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From country boy growing up in rural Warwickshire
to the greatest writer who has ever lived.
So to mark the 400th anniversary of his death,
we're travelling up and down the country,
celebrating the way in which our countryside inspired Shakespeare
and infused some of his greatest plays.
Matt's in the Brecon Beacons discovering a hidden valley
said to be the magical setting for one of his most popular plays.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays
and you can feel this place in Shakespeare's writings.
John is in Kent,
along with one of our best loved actors,
following in the footsteps of Shakespeare's theatre company.
"O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
"Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
"Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
"And I'll no longer be a Capulet."
"Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?"
Actor Bill Paterson is in Perthshire
discovering the landscapes of the Bard's Scottish play.
It's here in Birnam Wood in Perthshire
that Macbeth met his tragic ending.
At least according to Shakespeare.
And Adam's making his way to the heart of Shakespeare's hometown
with the most prized of Elizabethan stock - sheep.
Stratford may well be renowned
as being famous for one of England's most wonderful playwrights,
but back then, it was wool that made the town tick.
"This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle...
"This blessed plot,
"this earth, this realm, this England."
At the heart of this scepter'd isle is Warwickshire,
famous the world over as Shakespeare's county.
This landscape played an important part
in the playwright's life and work.
But the Warwickshire Shakespeare knew
would have looked very different in his day.
The River Avon marks the boundary between two distinct areas.
To the south, the Feldon,
what we think of today as the Cotswolds,
heavily cultivated land, organised around the wool trade.
And to the north, the Forest of Arden.
This vast forest is said to have inspired As You Like It,
a play that, more than any other of Shakespeare's works,
is a true celebration of the countryside.
"And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
"Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
"Sermons in stones, and good in everything."
'Professor Stanley Wells is a Shakespearean scholar
'and honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.'
To what extent would As You Like It have been set here
in the real Forest of Arden?
To a certain extent it would, I think.
Shakespeare was a very literary dramatist
and he took the story of As You Like It
from a book that had already been published, a book called Rosalind,
which is set in the Ardennes area of Belgium and Holland.
But he goes to the forest for the details, I think.
The floral decoration of the play and so on
he would have sourced from his own memory,
from his own experience of walking around these hills.
He owned some of the land around here, for example.
-So he was very familiar with this land here?
He worked in London, of course,
but he would come up to Stratford as often as he could.
I've often described him as the first great literary commuter.
He would, no doubt, have spent a lot of time in the woodlands,
in the Forest of Arden.
So I think he was very much a countryman at heart.
-His heart was here in the countryside?
-I think so, yeah.
Today, the Forest of Arden
has been enveloped by Birmingham and its environs,
the forest seemingly disappearing into the depths of history.
But if you look hard enough, you can still see the hidden vestiges
of the forest Shakespeare himself would have known.
One man who knows where to look is naturalist Steven Falk,
and I'm meeting him
in what would have been the heart of Shakespeare's magical woodland.
-This is a fabulous woodland.
-It is, yeah.
It kind of shows
what a woodland would have looked like in Shakespeare's time,
so very heavily managed,
because wood of all sorts was a commodity.
The standards, which are the big trees, were used as building timber,
and then the coppice, which is what they called the underwood,
was used for all sorts of things -
charcoal making, making fences and hurdles,
even the wattle and daub that was used in building houses
in between the sort of big timbers.
So, it wasn't the wild place that we have in our mind,
the Forest of Arden?
Certainly in Shakespeare's time,
a lot of the Forest of Arden had been cleared,
so they were actually losing it.
Because this is managed woodland,
the trees we can see are fairly young.
But the forest Shakespeare would have known
hasn't completely disappeared.
Some of the root stocks are very old.
Some of the aspen here has probably got root stocks centuries-old.
-So there's relics...?
-Little relics, little bits of continuity.
-But not much.
The Arden wasn't all so heavily managed.
We're heading to another part of the forest
where I'm told there's a far more direct link
to William Shakespeare's landscape.
This looks so different here.
Yeah, the Forest of Arden, it wasn't a huge area of woodland.
It was actually quite open in places.
You had lots of deer parks, you had heathland,
you had boggy areas.
In fact, deer parks, you had probably more deer parks here
than almost any other part of Britain, possibly Europe.
When there's this much space,
the trees are allowed to grow that much bigger?
-Yes, and often a lot older.
-And I've got a really special one to show you.
-Let's take a look.
-This is a beaut.
-Yeah, this is an amazing tree.
I've spent many years measuring the trees of Warwickshire,
but this is in a class of its own.
-This is a tree that is potentially 1,000 years old.
It would have been old when Shakespeare was alive.
-We don't want to chop it down to find out its age.
-We don't want to.
-What we can do...
-We can measure it.
-We can measure it.
I've got a tape measure here, so...
If I put this here... Ellie, would you like to walk round?
I'll go on my merry dance round here. Here we go.
-You need a good tape measure for this.
-You really do.
-Gosh, look at that.
-So what are we looking at?
Yes. I measured it ten years ago.
-It's put on ten centimetres in those ten years.
It's still growing and it's still got a very solid trunk.
-It's doing pretty well.
-It's pretty fabulous, isn't it?
So this would have been around in Shakespeare's time.
This would have been a big tree in Shakespeare's time, yeah.
And this is part of the Forest of Arden,
so maybe Shakespeare would have come along and sat under this tree?
Well, they reckon Shakespeare did come to Stoneleigh Deer Park
and they reckon he sat under a tree.
Whether it was this one, we don't know,
but we call it the Shakespeare Oak.
We like to think
that he sat underneath it and wrote interesting things.
-It's a lovely idea. Let's pretend that he definitely did.
As You Like It portrays the forest
as a place of sanctuary and protection.
And standing beside this mighty oak,
I can really identify with that sentiment.
Later on, I'll be finding out
about Shakespeare's extensive knowledge of plants.
But first, Matt's in the Brecon Beacons in a hidden valley
said to be the inspiration for one of Shakespeare's most popular plays.
"I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
"Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
"Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
"With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine."
Those are the words of Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
I know them well, as I played Oberon in college.
But my involvement didn't stop with the words.
I was in charge of the set, so what we did was,
I went back to our farm, went into the woodlands
and got loads of branches and littered the stage with them.
And I'll tell you what -
I am so excited about the destination of this walk.
And that's because I'm heading to the very spot
that we think inspired Shakespeare to write A Midsummer Night's Dream.
That same place I was trying to recreate onstage 20 years ago.
This is Cwm Pwca, near Abergavenny,
which translates from the Welsh as Puck's Valley.
Now, because this place is so hidden away from the outside world,
I need a guide.
-John, how are you doing? All right?
-You must be king of the fairies, then, are you?
You never know.
John Wohlgemuth from Natural Resources Wales
is one of the few men who knows the best way
to negotiate this tough terrain.
Could Shakespeare really have known this place?
I can't imagine Shakespeare kind of scrambling down here
in his tights and his slip-ons.
I guess, John, because it's so challenging to access this place,
that kind of helps with preserving it?
Yeah, although there's been
a lot of industrial activity here in the past,
nature has reclaimed it.
There is a lot of rare and interesting wildlife here
that was here in Shakespeare's day and is still here today.
So, certainly violets and roses.
-Certainly some of that!
-I hear a river, or a stream.
Look at this beautiful little waterfall.
You can just imagine sort of fairies and pixies
just skipping around here.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is the tale of mischievous fairies
who wreak havoc on humans.
The story of Puck and the belief in the fairies
was commonplace in these valleys.
Dr Juliet Wood believes it's these tales
that could have inspired A Midsummer Night's Dream.
This place being called Puck Valley, or translating into Puck Valley,
suggests that it's loaded with fairy folklore here.
Oh, it is. Absolutely.
I mean, Puck isn't the only one,
but he's certainly the most notorious, shall we say.
-Because he's a very naughty fairy.
And he likes to mislead travellers.
And he will appear as if he's carrying a light,
and you follow him and he will lead you right to the edge,
and if you took one more step, you'd fall over.
And then he disappears in a burst of maniacal Puckish laughter.
And what other elements did Shakespeare include
from, potentially, this area, that he used in Midsummer Night's Dream?
Well, the landscape itself and the stories of the fairies,
but you also get this notion of the fairies stealing human children,
or looking after human children.
And those are the changeling stories.
And, of course, that is how Midsummer Night's Dream starts.
But there's still this sense
that there is an uncanny world kind of just beyond our vision,
or just over the hill.
And I'm very fond of plays that have this kind of magical quality,
and one feels, you know, you need a little magic in life.
We're getting closer to the bottom of the valley.
John is leading me to where Shakespeare allegedly penned
the first lines of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Are there any kind of thoughts to how he found this place?
Well, they say he had friends further north in Breconshire
and as this place has been a bit of an attraction for years,
even then we think he probably would have been brought here to visit it
-as a wild, remote and picturesque place to come.
This has been called Shakespeare's Cave
for as long as anyone can remember.
-Whereabouts is the cave, then?
-The cave is just down...
Just down there to the right, beyond the last fallen tree.
-So we need to sort of slide down there.
-Show me the way.
-Foot on there, and then right over.
-This is more like it.
There we are. We're here. Shakespeare's Cave, just there.
-And this is it.
It is several hundred metres long,
but it gets very narrow and very wet.
I'm sure people like Shakespeare
would have wondered how these were created...
-..why they were here, who lived down here.
I mean, it's great... It's great food for thought, isn't it,
for a playwright like him?
It would get your imagination going, wouldn't it?
A Midsummer Night's Dream
marks that magical time of midsummer night, the summer solstice,
when the fairies come out of their hiding place
to play in the human world.
But where are they?
Talk about combining elements of your youth.
Gymnastics and Shakespeare.
Wheey! Stay with me, stay with me.
Here we go. Look at this for a shot.
A beautiful, beautiful waterfall.
Do you know, Midsummer Night's Dream
is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays,
and it had a big impact on me when I was at school.
And you can see, you can sense,
you can feel this place in Shakespeare's writings.
Mind you, I haven't seen any fairies yet.
They'll probably all come out and laugh at me
when I fall off this log!
Now from hidden valleys to bloody battlefields.
Shakespeare's plays drew inspiration from across Britain.
Actor Bill Paterson is in Perthshire,
exploring the myths and legends of the landscape of the real Macbeth.
We all know the tale of Macbeth,
the grisly tale of an ambitious Scottish general, Macbeth,
who assassinates his king.
Bloody battles, witchcraft and an ever-increasing body count
make this, understandably, one of Shakespeare's most popular plays.
"Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
"What thou art promised."
But there was a real Macbeth, a real man,
who inspired Shakespeare's tortured monster,
and a real backdrop that inspired Shakespeare's famous tragedy.
The performance history of Macbeth is so filled with tragedy and death
that many actors are really frightened to mention its name,
so they call it "The Scottish Play".
In fact, I've been sent out of a dressing room for mentioning it,
I've been made to turn round three times, shout an obscenity,
and then wait to be invited back in.
It's also a play filled with some of the most memorable quotes,
like, "Out, damned spot!"
and "Something wicked this way comes,"
but the quote that interests us today
is, "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be
"until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill
"shall come against him",
cos it's here in Birnam Wood in Perthshire
that Macbeth met his tragic ending,
at least according to Shakespeare.
So, what of Great Birnam Wood today?
Mike Strachan from the Forestry Commission is going to introduce me
to an ancient Shakespearean relic.
This would have been only a part of a vast forest, wouldn't it?
That's correct. The whole valley here
would have been one massive woodland
and it's very often been described
as a jungle, very much a very, very large jungle...
Very, very dense and people always refer to Scotland
as being impassable.
It's 1,000 years old so in the time of Shakespeare,
it was a growing tree and it became
a significant, almost dramatic character in Shakespeare's play.
I mean, act five, scene four, he says,
"Let every soldier hew him down a bough
"And bear't before him:
"Thereby shall we shadow the numbers of our host and make discovery
"Err in report of us."
In other words, "We will hide ourselves,
"we will camouflage ourselves."
I keep looking at these boughs. That is some hacking down, wasn't it?
There wouldn't have been anything of that size.
I think what they were talking about was much smaller branches
so they could make a sort of fan shape out of branches
so they could hide behind it and carry on creeping along.
"Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be
"Until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill
"Shall come against him."
Professor Ted Cowan is a Scottish historian who has explored
Macbeth's twisted blend of fact and fiction.
Well, here we are, Ted, at the foot of "Dunsinnen" or Dunsinane.
-You take your choice.
-Lead on, Macduff.
-I believe it's a long way.
-It sure is.
So, who was the real Macbeth?
Macbeth was a great chieftain up there - a dux, a war leader,
says one of the sources. A real hard case.
And how different was he, then, from Shakespeare's Macbeth?
Well, in many ways,
he was quite different from Shakespeare's Macbeth
because he was regarded as quite a good king.
One of the obituaries, if you like, or two of them say,
"In his time, there were fertile seasons," and, for this period,
that's a good sign that he was a very, very successful king.
Yes, so far from being monster,
is he flawed in some way that allowed this legend to build up?
It's hard to know if we can say he was flawed, per se, but I think,
to contemporaries, he would be regarded as more of a hero than not.
So, now, do you think that Birnam Wood did make it
across the ten miles of Strathmore to Dunsinane Hill?
Ooh, well, I don't know, it might have done,
but since we don't believe in such things,
there's a much nicer story about this, Bill,
and that is the old Celtic motif of the Battle of the Trees
and that's what Shakespeare's using in this point -
the idea that the trees are so outraged
that the woods themselves wanted to take part in it.
Nature was against him and so the trees were on the march.
"So foul and fair a day I have not seen."
And here we are, right in the middle of Macbeth's castle. Imagine that.
He actually was here, even though he didn't die here.
-Did a fight actually take place here?
-Yes, without doubt.
They fought here in 1054 and Macbeth was defeated in that battle.
If only Willie Shakespeare could have seen this,
he'd have written a play about it.
He might have, you know.
-It'd probably have ended badly, though.
Even if Shakespeare did take liberties with Scottish history,
it's quite possible that the name of the real King Macbeth
might have been forgotten to us
and would not have the worldwide fame that it has
and these incredible settings would have been forgotten
so perhaps I should end with the witches' words.
"All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!"
Now, whilst the drama has been unfolding in Scotland,
the Bard of Barnsley and friend of Countryfile, Ian McMillan,
is in Warwickshire,
combining his two favourite things - ale and poetry.
I swear my ale will be poetic
Will dance on the tongue like a rude mechanical
Will linger in the head like King Lear's lines
My ale will not fail to set sail
And regale you with a pale and interesting beautiful tale.
Shakespeare's plays are peppered with references to his love of ale.
This could have been because his father, John Shakespeare,
was once the official ale taster of Stratford-upon-Avon.
So, in honour of Shakespeare's love of a good pint,
I've come to Mary Arden's Farm in Stratford,
which is not only a working Tudor farm,
but was home to Shakespeare's mother.
It's only 9am,
but I'm here to brew some authentic Shakespearean ale
with Sharon Lippett.
What's the first thing we have to do?
Well, we need to crack the grain.
As you can see, this is malted grain.
-Have a sniff.
-It's lovely, isn't it?
Yes, that's very nice, very Shakespearean.
So, we're going to put it through the quern first.
-Who would have drunk this kind of ale?
-You were put on ale as soon as you were weaned.
So, children as young as two would have been drinking small ale.
It was the daily drink. Everybody drank ale, even the Queen.
In Henry V, it says, "I would give all my fame for a pot of ale."
Every working man got an allowance with his daily pay
-and a good hearty meal of eight pints.
-For the day.
The water was very dangerous. Your ale was safe.
-Because it was boiled water.
-It was boiled water, yes.
'After straining, splurging and fermenting,
'my brew is almost ready.'
-Have a squeeze.
-You had to have strong hands.
I've got weak poet's hands.
We always name our brews
and I think it would be nice if you would name our brew for us.
-I think I'd like to call it McMillan's Ale.
It's got a certain something.
I was going to call it The Winter's T'Ale, but of course it's spring.
Oh, yes! That's a taste of history, isn't it?
And art and language and craft.
400 years later, the brewing of ale
is still alive and well in Shakespeare's county.
On a farm just up the road is Purity, an independent eco-brewery.
I've come here to meet John Conod
to see how they do it - or brew it - today.
I wonder what the difference is between how they made it then
and how you make it now.
Well, I suspect one of the biggest differences
will be the introduction of hops into the brewing process.
It really wouldn't have been common in Shakespeare's time.
-Grab a bit of it, give it a good rub.
And give it a good smell as well. Get it right up to your nose.
The first thing you'll notice, I hope,
is those wonderful aromas - citrus and pine and fruit.
They're also a preservative.
They stop the beer or the ale from going off.
-We talked about Shakespeare's dad John being an ale tester.
-Do they still have ale testers these days?
We obviously run 50 different tests through our lab on the ales
that we're producing and it's a very precise science, but, then,
at the end of the day, we have a round table tasting every Friday.
Do these sessions start off very seriously
with people making notes on clipboards
and, by the end, you're all singing shanties
and doing a bit of Cumberland wrestling?
Arm in arm, yeah, yeah, wandering round the brewhouse.
No, it's a very serious endeavour. We only have little mouthfuls.
Oh, it's great. It reminds me of my Uncle Les's shed.
That's fine, you can come onto the tasting panel with that one.
That's absolutely perfect.
I'll bring Uncle Les if I can get him out of the shed.
Well, I'm not sure what Uncle Les would make of my Shakespearean brew,
but I'm off to see what the locals think of McMillan's Ale.
-What do you think?
-Oh, that is really nice.
-Very, very nice.
It's got quite a nice fruitiness to it as well.
But what about an expert ale taster?
Like John Shakespeare,
Frenchman Florent Vialan is an official ale tester.
But, unlike John Shakespeare, he's a certified biochemist.
-What do you think?
-There is no hops to it, there is no bitterness.
-Is it a pleasant taste?
I think that can grow on me.
-To the Tudors.
Back in Shakespeare's day,
a Frenchman disliking an Englishman's ale
would be grounds for war. But I don't hold a grudge.
It was his father's ale tasting that led to Will Shakespeare
getting a free grammar school education.
Without it, we might never have met Hamlet or Lear so, to the ale,
I give you this final ode on my road home.
Shakespeare's plays and Shakespeare's ale
Both lift the spirit and never fail
To fill the stage with a tale to tell
In the words of the bard, "Ale's well that ends well!"
So, we know that Shakespeare's father was paid to taste ale.
He was also a jack of all trades, making money from glovemaking
and dealing in hides and wool.
But there are suggestions that his wool dealings
weren't strictly above board, as Adam's been finding out.
Lie down. Lie down.
Here in the Cotswolds, we're known for our mixed farming
so livestock and arable, but back in Elizabethan times,
it was wool that underpinned the rural economy.
In fact, wool was so lucrative 400 years ago
that whole towns were built upon its wealth.
To celebrate the Bard's relationship with wool,
I'm taking a small flock of historic Cotswold sheep,
with Peg's help, to Shakespeare's home town of Stratford.
With me for some of our journey
is Philip Walling, a writer and historian.
I'm hoping he can tell me more about the Elizabethan sheep industry.
There'd be hundreds of thousands of these sheep,
grazing everywhere they could find a blade of grass.
And the popularity of the sheep was because of their wool.
Yeah, they were enormously profitable.
A fleece of one of these Cotswolds would be
-worth £120-£150 in today's money.
Now, they're worth, what, four or five quid for a fleece?
-Something like that. That's after clipping them.
And they were the North Sea oil of their day.
And is it right that Queen Elizabeth sort of protected them
because of their value?
There was protection for the trade
and there was one of the ordinances in 1571 that Elizabeth passed
which required every male over the age of six
to wear a woollen cap on Sundays and holidays.
And that was just to get everybody buying wool?
That's right. People had to be buried in wool.
-Incredible, isn't it?
That's why I think farming was so profitable at the time.
'So, it's no wonder, then,
'that a writer brought up in the English countryside,
'surrounded by sheep, would reflect his environment in his work.
'A bale of wool in Shakespeare's day was called a tod
'and was very valuable.'
"Let me see.
"Every leven wether tods;
"Every tod yeilds pound and odd shilling;
"Fifteen hundred shorn.
"What comes the wool to?"
'Well, the wool would have come to a small fortune.'
The way he prices it, the way he talks, the terms he uses -
this is someone who really understands them.
'David Fallow has spent years
'studying the Shakespeare family's wealth.
'He believes William Shakespeare was much more involved
'in the family's trade in wool than previously thought.'
The whole family were wool traders.
John Shakespeare, his father, does not strike me
as the sort of man who is ever going to have four sons sitting about
not in the family business.
'There is evidence, though,
'that the Shakespeare family's wool dealings were a bit shady.
'Records show that in 1572,
'John Shakespeare was accused of illegal wool dealing,
'paying hundreds of pounds for tods of wool in London,
'which was an offence.
'And, as David says, the family were suspiciously well-off.'
The father, over a period of time, accumulated several hundred pounds.
Now, that doesn't sound very impressive today,
but Shakespeare goes on to buy the second biggest house in Stratford
for £60 and we know that, either side of about the year 1600,
he's investing very heavily.
He's buying land. So the family becomes considerably wealthy.
'But all this played to William's advantage
'and wool gave him the finances
'to move to London and buy into the world of theatre.'
Writers over the centuries have commented on this.
He had to buy his share of the theatre.
Where was the money coming from for that?
Where was the money coming from for the big house?
Where was the money coming from for this and that?
It just doesn't make any sense.
The money has to come from somewhere.
'And there's one final piece of evidence
'of Shakespeare's wool-dealing credentials
'that David's keen to show me.'
There's only really one illustration -
I've brought a copy with me -
of Shakespeare's tomb.
If you go to Stratford today and you look at that,
what you don't see is this.
This is a wool sack here.
What we know is that the tomb was worked on at a later date
and the way they worked on it was they took this away
and made it a desk and a pen.
Now, it's more than curious that the only illustration we have of it
from this sort of date in the middle of the 17th century
has got his hands on a wool sack.
So, do you think his love was of the wool or of the word?
Oh, I think his LOVE was the word, but I think the way to stay alive
and get fed and be successful financially was the wool.
'As a farmer, I can't help but be really pleased that the success
'of our greatest ever playwright was all down to the wool trade.
'But now the sun is out
'and there's only one place I want to go
'to celebrate Shakespeare and sheep...
'and that's a rather aptly named street in Stratford, of course.'
Well, here we are driving Cotswold sheep
down Sheep Street in Stratford.
'I doubt the mayor would have turned out to greet Shakespeare,
'but today's mayor, Tessa Bates, has come to welcome me.'
Lovely to see you! Quite fitting, do you think,
walking the Cotswold sheep down Sheep Street?
I think it's amazing to have sheep in Sheep Street
and to be associated with Shakespeare
in this special year for Stratford,
to bring the countryside right into Stratford's streets,
it's marvellous and I want to feel
the sheep are enjoying their day out.
They seem to be very relaxed.
It's something different on a nice April afternoon.
-Well, I'll leave you to it. I'd better get on.
-Nice to meet you.
All the best.
Well, it's been a real treat walking these Cotswolds down Sheep Street.
It's certainly drawn the crowds and the sheep, well,
they've been fairly calm in meeting the public
and they don't mind being stroked and that sort of thing,
which is quite extraordinary
because they're not used to walking on tarmac.
They prefer to be on the grass. In fact, that's what I'll do now.
I'll get them down there and put them on the parkland,
onto a bit of grass.
Come on, sheep, move on! Move on, then, that's it, good girls!
Lovely, that'll do, that'll do. Coming through, coming through!
'But, just when it was all going so smoothly,
'the sheep decide they have a plan of their own.
'Maybe with the theatre in their sights,
'they decide to put on their own performance.'
'But All's Well That Ends Well.'
Here we are, we finally made it to the pen,
thanks to the help of all these lovely visitors.
There were some exciting moments, the sheep nearly ended up in a shop,
but let's just grab this sheep.
It's lovely to think, really,
with the Royal Shakespeare Company behind us,
that it was the money made from these beautiful sheep's wool
that gave William Shakespeare the wealth to forge
a career as a playwright and become famous worldwide.
So, next time you're watching a Shakespeare play,
spare a thought for the humble Cotswold sheep.
Aren't they beautiful?
From Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare travelled
to the theatres of London, where the Globe became home
to the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later the King's Men,
a group of travelling actors including Shakespeare himself.
Although London was at the heart of all things theatrical,
acting companies regularly left the capital
and headed out into the countryside,
taking their plays on the road to perform to rural communities.
I'm in Kent, a county described by the Bard
in his play Henry VI, Part 2 as
"The civilest place of this isle."
Today, I'm following in the footsteps of Shakespeare's players
through this lovely countryside.
With me is going to be one of our best-loved Shakespearean actors.
Dame Judi Dench made her professional debut
playing Ophelia in Hamlet.
She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961
and she's toured the world in Shakespeare productions.
Your Majesty shall mock at me.
-Hello. What kept you?
I'm been learning my lines, sorry.
-Of course you have.
-What a lovely place to sit and wait.
Now, you've had an enduring passion for Shakespeare, haven't you?
All your life, really. How did it start?
It started when I was taken to see
my brothers at St Peter's in York -
as a little girl, really.
My eldest brother walked on as Duncan and said,
"What bloody man is that?"
And I thought, "This has blown my mind!
-"This is Shakespeare and swearing all in one."
-All at once!
"I get to do that."
When you were touring as a young actress,
what was it like in those days?
It was fantastically exciting
when I think of the places we played all over America and Canada.
I remember once when we played in Philadelphia,
we got there and our first performance was Twelfth Night,
and we hadn't had a lot of time to check the entrances and exits
and going under the stage and up the other end like that.
And three people were off,
were simply not there when you turned round.
And I entered at one point and said,
"Get ye all three into the box-tree,
"Malvolio's coming down this walk."
And John Neville said to me, "Do you want to bet?"
-He said to me - loudly!
-No sign of them.
What it must have been like to have been an actor and have
Shakespeare either present in the theatre or acting alongside you.
And helping with the lines, I hope, you know?
I mean, that's just...
That blows your mind, doesn't it? I can't...
I can't imagine what that was like.
-Fancy going on a little bit of a tour now?
-Why don't we go?
-See what we find.
-Pursued by a bear.
To help Judi and I find the rural routes that Shakespeare
and his troupe would have taken,
we're meeting up with Siobhan Keenan,
a leading expert on Elizabethan touring players.
-Nice to see you.
Is this the kind of rural pathway that Shakespeare
and his men would have travelled?
Well, not dissimilar to some of the routes.
We're very close here, where we are in Kent,
to the old Pilgrims' Way to Canterbury.
That was the main artery heading down to Canterbury.
If you were going on a tour in the south-east,
that would often be a route that you would take.
There's a good chance that Shakespeare will have been
very close to where we are today when he will have made
a journey down into south-east.
I'd no idea that they toured so much, the company.
Yes, thankfully we know this partly because of the wonderful work
a project called the Records Of
Early English Drama project have been doing.
What they've discovered is that players went to places
all across England.
So they go up as far north as York,
down in the south-west to Bristol, across here to places like Dover.
So they really did go a lot of places.
Siobhan, how were the touring companies regarded?
And did that go down well?
The only players who were actually allowed to travel from the 15th
century onwards were people who had a royal patron or a noble patron.
If you didn't have one of those patrons you could
be deemed a rogue or a sturdy vagabond.
Nothing's changed, has it?!
Is there anywhere around here do you think that Shakespeare
and his troupe might have gone?
They went to some well-known places like Canterbury,
but they also went to some lesser-known places and I'm
-really hoping there's one I can show you.
-Well, let's go, shall we?
It's thought that one of the ways Shakespeare's acting company
may have travelled was by boat.
'So that's how we're getting to the pretty little town of Fordwich
'on the River Stour.'
In Shakespeare's time, the river made it a thriving thoroughfare
and the major port for Canterbury.
It was also on the circuit for Elizabethan strolling players.
Well, if Shakespeare and his company did indeed come to Fordwich by river
we're now on what would had been the main landing point
and these are the main gates into the town of Fordwich.
-Oh, right. Are they still open?
-I think it is.
All the stone for Canterbury Cathedral came in through here.
I believe that's true.
But it's Fordwich's 16th century town hall,
where Shakespeare himself could have performed,
that we've really come to see.
Well, what a wonderful building, isn't it?
Before you could perform in the town, you needed to get permission.
So here, the chances are that you came to the town hall
to visit the mayor to seek his licence to perform in the community.
Shall we go and have a look inside?
-Are we allowed to?
-Yes, we can.
How about this, then?
-Oh, my word!
-Isn't it wonderful?
Not very big, though, is it?
I mean, if you have 12 actors...
This first performance that they might have done before the mayor,
it might have been a select audience.
It might have basically been civil dignitaries.
Actually, for the larger performances,
you might have gone off somewhere else in the community,
so perhaps a local inn or a church or even outdoors.
Oh, I was going to say, isn't it believed, yes, that they also came
-and found an area or courtyard or something?
Market squares were sometimes used.
I think here this probably would have been a select audience.
Is there any evidence today that the King's Players actually did
put on a performance here?
-There is and in fact, I can show you...
-And what plays?
-Oh, I say!
-What we've got here is a copy
of the mayor's accounts from 1605.
Just here, and it says, "To the King's players
"on the 6th of October, ten shillings."
We know that at court in 1605 they performed revivals of Henry V
and Love's Labour's Lost and The Merchant Of Venice.
So any of those plays could have been in the reparatory that
-they brought here.
-And maybe Will himself was in the cast, who knows?
It's entirely possible in that he's definitely still active
in the company at this date, he's still writing plays for them.
So there's a chance that he could have come here.
You sense the history here, don't you?
Imagine what the atmosphere must have been like
when the players were first performed.
Does it inspire you to give us a few lines?
-Romeo and Juliet?
-A bit of Romeo and Juliet.
-A bit of Romeo and Juliet.
"O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
"Deny thy father and refuse thy name. Or if thou wilt not,
"be but sworn my love, and I'll no longer be a Capulet."
"Shall I hear more or shall I speak at this?"
I'm actually acting with Dame Judi Dench!
That's what they did, you see, they came in here and nobody rehearsed.
-They just got up and did it.
Aren't we lucky to still have a place like this
-where Shakespeare could well have played?
And just imagine him arriving and going in and playing.
It's extraordinary to think of, isn't it?
I've really enjoyed following in his footsteps with you, Dame Judi.
-Thank you very much.
-Me too. And how do we find out more
about where he went to and where he took his company?
Well, you could go to this website...
-Shall we have a cup of coffee now?
-Oh, what a good idea!
Cornwall, famous for its rugged, weather-beaten coastline.
Exposed to the mercy of the elements.
And it's here among the stunning natural features
that Shakespeare has had a dramatic influence on the landscape.
This is the Minack Theatre.
Now, at first glance it looks like it's been here for centuries,
a relic of some ancient civilisation.
But actually it was carved from this Cornish hillside in the 1930s
and all for a staging of Shakespeare's The Tempest.
It was the creation of a remarkable woman.
"We are such stuff as dreams are made on."
This incredible auditorium was hewn out of granite
by theatre lover Rowena Cade
and it stands as a powerful monument to her imagination.
Rowena and her gardener Billy Rawlings began building it
when she discovered a local theatre group were looking to stage
a production of Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest.
After six months of backbreaking work,
finally on 16th August 1932 the very first audience
made their way down steep paths to get their first glimpse
of this spectacular outdoor stage, inspired by Shakespeare.
It was the perfect setting for his magical tale
set on a rocky and remote island.
"To thy strong bidding, task Ariel and all his quality."
"Hast thou, spirit, performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?"
Phil Jackson is the theatre's operations manager.
Now, I've got a copy of the programme from back then.
I think you might knows somebody on this cast list, do you?
There's a Jackson in the cast list, which is my Aunt Marion.
It was very much local people, local actors
and the children came from local schools.
My Aunt Marion was one of the nymphs back then.
-That's wonderful! So that's her, right there?
There's having an artistic dream here
and then there's the reality of making it happen.
This would have been hard work to create a space like this.
Rowena was creative but she was also tough.
Brought up in a Victorian home, you know, with servants
and stuff like that.
So she was a genteel Cheltenham Ladies' College girl
but you don't expect her to come and mix concrete on the cliff.
Rowena Cade was driven by her passion to create the ultimate
setting for The Tempest.
You can see why she thought this was the perfect spot for a play
that starts with a shipwreck in the midst of a terrible storm.
The theatre is surrounded by crashing waves.
Up here you're exposed to the full force of the elements.
There really is no hiding place.
Even today, the weather has the power to scare us
but back in Shakespeare's time it played a much more profound role
in people's lives.
Many believed that extreme weather was the work of a vengeful
God or evil agents like witches and spirits.
And it's thought that a shipwreck off the coast of Bermuda might
have inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest.
It's an idea that intrigues weather historian Peter Moore.
Across here in June 1609 you would have seen a fleet of ships
carrying about 600 people starting off on their voyage
across the Atlantic for what was to be Nova Britannia -
a new British colony in the Americas.
This fleet sailed straight into an enormous
West Indian hurricane.
There were survivors but a lot of the people on the ship
thought to have been lost,
-turned up a year later back in London.
So not only do you have people coming back from the dead,
because they all thought that these people on sea venture had
been drowned at sea, now they turned out to be alive, but they had
this description of weather that no-one had ever
-really experienced before.
-Couldn't conceive of.
So this was perfect for drama.
How amazing it must've been to see the drama of The Tempest
acted out on a stage with the mighty Atlantic as a backdrop.
Rowena was a true visionary.
But her work didn't stop with that production,
the Minack became her lifetime's work.
And how proud she would have been to know that it continues
to inspire the next generation of theatre lovers.
-'I saw you wearing a crown.
-Oh, yes, I am the King of Sicilia.
-'You're the King of Sicilia?
When I was in primary school we used to come
and watch a lot of plays here
and I always thought this was a really cool place
to be able to perform.
Amazing to perform on here
and also I feel like it makes everyone realise
how good Shakespeare was because
obviously the Romeo and Juliet balcony and everything is here.
-It's all Shakespeare.
-Fun to play with.
Tonight, local schools are performing scenes
inspired by the Bard.
It is great to see that Shakespeare's influence
is still strong here at the Minack.
The local community coming together just as it did in those early days.
We've been celebrating Shakespeare's connection
to the British countryside on the 400th anniversary of his death.
Earlier, I was exploring the ancient Forest of Arden,
getting a tantalising glimpse of the landscape
Shakespeare himself would have known.
But the woodland setting holds other clues to Shakespeare the countryman.
Shakespeare's works are filled with images of nature
and plants have an important role.
He mentions more than 180 different kinds in his plays.
It's clear that the Bard had a particular
interest in the flora that surrounded him.
I'm taking a walk with garden writer Jackie Bennett
to learn about some of the stars of his plays.
We're surrounded by spring colour here.
What's the connection with Shakespeare and spring flowers?
Well, Shakespeare was born in spring and he died in spring,
so we always associate him with this season.
In a sense, they're the bookends of his life.
But also, because he came from a farming background,
he was really clued-in to the seasons.
The expectation was that his audience were equally
clued-in to the natural world.
Maybe we aren't so much today, but they were then.
Yeah, I mean, even in London there were lots of green spaces,
so people weren't quite as disconnected perhaps
as they are now from the wild and from nature.
People weren't just more in tune with nature
in Shakespeare's time. Objects in the natural world held meanings
that would have been understood by most people.
Flowers, in particular, had a language of their own.
And it was this language that Shakespeare called upon
during one of his most powerful scenes.
Just before the character of Ophelia drowns in Hamlet,
she distributes flowers to those around her.
"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.
"Pray you, love, remember.
"And there is pansies, that's for thoughts.
"There's fennel for you, and columbines.
"There's rue for you, and here's some for me.
"We may call it herb of grace o'Sundays.
"O, you must wear your rue with a difference!
"There's a daisy.
"I would give you some violets but they wither'd all
"when my father died.
"They say he made a good end."
What seems to be going on in this scene with Ophelia?
She's obviously demented with grief.
She's lost her father and Hamlet's been really horrible to her.
But she's got together this kind of strange bunch of plants that,
to our eyes, don't really fit very well together.
You've got herbs and you've got flowers, but actually these would
all be strewing herbs for the bedchamber, for example.
You'd strew them on the floor with the rushes to make it smell nice.
Do the individual plants that she refers to have particular meaning?
Yeah, I think to Shakespeare's audience
that each one of them would have a meaning.
That's what she's picking up on.
So she talks about rosemary and she says that's for remembrance.
That was the association -
it was used at funerals and it signifies longevity.
Rue's a very interesting plant because we don't find it much now,
-cos it's actually quite dangerous if you touch it.
You can get blisters from it.
Ophelia calls it the herb of grace and that's
because it was taken into church on a Sunday
and if you were genuinely repentant
then you would get forgiveness, basically.
-And then violets?
-Violets signify humility.
That's because they're quite understated
and they're thought of as dim and growing in low places and not showy.
Gosh, it makes giving a bunch of flowers these days
seem like a doddle, doesn't it? There's no meaning!
-"Have some daffodils."
In Shakespeare's day, the natural world held a deep-seated resonance
for people in a way that's different from today.
Shakespeare used this to great effect
because he was a countryman at heart.
And it's his passion for nature and our countryside
that has proved timeless.
So it's only fitting we end with the words of William Shakespeare.
"This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars.
"This other Eden, demi-paradise."
"This precious stone set in the silver sea."
"This earth, this realm."