The King’s Lynn Shakespeare Festival: 4 Things Linking the Bard to Norfolk

The King’s Lynn Shakespeare Festival: 4 Things Linking the Bard to Norfolk
Art & Culture

The King’s Lynn Shakespeare Festival: 4 Things Linking the Bard to Norfolk

23rd April marks the birthday of England's greatest playwright, William Shakespeare.  To celebrate, King's Lynn are launching the inaugural Shakespeare Festival. A three-day celebration of Shakespeare, including workshops, performance and discussion. The festival will also feature one of the UK's most beloved Shakespearian actors in Sir Ian McKellen.

To celebrate the The King’s Lynn Shakespeare Festival we've taken a look at some of the intriguing connections between Norfolk and the life and work of William Shakespeare.

St George’s Guildhall

Image courtesy of Pam Fray ©

Any discussion of Norfolk and Shakespeare must, of course, begin with St George’s Guildhall itself, Britain's oldest working theatre and the home of The King’s Lynn Shakespeare Festival.

It has long been rumoured that Shakespeare himself visited St George’s Guildhall as part of a national tour with the Earl of Pembroke’s Men in 1593. In recent years, scholars have pieced together the surviving evidence to make a compelling case for the theory of Shakespeare in Norfolk.

We know for a fact that Shakespeare was performing as late as 1592, because, as we shall see, his performance was unkindly reviewed by the Norwich-born writer Robert Greene. We know also that a number of Shakespeare's plays, such as Titus Andronicus; The Taming of the Shrew and Henry VI, were being performed by the Earl of Pembroke’s Men in the period 1592-3. Finally, there are records to show that the Earl of Pembroke’s Men played in King's Lynn in 1592 and 1593.

Did the great playwright tread the boards of St George’s Guildhall? Historian Dr Matthew Woodcock believes that it is a strong possibility:

“We know that Shakespeare was very deeply involved with that playing company at that time. There’s a strong case for placing Shakespeare with this playing company in King’s Lynn at this time.”

Robert Greene: Shakespeare’s Fiercest Critic

For a man who wrote some of the world's most enduring works of literature, relatively little is known about the life of Shakespeare. Indeed, such is the scarcity of information about his personal life, it has been speculated that he never existed at all! One of the few contemporary accounts of Shakespeare comes down to us from Robert Greene, who was born in Norwich in 1558.

In a passage which has become infamous, Greene appears to mock Shakespeare by pun and illusion, referring to an:

“Upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie."

Greene was an established writer in his right, but it is his unkind portrait of his elusive contemporary for which he is remembered.

The Inspiration for Falstaff

It is thought that one of Shakespeare's most popular characters, John Falstaff, may have been inspired by a famous Norfolk knight of the Hundred Years War.

The historical Sir John Fastolf was a loyal servant of Henry V and fought alongside the legendary king in the Battle of Agincourt, and later at Harfleur, Caen and Rouen. Fastolf was created a Knight of the Garter by John, Duke of Bedford after the death of Henry V, but his career descended into infamy when he was forced to flee the Battle of Patay 1429, in what was a crushing defeat for the English forces. Perhaps unfairly, Fastolf faced accusations of cowardice on his return home, and his reputation never recovered. Many years after his death, the infamy stuck to his name, as he became the influence for his (almost) namesake, Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff, the ridiculous, cowardly, but larger than life knight of Henry IV parts I and II. Falstaff was killed off in Henry IV Part II, but such was his popularity, Shakespeare later resurrected him for The Merry Wives of Windsor.

John Rolfe and The Tempest

The life of John Rolfe is frequently told in relation to the story of Pocahontas, whom Rolfe married in 1614, however, a lesser known aspect of Rolfe's life may also have inspired one of Shakespeare's most famous plays. In 1609, Rolfe and 153 crew and passengers were shipwrecked on their way to the New World. The boat was caught between two large rocks at Devil’s Isles after being blown off course in the Bermuda Triangle. Fortunately, all on board were saved, and the dramatic event was recorded by the writer William Strachey, who later published the account. It is thought that Strachey's account of the Devil’s Isles shipwreck caught the eye of William Shakespeare, and served as the inspiration for his final work, The Tempest.


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