On 23rd April 1616 our greatest dramatist William Shakespeare died. To celebrate over 400 years of his legacy, we’ve put together a list of the loveliest real-life locations that inspired his world-famous plays…
Verona, the enchanting city in northern Italy’s Veneto region is the setting for Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet. It has earned World Heritage status and gives its neighbouring romantic rival Venice a run for its money, especially during the Valentine’s’ Verona in Love’ festival. It’s perfect for an afternoon stroll, a gelato stop in a sunny square or a visit to the market at Piazza delle Erbe and the imposing Arena di Verona. The latter is one of the largest and best preserved Roman arenas and still presents a summer season of opera. Still, the Verona most people come for is the one that inspired the bard.
The legend of the star-crossed lovers was already a popular story in Italy in the 14th century before Shakespeare took the story worldwide. At Casa di Giulietta you can step out on the world-famous balcony and rub the right breast of Juliet’s bronze statue if you’re looking for luck in love or enjoy hushed reflection at her tomb in the dark crypt under the church of San Francesco al Corso.
Shakespeare takes the characters of his dark comedy All’s Well that Ends Well all over France, but the play revolves mainly around the protagonists’ home in Roussillon, in the far south – an area stretching between Provence and the Spanish border. Today the Languedoc/Rousillon region represents to many the ‘real south of France’, where you can enjoy unspoilt landscapes and sample wonderful, traditional wines, such as Vin de Pays d’Oc.
Visit the magical fortress of Carcassonne, stroll around mediaeval Montpellier or explore the Spanish influence of Perpignan in the foothills of the Pyrenees, with its gothic palace and far-reaching views. Plus, it’s not far along the coast to the French Riviera to taste the glamour of sun-drenched Nice and Monaco.
Arguably the world’s most romantic city, Venice is unique, other-worldly, breathtakingly beautiful. Not surprising then to find here the setting for two of Shakespeare’s plays – his great tragedy Othello, whose title character is a Moorish general in the Venetian army and the rather controversial comedy The Merchant of Venice. In Shakespeare’s play the money lender Shylock asks for news from Rialto and for centuries it has been the city’s commercial centre. Now it’s a tourist Mecca; an area boasting fabulous food markets and of course the stunning Rialto Bridge, crossing the Grand Canal.
Wonder at the decadence of Saint Mark’s Basilica, take a trip to the colourful, glass-making island of Murano or soak up a Venetian sunset listening to live music in the Piazza San Marco.
It is believed that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth between 1604 and 1606, shortly after England’s new King, James I (and 6th of Scotland) had ascended the throne. The Scottish born monarch was reportedly interested in witches and Shakespeare would have gained James’ approval for his Scottish play. Macbeth – a violent story of ambition and murder – seems to be a mix of fact and fiction. There was indeed a Macbeth who ruled in Scotland in the 11th century, although the finer details of the drama have benefited from Shakespeare’s artistic license.
In the centre of the town of Birnam today stands a single stately oak, reputed to be the last of the ancient Birnam Wood made famous in the play. ‘Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill, shall come against him.’ And it was on Dunsinane Hill that the real Macbeth took a defeat in battle.
The Birnam and Dunkeld area is located in the beautiful Big Tree Country of Perthshire, and is so lovely that it has been popular with tourists since the railway brought the first illustrious Victorian holidaymakers such as Beatrix Potter.
The imposing Yorkshire castles of Middleham and Pontefract mingle history and art once again. Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, mentioned in the Domesday Book , was King Richard III’s favoured seat – known as the ‘Windsor of the North’ during his reign. Today, Middleham is an impressive ruin, located in a superb area for walking and close to the traditional Dales market town of Leyburn. Rather than Middleham , Shakespeare uses Pomfret Castle (now Pontefract) as the historic setting for both Richard II and Richard III.
Pomfret had a fearful contemporary reputation. In Richard III, the character Rivers describes it, ‘O thou bloody prison!’ It lies in ruin now, but offers visitors great views of Pontefract itself and fascinating tours of its underground cellars, which truly were used as a prison during the English Civil War.
Shakespeare and his work, was patronised by both Elizabeth I and James I, so it is perhaps fitting that he should set one of his comedies in royal Windsor. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a farce about lecherous and jealous men and the women who get the better of them. The castle and the royal family also celebrated 400 years of the bard, with ‘Shakespeare in the Royal Library’ throughout 2016. The exhibition celebrated his connections with the royal seat and included royal collections of Shakespeare’s works and even Shakespeare inspired art created by members of the royal family. It all formed part of the special Shakespeare400 series, commissioned to celebrate the playwright’s legacy.
The Queen’s residence, Windsor Castle is the oldest castle still occupied in the world and summer tourists may be lucky to visit on one of the few days that the neighbouring Frogmore Estate is open to the public. It’s a tranquil and private royal house and grounds, owned by the crown since it was purchased by Henry VIII. Shakespeare set a scene from The Merry Wives in a ‘field near Frogmore’ – its name derived from the proliferation of frogs flourishing in its marshy Thames bank setting.
No Shakespeare inspired itinerary would be complete without a trip to his birthplace and home in Stratford-upon-Avon. This beautiful, quintessential English riverside town close to the Cotswolds boasts the house where the great bard was born, his wife Anne Hathaway’s Cottage – fine example of a Tudor farmhouse with beautiful gardens – and the home of his mother, Mary Arden, where you can learn the art of Tudor archery and enjoy falconry displays.
Conclude your day with a trip to the specially restored 15th century Guildhall, or in contemplation of the playwright’s final resting place. The grave’s noteworthy inscription, believed to have been penned by Shakespeare himself, includes the words; ‘Blese be the man that spares thes stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.’ Well, you wouldn’t dare, would you?
And of course, there are few better places to watch contemporary versions of his world-famous masterpieces than at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s incomparable Stratford theatre.