With perfect patriotic symmetry, William Shakespeare, England’s greatest playwright, was born and died on the same day: St George’s, 23 April (1564 -1616). The first folio of his collected dramatic works, published four hundred years ago in 1623, is visitable at the Weston library. And every year the citizens of Oxford are treated to an outdoor performance of one of his plays, by the Globe Theatre on Tour.

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Shakespeare in the Quad! As night falls and stars begin to emerge above the roofline of the Bodleian it is easy to conjure up a sense of Jacobean wonder, and to imagine ourselves back in the presence of the Bard. For it is perfectly plausible, indeed highly likely, that he would once have walked across this space and through the nearby streets. He may well have acted close by: we know that the King’s Men played Othello at Oxford’s Guild Hall in 1610 when Shakespeare was still in the company – even if, tantalisingly, we can’t say for certain whether or not he was in the cast.

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The main carriageway from Stratford to London passed via Oxford and it is impossible to think that Shakespeare would not have stopped here many times as an ambitious young man setting off from his home in Warwickshire in search of the lights of the Capital. In later years, when his fame was established, Shakespeare became a good friend of Oxford’s future mayor, John Davenant – and of his notably attractive wife, Jane, described by the diarist John Aubrey as ‘a very beautiful woman, and of very good wit, and of conversation extremely agreeable’.

Davenant was a wealthy vintner who kept a tavern later called The Crown, and it was on this site in 1927, at Number 3 Cornmarket, that the so-called ‘painted room’ was discovered, its wall paintings dating back to Shakespeare’s time. Thick layers of Victorian canvas and modern wallpaper were peeled away to reveal seventeenth-century oak panels and, behind them, brightly coloured Elizabethan murals. Might this have been the very room in which Shakespeare lodged on his travels? … We’ll never know.

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We can, however, cross the road to the remains of St Martin’s Church, Carfax. There sat the font (subsequently moved to St Michael at the Northgate where it can still be seen) at which the Davenants’ second son, William, was baptised on 3 March 1606. And there, beside it, would once have stood the baby’s godfather, their good and trusty friend Mr Shakespeare.

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There are only three direct references to the town of Oxford in Shakespeare’s work – in Richard II, Henry IV Pt 1 and Henry VIII. But some of the world’s finest Bardic scholars have lived and studied here, including a recent Provost of Worcester College, Sir Jonathan Bate, and, currently, Emma Smith of Hertford College, author of several seminal works on the First Folio.

Oxford has also given its name to the convoluted theory that the plays gathered together under Shakespeare’s name were in fact penned by Edward De Vere (1562-1604) seventeenth Earl of Oxford: the so-called ‘Oxfordian’ theory. Suffice it to note that this suggestion was advanced in 1920 by someone with the name of John Thomas Looney.

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The Bard’s godfatherly presence must have had an inspiring influence, for the boy Davenant (whose portrait, above, hangs in Lincoln College Senior Common Room) grew up to become the Poet Laureate in 1638, thereby occasioning rumours – which William junior did little to dispel – that he may even have been the great playwright’s son. So much is speculation. But one thing is for sure. Shakespeare, a man teased by his contemporaries for having ‘small Latin and less Greek’, may not have gone to Oxford university; but he most definitely came to Oxford town.

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With photographic thanks to: Helen Cook, Public Engagement Officer for Bodleian Libraries; Lindsay McCormack, Archivist to Lincoln College; Alice Rickett, Senior Press Officer at Shakespeare’s Globe, and everyone at the Oxford Preservation Trust.

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A whiff of The Bard? Can this really be true? Madeleine Morris, a student of synaesthesia, explains:

One of the most captivating recent exhibitions in the Weston Library was entitled Sensational Books. It explored books as sensory physical objects not simply conveyors of printed information. We all know about the look and feel of books. But what about the way they smell? One particularly intriguing section featured small bottles containing the distilled essence of several canonical texts – including Magna Carta and Shakespeare’s First Folio!

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Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, has written a brilliant ‘biblio-biography’ of the First Folio. In the video below she tells the story of its remarkable (re)acquisition by the Bodleian Library.
Professor Lena Cowen Orlin has written a blog to accompany her book on The Private Life of William Shakespeare. Based on a groundbreaking analysis of Shakespeare’s funeral monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, she advances the intriguing suggestion that he may have had ‘some collegial association we don’t know about’. She writes:

Shakespeare’s biographers have long fretted over the fact that he never attended university. This should not have been surprising at a time when Divinity was the subject for most advanced education …

In early-seventeenth-century Oxford, before there were college common rooms and before colleges were closed off with fences and gates, Shakespeare would have been free to mingle with Oxford’s most distinguished scholars. The Oxford cushion on his funeral monument suggests that he attended sermons in the college chapels where such monuments were mounted to commemorate lives of scholarly distinction; seeing them may well have inspired him to take the form for himself.

If Shakespeare did indeed commission his own monument, as I believe, we are seeing him as he wanted to be seen: in a life portrait, wearing ‘a black gown like an undergraduate’s at Oxford’ (as William Aubrey observed around 1640), holding a quill in one hand, resting another hand on a sheet of paper, and poised to write.

Nothing we have encountered heretofore is as autobiographical as the artefact in Holy Trinity Church ­– a design for death that gives evidence of a life of learning and literature LO

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Anna Beer, of Kellogg College, is the author of five biographies including William Shakespeare: The Life of the Author. She writes:

I’ve just checked the notes from a pre-show talk I gave when the Globe did their touring version of Hamlet in the Bodleian Library quad in 2012. I think we can be very confident about Shakespeare performing in Oxford. He continued acting (alongside writing) for a long time. It’s more than likely that if the King’s Men came here, as stated in the pamphlet advertising the play, then Will would have come here too.

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Eleanor Riches, who went on to become a Shakespeare specialist, recalls ‘an inspiring poster we used to have in our English classroom at school’ featuring this quotation from Bernard Levin:

IF YOU CANNOT UNDERSTAND MY ARGUMENT, AND DECLARE: it’s Greek to me, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play – slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance on your lord and master – laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days, or lived in a fool’s paradise, why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are, as good luck would have it, quoting Shakespeare. If you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time, and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up, and that truth will out, even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have teeth set on edge at one fell swoop without rhyme or reason, then to give the devil his due if the truth were known for surely you have a tongue in your head, you are quoting Shakespeare. Even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a doornail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded, or a blinking idiot, then by Jove, O Lord, tut, tut! For goodness’ sake, what the dickens! no buts, it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare …

Thanks to Caroline Roaf for this floral tribute.

When we moved to St Margaret’s Road in 1967 (!) an elderly neighbour who had been brought up in the road, gave me some violet plants, telling me that they were descendants of ‘Shakespeare’s violets’ which the Bard had picked on his way to London, having crossed the Thames at Binsey… These violets were large and very sweetly scented and grew everywhere in a most persistent manner. I still have some in fact. – CF

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How about this for product placement? Simon Ballard, Keeper of the Saxon Tower – St Michael at the North Gate, is the possessor of a leather-bound copy of Shakespeare’s plays dating from 1768. He kindly photographed it for us in situ, on top of the font which once welcomed Godfather William.
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Stephen Dawson of the Oxford Preservation Trust writes to remind us of the annual Shakespeare celebrations:

Since 1938, every year at around this time we hold a Birthday Parade in honour of William Shakespeare’s association with Oxford. People from across town and gown don their finery and process to the Painted Room in Cornmarket, led by the Town Crier and a band of the medieval Oxford Waits musicians, accompanied by students from the Oxford Spires Academy who perform selections from the Bard’s plays.
On Friday 21 April the parade took a new route, departing from St George’s Tower at Oxford Castle. At the Painted Room a toast was raised to the Immortal Bard in ‘malmsey and sac’.

The OPT provides a self-guided Shakespeare Trail and a series of family activities, all free to download at home. Morris Oxford readers who haven’t yet seen Shakespeare’s Painted Room can take a virtual tour HERE.

Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

We’re grateful to four distinguished scholars – Lena Orlin, Bernard Richards, Richard Smail and Emma Smith – for pointing out that we don’t know beyond doubt the precise date of Shakespeare’s birth, only the date of his baptism: 26 April 1564. 23 April is inferred but cannot be claimed for certain.