Felixstowe playwright goes in search of Shakespeare in Suffolk

Shakespeare gets to grips with Christopher Marlowe in Suzanne Hawkes' new play Shakespeare in Suffol

Shakespeare gets to grips with Christopher Marlowe in Suzanne Hawkes' new play Shakespeare in Suffolk - Credit: cont

While the academics may argue over whether William Shakespeare, the son of a glove-maker, actually wrote the plays credited to him – or whether he really existed at all – Suffolk playwright Suzanne Hawkes has no doubts at all.

Felixstowe playwright Suzanne Hawkes who has written and researched Shakespeare in Suffolk, a new pl

Felixstowe playwright Suzanne Hawkes who has written and researched Shakespeare in Suffolk, a new play, which is part of the RSC's Open Stages season

While the academics may argue over whether William Shakespeare, the son of a glove-maker, actually wrote the plays credited to him – or whether he really existed at all – Suffolk playwright Suzanne Hawkes has no doubts at all.

She has researched the life of Shakespeare, the actor, and is in no doubt that not only did he exist but Shakespeare also played to paying audiences here in Suffolk .

The work she has carried out both at the Suffolk Records Office and in the archives of the Royal Shakespeare Company has been poured into a new production, Shakespeare In Suffolk, which has been produced as part of the RSC’s Open Stages project which is designed to help integrate Shakespeare into amateur theatre.

Suzanne, who is based In Felixstowe, and a former member of the New Wolsey Theatre’s writing group, has written a number of historical plays based on events and characters related to the county and was encouraged by local historian Dr John Blatchley to pursue some intriguing clues relating to Shakespeare in Suffolk uncovered during a previous project.

The cast of Shakespeare in Suffolk at Christchurch Mansion

The cast of Shakespeare in Suffolk at Christchurch Mansion - Credit: cont

“The seeds for this latest play were sewn when I was researching my play about Wolsey a couple of years ago. As I was researching Wolsey’s life I was coming across references to Shakespeare and Suffolk and Dr Blatchley also mentioned there were connections worth investigating. At that stage it was all very tenuous and I had more than enough to do tackling Wolsey’s life, so I put it to the back of my mind.

“Once the Wolsey play was over, I knew I had to come to Tudor Suffolk because I really love writing about that period. Then, as luck would have it, I got this letter from the RSC saying that they were doing this Open Stages project looking for re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays. They wanted the works of Shakespeare interpreted in new and exciting ways to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.”

Most Read

Suzanne replied saying that she didn’t want to do an exisiting play but would it be okay if she wrote something new about Shakespeare himself? This resulted in an invitation to the RSC’s home at Stratford-Upon-Avon to discuss her ideas.

“I was thrilled because not only has Shakespeare always fascinated me but I love the age in which he lived and it’s a real honour to get an invitation to go and talk to the RSC about a project about Shakespeare.”

The restored Globe Theatre on London's Southbank. When the original Globe was closed because of plag

The restored Globe Theatre on London's Southbank. When the original Globe was closed because of plague then Shakespeare's company The Chamberlain's Men would go on tour to Suffolk. - Credit: Archant

She said that it was important that the play was rooted in Suffolk and this was an aspect that the RSC were also keen on because it added to the regional nature of their project. The fact that Suzanne was researching Shakespeare the player as opposed to Shakespeare the playwright was also intriguing because it was an area that had not been covered in any great detail before.

“At that stage I was just really pitching the idea to them and telling them I had this idea for a play about Shakespeare while he was in The Chamberlain’s Men. They liked what they heard and signed me up as one of the 100 productions they would be supporting during the anniversary year.

“I discovered later that I was only one of four people who was writing something new – everyone else was performing a Shakespeare play or staging an existing play which related to Shakespeare.”

She said that of the people writing new work – two were weaving extracts around a new dramatic framework. One was looking at Shakespeare’s Women, another at Shakespeare’s Kings and a third was writing a new work surrounding the likelihood that Shakespeare was the author or co-author of Arden of Faversham.

A newly discovered portrait of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime. This is how he would

A newly discovered portrait of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime. This is how he would have looked to the people of Suffolk during the residency by The Chamberlain's Men in 1603. - Credit: PA

Having won the support of The Royal Shakespeare Company, Suzanne then set about researching the early life of Shakespeare in as much depth as she could manage. Months were spent in commuting between Suffolk and Stratford to access rare papers held by both the RSC and the Shakespeare Trust. She also spent many weeks leafing through ancient records held in Suffolk relating to payments for local performances by The Chamberlain’s Men during the 16th century and trying to obtain written evidence that William Shakespeare was a member of the company.

“The RSC told me that there is so little documentation about Shakespeare’s early life that you could, within reason, follow your imagination but I have always wanted to root my work in some semblance of reality and so I set about gleaning what I could from the written record and then started researching what life was like for the players of the time and apply what I had learned to Shakespeare’s story.”

She said although much is conjecture, Shakespeare in Suffolk is not a flight of fancy. He did come here as a member of The Chamberlain’s Men – there are written records showing he was paid to perform here – and the details of the life of a travelling player are accurate. What Suzanne has done is dramatise the day to day life of Shakespeare’s company and imagine the circumstances in which that he made the leap from being an ordinary player to author, director and eventually co-owner of The Globe.

“I read all the historical documents I could get a look at and then started collecting as many books on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Theatre that I could lay my hands on. Wherever I went in the country, I disappeared into secondhand book shops searching out books on the theatre during this period. I just immersed myself in it for pretty much a year.

“John Southworth’s book Shakespeare The Player was very helpful – John was the former artistic director at the old arts theatre in Tower Street – but the book that really helped point me in the right direction was an old-out-of-print book on Shakespeare, which I found in antiquarian book shop in Bristol, that had references to documents which I could then ask to see.”

She said that some of documents quoted were held by The Suffolk Record Office. “I went and looked at the actual documents and there it was, in writing, The Chamberlain’s Men, in 1596, with Shakespeare as a company member, had been paid by the borough to come to Ipswich to perform.

“Through my research at Stratford I had found that not only was Shakespeare a member of the company at the time he was also some of their ‘stars’, one of their big attractions.”

She said it was at this time Shakespeare had started writing for the company with his play Titus Andronicus appearing in print as early as 1594.

“In 1593 he was acting and writing for Edward Alleyn at The Rose (theatre) as part of The Admiral’s Men. There seemed to be a falling out between Allen and James and Richard Burbage, who were some of the theatrical heavyweights of the day.

“The Burbages set up The Chamberlain’s Men as a result of this dispute and it seems that Shakespeare left Alleyn and threw in his lot with Richard Burbage. It was for Burbage that Shakespeare would write many of his most famous works including Hamlet, Othello, Richard III and King Lear.”

For many years Shakespeare both acted with and wrote for The Chamberlain’s Men. Accounts for the company, which still survive, show that he received acting fees – but strangely not royalties for the scripts.

“Although scripts were obviously important, without them you couldn’t put on a show, but they were seen as being in the public domain. The stories weren’t original. They were either based on historical events or were adapted from folk tales.

“Everyone borrowed and adapted everyone elses stories. Shakespeare was the same but his trick was to put his stamp on the dialogue and to never forget that he was creating a public entertainment. He was a great storyteller.”

The Chamberlain’s Men obviously knew the value of having Shakespeare on board because they allowed him to buy himself a directorship of the company – one of five named individuals.

“This was a smart move by Shakespeare because that meant that he was one of the few playwrights who was earning money from his work. The playwright didn’t own the plays they wrote, the company did and now that Shakespeare was a shareholder he could receive a slice of the profits.”

Then, as now, the life of a player was not easy and when plague or the whim of The Lord Chamberlain closed the theatres in London, actors were forced to take to the road and tour the provinces.

Suffolk, bring not too far from London, was a regular stop. Companies on tour would not perform in theatres. Like a travelling circus they would pitch up at roadside inns and play in courtyards or perform for the great and the good at special invitation performances at town’s Guildhall or at the local Manor House. These performances could be lucrative receiving fat fees from the town’s officers while public performances could also gather substantial fees from what was known as The Gathering when a hat or bucket was passed round a large and hugely entertained audience.

Shakespeare In Suffolk by Suzanne Hawkes is currently on tour and will be performed at The Orwell Hotel, Felixstowe, on June 8/9, St Peters By The Waterfront, Ipswich June 10-12, Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich June 14, 20-21.

Shakespeare the actor

“Shakespeare’s plays are not the work of a noble man with no knowledge of a working theatre,” says Suzanne Hawkes. “They are practical, functional documents written with an intimate knowledge of, not only, how a production is staged but also who is in the company at the time. Parts are written for specific actors and on occasion they are named or described in the text.

“Shakespeare was an active and capable player. There are indications that he was a star player for a time. He certainly took major roles in plays by Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd and other writers – and he also appeared in many of his own earlier works but as time went on and he became increasingly occupied by writing he began taking more supporting roles and then cameo roles before stopping all together.

“He would play featured character parts where he could come on, do a couple of short scenes, steal the show, and not have to worry about attending long rehearsals. There is also evidence that he also directed many of his own plays, so that may have also affected his decision to stop acting.”

She said that Shakespeare, not coming from an acting background, his father was a glove-maker, would have needed to have been apprenticed as a young man in order to learn his profession.

“He didn’t turn up in London and reveal himself to be the world’s greatest actor. He had to learn his craft over several years. One of the books I used in my research unearthed documentation that revealed that Worcester’s Men visited Stratford when Shakespeare was 13 and again when he was 16 and Edward Alleyn was part of Worchester’s Men.

“Shakespeare as a young actor was very good friends with Edward Alleyn was this where they met? Shakespeare’s father was having severe financial difficulties at the time of their visit, and was soon after made bankrupt, so did Shakespeare seek a new life in the theatre with Worcester’s Men? I think it is very plausible.”

She said that Shakespeare would have learned his craft as a boy actor with The Worcester’s Men and then accompanied his friend Edward Alleyn over to The Admiral’s Men where he then made his name first as a player and then as a writer.

“Indeed we know that Shakespeare was an actor who wrote because there are pamphlets from the time mocking him for being a humble player who thinks he can write. Little did they know how good he was going to become.”

Shakespeare on Tour

So when could have the people of East Anglia have seen William Shakespeare in person. Records show that Worchester’s Men came to Ipswich at least seven times when Shakespeare was a young actor.

Shakespeare’s next company, his first as an adult, was also a regular visitor and they played the town every year between 1586-89.

The Chamberlain’s Men are recorded to have been well rewarded for a performance for the town’s bailiffs in November 1595. But, it is the winter tour of 1603/04 that has attracted a lot of attention. The theatres were shut in London and Shakespeare and Starting in October 1603, The Chamberlain’s Men travelled first to Maldon in Essex and then onto a residency in Ipswich which is believed to have lasted several weeks.

Because of East Anglia’s notoriously bad roads they are believed to have sailed to Maldon and then onto Ipswich.

During their stay they performed four plays which included Hamlet and Alls Well That Ends Well and something called The Mayor’s Play. These were performed in The Moot Hall which stood on The Cornhill.

It is not known how long they remained in the town but while they were performing to presumably packed house (otherwise they wouldn’t have lingered) they bought horses and wagons to take them on the rest of their tour which would end the following spring in Oxford.

From Ipswich they moved to Hadleigh, then Sudbury before next appearing at Cambridge. But, although records don’t survive it is safe to assume that they also spent a day or two in Bury St Edmunds before their week long stay in Cambridge.

This is thought to be the last time that Shakespeare himself appeared in Suffolk because he was soon to retire from the stage and devote himself to writing which he did largely from his home in Stratford-Upon-Avon.