatre Royal in Orchard Street, although Garrick’s editing of the text into Catherine and Petruchio was a popular staging. Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare stayed in print for at least five editions.
In his plays, Shakespeare often uses music to enhance the action, create a mood or highlight a character’s motivations. Music was integral to the theatre, so it would have been unusual for it to be omitted. Of course, there is no indication of what music was played or to what tune any songs would be sung. This leaves interpretation open to later composers. Thomas Chilcot (born in Bath c.1707) was one such composer. Organist of Bath Abbey and composer of several pieces of harpsichord music, he set some of Shakespeare’s songs to music . I’ve never heard them performed, so I can’t really comment on them, but it would be interesting to hear them played and sung again.
Shakespeare is one of those people worldwide who is most honoured by towns and cities with no connection to his life. He is known and commemorated in various ways. Bath has its own unique perspective. There is the usual street named for the Bard in Poet’s Corner off Bear Flat – Shakespeare Avenue. There is even a monument to him hidden away in a corner of the Great Dell that forms part of the Botanic Gardens in Royal Victoria Park. But I think one of my favourites has to be the Bath Pageant of 1909 .
In this pageant, which involved citizens from throughout the town, various episodes from the city’s history were presented, and one of these represented the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the city in 1574. Shakespeare didn’t really come with the Queen and her entourage, but he tags along, arm in arm with Kit Marlowe as part of the Pageant. The authors, and City Fathers, certainly tried to squeeze everyone they could into the performances, so I suppose one could say Shakespeare did visit Bath – if only as an actor in costume.
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players;
they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts
As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7
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