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400 Years of William Shakespeare at Hampton Court

Date: 06 November 2023

Author: Brett Dolman, Rosemary Bullimore, Suzanne Cooper

On 8 November 1623, John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of the leading actor-managers of Jacobean England, completed the arduous but perhaps pleasurable task of editing the collected works of William Shakespeare – creating what became known as the ‘First Folio’.

Here, we explore how this period was brought to life at Hampton Court Palace this summer, using research into the playwright’s palace connections.

William Shakespeare died seven years before the First Folio was published, but for the previous 30 years, audiences had enjoyed his plays on the public stage and at the royal court. Some – but by no means all – of his playscripts had appeared in print. Heminges and Condell’s great service in 1623, not just to their dramatic colleagues but to the wider world, was to publish approved versions of the texts for 36 of Shakespeare’s plays as ‘Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies’ – now known as the 'First Folio'.

Image: William Shakespeare. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Portrait of William Shakespeare

Tap to explore

Shakespeare's First Folio, 1623 (page 10 - catalogue)

See the First Folio Up Close

Catalogue page of 'Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies', published by John Heminges and Henry Condell in 1623.

Image: © British Library

Shakespeare at Hampton Court: A Brief History

Heminges, Condell and Shakespeare were all members of the ‘King’s Men’, the acting troupe that received royal patronage from the new King of England, James I, in 1603. All three men would have expected to earn their living on the professional stage, but court performance became an important part of their annual programme.

Over the Christmas season of 1603, the King’s Men performed in the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace. We don’t know the names of all the plays they performed, but one eyewitness, the courtier Dudley Carleton, wrote that:

The Tudor Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace, showing the Abraham Tapestries and the room set out for day visitors.

We have had a merry Christmas and nothing to disquiet us save brabbles [arguments] amongst our ambassadors, and one or two poor companions who died of the plague. The first holy days we had every night a public play in the great hall … On New Year's night we had a play of Robin Goodfellow.

Courtier Dudley Carleton, writing about Christmas at Hampton Court in 1603

This Robin must be Shakespeare's own A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as 'Robin' is another name for the mischief-making fairy, Puck.

Shakespeare had to learn how to write for both public and court audiences, and his plays show clear signs that he understood how to deal with popular and controversial subjects while still being loyal to the monarchy.

Reading or watching Shakespeare today is a fascinating insight into the hope and fears, pleasures, and tribulations of the early 17th-century world. They reveal the big issues of the day, whether that be witchcraft (Macbeth), the rights of kings (King Lear) or the poor quality of amateur dramatics (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Therefore, this summer, to celebrate the anniversary of the First Folio, and the fact that the Great Hall is one of the few surviving locations where Shakespeare himself performed, Historic Royal Palaces’ Live Programming Team created ‘Backstage at the Palace’, in partnership with Andrew Ashmore & Associates, a set of scenes that explored Hampton Court’s connections to the great playwright.

Image: The Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace. © Historic Royal Palaces

Photo with actors during Shakespeare First Folio Live Programming 2023 at Hampton Court Palace. Three actors are dressed in Elizabethan clothing in Great Hall, a tapestry behind them.

Bringing history to life

The scenes were set a few years after Shakespeare’s death, just before Condell and Heminges began to compile the folio. This moment felt like a great opportunity to explore the company of people surrounding Shakespeare, the influence they had on his work and their involvement in the theatrical production. We also wanted to reflect the diversity of Jacobean theatre, and the important role that women played as shareholders and in costume making – despite not being able to appear on the stage.

It was clear that research was going to be key in enabling us to represent how Jacobean court theatre functioned and tell the stories of the people who surrounded Shakespeare. Our curators’ research into Shakespeare’s performances at Hampton Court, including how they were staged and who was involved, directly informed the work and helped us bring history to life.

We also met with the Head of Research at The Globe Theatre to find out more about Shakespeare’s influences and the theatrical process of Jacobean theatre, which amazingly did not involve rehearsal and instead relied on actors memorising their lines.

The way costume functioned was also different to today. Actors simply dressed smartly, with only a small embellishment added as needed by the story to identify a particular character, such as a hat or cloak, which would be put on over their clothing. Our Wardrobe Manager followed the same principles to construct the look of each of our company of players, many of whom were magically transformed in the last scene with headdresses, wings, donkey ears and crossed gartered stockings.

The King’s Men (and a Queen) arrive at the palace

Our first scene saw the King’s Men arrive at Hampton Court. The actors became ‘Grooms of the Chamber’, servants of the Royal Household and had to acclimatise to the rules of court behaviour. Due to some of the company not having yet arrived, visitors were invited to help the King’s Men get ready for a special performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Playing with Shakespeare’s use of disguise as a plot device, we introduced James I’s wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, as a humorous disruptive character, first appearing in the female job role of costume decorator (or Spangler) to open-up discussion of the absence of women on the stage. In Tudor and Jacobean England, female courtiers and royalty were the exception, as they were able to perform during court Masque performances.

When choosing characters to bring the backstage of Shakespeare’s theatre to life, we looked at the important roles that we knew women and people from the global majority often held. Our female ‘Householder’ or, as today we would say, a shareholder, kept an eye on the proceedings and the money, whilst the ‘Stagehand’ brought insight and humour, and ensured proceedings ran smoothly.

Through Condell, we explored the viewpoint of the actor and the importance of having an agreed script, while The Master of the Revels’ role was to ensure the plays were appropriate for royal performance and censor them if necessary. Shakespeare did not shrink from addressing controversial issues but packaged them to ensure that royal approval was granted.

Image: Portrait of Queen Anne of Denmark published in 1888, after the portrait by Paul van Somer of 1617. © Historic Royal Palaces

Engraving image of Queen Anne of Denmark. She is wears a riding habit, a tall-crowned hat with feathers and riding gloves.

The beginnings of a First Folio

In the second scene, the plot unfolds, and Queen Anne, no longer in disguise, asserts herself as an actor and ready volunteer for the company’s performance. She and the professional actors display their abilities, with lines and soliloquies from a variety of Shakespeare’s plays. Some at times are poorly remembered or embellished (one of Shakespeare’s pet hates), and the need for a published version of Shakespeare’s plays becomes apparent. Shakespeare’s plot lines filter into the action, and a story within a story begins to emerge.

The final scene took place in the Great Hall. The opportunity to act in the same space where Shakespeare and the King’s Men had once performed, was a magical moment for our actors and visitors, who bravely took on the additional roles of lions, fairies, star-crossed lovers and even a wall... We’re sure James I would have thoroughly enjoyed our performance by the ‘King’s Men’ and their volunteers!

After 1603, the King’s Men would frequently return to court and the public stage. And Shakespeare’s plays remained an important part of the royal entertainment programme at Hampton Court, long after the playwright’s death. The Great Hall even became a permanent theatre for a time in the 18th century. For the enduring success of the plays, we are indebted to Shakespeare’s genius, but also to the hard work of his colleagues and editors, Heminges and Condell, and the publication of the ‘First Folio’ 400 years ago this month.

Brett Dolman, Curator (Collections)
Rosemary Bullimore, Creative Producer, Live Programming
Suzanne Cooper, Creative Producer, Live Programming

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