Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms

Did you know that Shakespeare had his own coat of arms?

Shakespeare's Coat of Arms

Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms

Sometime after William Shakespeare’s father John Shakespeare applied unsuccessfully to become a gentleman William took his father to the College of Arms to secure their own family coat of arms. The application cost 30 guineas and was granted from the Garter King of Arms in October 1596. The reason given for granting John Shakespeare a coat of arms was his grandfather’s service to Henry VII.

Once John Shakespeare was granted a coat of arms, he and his male children had permission to put “gentleman” after their names, and display their coat of arms on their door and personal items. Today the coat of arms can be seen on Shakespeare’s tomb in Stratford.
The coat of arms was a yellow spear with black diagonal bar on a yellow shield with silver tip, with the Latin inscription “Non Sans Droict”, translated as “Not without Right”.

New Documentary on Shakespeare’s Stratford Upon Avon

We just came across this high-quality documentary on Shakespeare’s Stratford Upon Avon, made by UK  film production company Alpha Star Productions. The documentary is a walk  through Shakespeare’s life in Stratford – from the house in which he he was born to the church in which he was buried – and explores the life he lived in the English market town. The video also explores how the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is developing Shakespeare’s legacy.

A DVD version of the full documentary is on sale online or at the Shakespeare Birthplace shop (in Stratford Upon Avon)…but you can have a sneak preview here:




Stratford upon Avon documentary

Shakespeare Slow & Steady

It’s so very much easier for us, in the twenty-first century, to extend our physical horizons, than it was in previous centuries. Going on short rail breaks from London, for example, allows us to enjoy all manner of pleasures in any part of the country we choose. We can visit the Lake District for a healthy walk, we can do a tour of Scottish castles, we can participate in a murder mystery weekend in Kent, we can go on a painting course in Wales – all within a few short hours of London by train. There are scores of companies offering short breaks to Stratford as well, just two hours from London, where we can see two theatre performances and spend the night in a hotel then be back in London in time for lunch the next day.

The invention of the railway changed everything. Trains cut straight through everything – hills, mountains, rivers – in straight lines, at a high speed. And trains are becoming even faster. In the time it takes to set off from Euston, check in at our Stratford hotel, see two plays, have dinner, sleep, have breakfast and arrive back at Euston, Shakespeare would have been only about half way from London to Stratford.

If there could be any argument on the side of those who claim that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays – something which we at No Sweat Shakespeare strongly contest – it is that surely it’s impossible for a man to undertake that journey frequently, on a regular basis, living a double life, and write several of those plays every year for a quarter of a century? (See our piece on Shakespeare London – Stratford commute for more info on this.)

Well when you think about it, why not?  The one thing that marks famous people out from the rest of us, the one thing they have in common, no matter what their field may be, is their energy, dedication and determination. Those qualities are what make them famous, be it sport, music, art or anything else. An athlete, competing against the best in the Olympic Games and finally winning a gold medal is a simple example. She dedicates herself to it for four years, astonishing everyone with the total immersion in the preparation that she’s prepared to undergo. She’s focused, iron willed and relentless. Bitter cold mornings, snow and rain are nothing to her, and while the rest of us are snuggling beneath our blankets on a Sunday morning in winter she’s out there, determined on her gold.

How do we know that Shakespeare wasn’t like that? Dedicated equally to his work in management, acting, writing, family life and community involvement. He certainly did all those things and kept his hand tightly on them all until his retirement to Stratford. The Victorian writer, Anthony Trollope, author of some fifty novels, is a good illustration of that phenomenon. According to his autobiography this was the pattern of his day: rise early, go hunting, write a thousand words, go to work, dine at the club, go to bed. Every day, unless he was abroad. Trollope didn’t just go to work. He was the top man in the Post Office. Roland Hill gets the credit for the introduction of the penny post, the idea of putting a stamp on a letter and sending it anywhere in the world for a small fee, something that changed the world of communication in the same way as email has done in our time. Roland Hill gets the credit because he was the boss, but it was prolific author Trollope, the number two in the Post Office, who actually came up with the idea. Not only did he do that but he travelled around the Empire and America, setting up the structures for the new system. Yet no-one says he didn’t write his wonderful novels, one of which, Barchester Towers, is generally described as one of the greatest English novels.

Trollope tells us in his autobiography about his writing in boats and trains. What is there to say that Shakespeare didn’t write on the back of a wagon after hitching a ride? Or even as he walked or trotted along on horseback? ‘Writing’ isn’t necessarily putting pen to paper. For many writers it consists on formulating something in the imagination, getting it all right then jotting it down later. So perhaps it was actually on the frequent trips between London and Stratford that the great creative effort took place. He would have been far more comfortable on a two hour train ride between the two cities but as train travel was one of the things Shakespeare could not have imagined, he wasn’t missing it, and perhaps his extremely slow, uncomfortable trips were what gave us the great plays that we hurry on fast trains to see in Stratford.

10 Things To Do In Shakespeare’s London

London is the world’s top tourist destination, and so it should be. There are far more beautiful great cities, regarding their natural settings – Cape Town, Sydney, Rio – and more beautiful cities architecturally – Venice, Amsterdam – but there is no place as historically and culturally exciting as London.

When I recently saw a tourist list of the top ten things to do in London I thought it would be fun to compile a list of the top ten things to do in Shakespeare’s London, as though I were a travel agent in the Elizabethan era. And here it is:

1. You could spend whole days just walking through the narrow thoroughfares or strolling along the banks of the Thames, the great river that rises in the Cotswolds and snakes its way more than two hundred miles to London, and through the city, to the sea. You will encounter all kinds of domestic, farm or stray animals – cats, dogs, ducks, pigs, rats, goats, cows – and a jumbled mass of humanity. You will come across jugglers, sailors, blacksmiths, prostitutes, chimney sweeps, magicians, artisans of all types, milkmaids, merchants, minstrels, pickpockets and muggers. You will see perfumed and bejewelled ladies and gentlemen. You may even see the Queen herself, heading a convoy of carriages. You may have to step around horse dung and rotting corpses, avoiding the wagons that are loading them up. Whatever your emotions, you will have a most stimulating time.

Elizabethan London bridge

Elizabethan London bridge

2. Make sure you don’t miss a walk across London Bridge, constructed between 1176 and 1209. It’s the only bridge that connects northern and southern sides of Elizabethan London, although boats are available to ferry travellers across the river. Shops on which houses are built line both sides of the bridge. Above the traffic lane in the middle are passageways (resembling overpasses above modern streets) connecting buildings on one side of the bridge with those on the other. You will be able to buy a range of things while viewing the impaled heads of traitors as a reminder that you should be careful not to become involved in politics.

3. Hire a ferryman to take you on a trip down the Thames and that’s well worth the time spent on it. The river is a vital artery in the life of London, crowded with rowing boats, barges, and commercial sailing ships. Human  excrement and rotting food will wash past you, stimulating your olfactory nerves, as people empty their chamber pots from their windows and recent rain washes the waste into the river from dung piles, ditches, cesspits and streams.

Elizabethan Southwark High Street

Elizabethan Southwark High Street

4. A visit to Southwark is essential. It’s wild and vital –a place for drunks, prostitutes, con men, gamblers, and thieves. There are scores of inns and taverns for you to choose from, where you could drink gin and ale (cheaper than drinkable water) to your heart’s content, then join the drunks staggering around the streets. You would also have a choice of the popular blood sports that abound. And, of course, the theatres are there too.

5. Then, as now, London was the world’s best shopping venue. Do not miss the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle Street, the world’s first shopping mall, uncannily similar to the modern mall. It is a huge arcaded building with banking facilities and accommodation for more than two hundred shops and thousands of businessmen. The building surrounds a courtyard where four thousand bankers and tradesmen conduct their business. Elsewhere in London there are no zoning regulations so you will find  shops alongside inns, homes, churches, workshops, stables, and markets. You will find anything your heart desires – wigs, jewellery, perfume, hats, shoes, breeches, shirts, ruffles, feathers, silks, drugs, wine, spices, paper, ink, candles, toys, and anything else you could think of.

London bear baiting

Bear baiting scene

6. Something universally loved, including by the Queen herself, is bearbaiting, a sport in which a tethered bear is taunted to the cheers of spectators. You will find those performances in Southwark. You can also see dogfights and cockfights there. Get there early if you want a good view. And watch out for pickpockets.

7. If you happen to be in London on Michaelmas Day, September 29th, you will be able to see the Lord Mayor’s Parade – the street parade that follows the election of the Lord Mayor of London. Passing you will be the whole range of tradesmen in their liveries – cloth workers, drapers, fish merchants, haberdashers, goldsmiths, ironmongers, grocers, mercers, skinners, salters, vintners, and all the rest. London’s sheriffs and constables will also be parading in all their finery.

8. Although White Hall Palace, the main residence of the Queen, is not open to the public you should take a look at it. You will not see the private facilities introduced by the Queen’s father, Henry VIII – the bowling green, indoor tennis court, cock fighting pit, and jousting tiltyard – but you will be able to gaze on the largest palace in Europe, with over 1,500 rooms, larger than the Vatican and the Palace of Versailles.

tyburn public execution

Tyburn public execution

9. If you are interested in watching a public execution you have a choice. You could go to Tower Hill on the offchance: that’s where the upper class condemned are beheaded. It would be better to ask around because it doesn’t happen every day. If you went to Tyburn or Smithfield you would be sure to see some executions of ordinary traitors and common criminals. You may get tired of seeing people hanged, one after the other, but if you’re lucky you may see someone being drawn along the ground to the execution spot, hanged until barely conscious then cut into four pieces while he is watching it happen to him. It’s a specialised taste but very popular.

10. Pride of place goes to the most well attended event: a visit to the theatre! You would have to cross London Bridge to Southwark, where the theatres are situated. There are more than twenty to choose from, including the Newington Butts Playhouse, the Rose, and the Swan. Take a look at the Globe, where you may see a play by the famous Master Shakespeare, the most popular playwright. If you are very lucky you may actually see Master Shakespeare in a minor role.

That’s it. Enjoy your visit to Shakespeare’s London!

Mozart, Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino

Emotions around the current, revived debate about the Shakespeare authorship are raging.  Shakespeare scholars are ‘infuriated,’ ‘outraged,’ ‘angry’ about the implications of the film Anonymous, that de Vere wrote the plays and that Shakespeare was just a country bumpkin, turned actor, used as a cover by de Vere.



If I were capable of any emotions about the Shakespeare authorship I would also be angry because, not only were the plays the work of one author, but de Vere could not possibly have had much of the knowledge required for the writing of the plays.

One of the main issues seems to be that Shakespeare was not an educated man. That is ridiculous. Education is not a matter of school and university attendance: it’s a process by which one makes sense of the world as a result of living in the world. If a child rejects school learning and a curriculum imposed on him or her, and prefers to read everything possible about pop culture and the doings of celebrities, and immerses herself in popular music can one say that she is uneducated? Of course not: she will probably be more educated in those areas than any university professor. She will pick up reading and writing, and calculating, and perhaps foreign languages as she explores the area of her choice, particularly if she had a high intelligence.

It must be clear to any serious student of Shakespeare’s plays that the poetry that’s created out of the specific Warwickshire countryside could not have been written by anyone other than a country boy growing up there. That’s just one clinching argument for the pro Shakespeare argument.

I will not review the question of Shakespeare’s formal education except to say that one of the things we know about the young Will Shakespeare is that he attended school until he had to leave because the privilege that took him there was removed by his father’s fall from grace as a Stratford alderman. When he was at school he would have been mercilessly drilled in the classics, history, mathematics, astronomy, music, gymnastics and a great number of other activities, so even in that sense he was educated.

Shakespeare’s formal education was far greater than Mozart’s or Beethoven’s. Yet I have never heard of anyone suggesting that either of those geniuses could not have composed their music. Nor have I heard anyone suggest that Einstein could not have come up with the Theory of Relativity because he consistently failed mathematics at school. Einstein’s comment on formal education was: ‘Great spirits have always been violently oppressed by mediocre minds.’

The quality of genius that we find in the likes of Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven or Einstein are beyond the comprehension of the likes of you and me. All we know is that there are giants in science, music, art and literature, whose work seems to come from somewhere else, and we don’t understand how that works. But a Mozart opera or a Beethoven symphony or a Shakespeare play shows that these phenomena happen. Lesser minds, like those insisting on Shakespeare’s plays having been written by someone else – anyone else, Marlowe, Bacon, de Vere – anyone but Shakespeare, simply cannot accept that this thing that we don’t understand, can happen in writing plays as well as in composing music or explaining the working of the universe.

Thomas Edison had no ‘education’ if one wants to define education as a formal, imposed process, but how much do we owe to his creative mind? Like Shakespeare, too, he was a good businessman who linked his creations to the accumulation of wealth.

History is littered with such men and women. Jane Austen never attended school and her background was humble, and yet I have never heard anyone suggest that she was uneducated. Michael Faraday, one of the most influential scientists of all time, a man who revolutionised our understanding of all matters electrical, inventor of the electric motor, the Bunsen burner, the electric generator and electrolysis and electroplating, suffered from severe dyslexia and had to leave school at a very young age. He couldn’t read and had to break everything down into separate images and then reconstruct them in a different way. He also couldn’t get his head around numbers.

The monk, Gregor Mendel, was a peasant – a gardener in a monastery – but he had a mind that had the qualities of an Einstein or a Faraday and is now

Quentin Tarantino

regarded as the father of modern genetics. Srinivasa Ramanujan, the most influential of modern mathematicians, came from an Indian slum. A maths textbook came into his hands at the age of eleven, he read it and started developing the ideas he found there. As a result of the work he did in mathematics he was eventually admitted to a university but had to leave after a few months because he was unable to cope with it, but he continued with hiswork, and look at his reputation now. Quentin Tarantino dropped out of school in Grade 9 but his films have set the tone of modern film making.

Where does Shakespeare feature in all this? He is no more and no less than one of those ‘freaks’ like Beethoven, Einstein, Faraday, Ramanujan and Darwin, whose formal education had little to do with what he went on to achieve.

How Shakespeare Became Hooked on Theatre

Will Kempe

William Shakespeare was nine years old when the first theatre in England was opened. The idea of a dedicated building for the performance of plays was conceived as late as 1576, when James Burbage, the father of Shakespeare’s future acting colleague, Richard Burbage, built a theatre in Shoreditch, London, which he called ‘The Theatre.’

These days theatres are very common, and there is hardly a town in the world that doesn’t have at least one theatre. Even countries ruled by the most repressive regimes have theatres in their towns. They range from tiny, converted back rooms in pubs, through open air venues, to huge arenas where great extravaganzas can be staged. We have all attended at least one, whether it’s in our local neighbourhood, run by an amateur drama club or one of our town’s established theatres. Perhaps we’ve even enjoyed something like a gig at Wembley Arena.

When Shakespeare was a child he would have attended performances by the traveling players who wandered around, attracting audiences, performing in castles, the houses of wealthy patrons, on wagons, in market places and in other available open spaces. The most common venue was the courtyard of an inn, where the whole population of the village or town, regardless of class, could enjoy the performance.

To say that the troupes of players just wandered about performing is not strictly true, however, because they were subject to strict censorship. Actors tended to be free and easy people, often political dissidents with strong views on the way they were being governed, just as actors are today. And playwrights, too, have always used their skills and the opportunity of  an audience to publicise their social views through satire. Theatrical groups therefore had to be licensed, and they would lose their licence at best, or players might land up in gaol, or, at worst, lose their heads if they stepped out of line. Wealthy or well connected patrons had to take responsibility for the political good behaviour of the players.

Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, was a leading civic figure in Stratford – an alderman and at one stage the elected mayor – and performances by visiting acting groups would have been one of his responsibilities. That duty by his father was probably the key to young William’s connection with the theatre and acting – the boy will have attended several performances, and he was in a position to meet and talk to the actors.  We know that Shakespeare went off to London to be an actor as soon as he had the opportunity as a young adult. Perhaps he had harboured that ambition throughout his childhood.

It is known that one of Shakespeare’s colleagues, Will Kempe, had been a member of an acting group and we know that he had performed in Stratford. It’s likely that Shakespeare knew him and thought of him as a contact when he decided to go off to London. In 1587, two years after the birth of his twins, Judith and Hamnet, he set off and we know what happened after that. It’s likely that he met up with Will Kempe because during the following years they became close colleagues and, indeed, it’s almost certain that Shakespeare created his major comic roles with Will Kempe in mind.

Although we know nothing directly about Shakespeare as a child growing up in Stratford, the circumstantial evidence for his contact with the theatre and the opportunity he had, through his father, and his better than casual experience of the actors and performances is compelling.