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The Bard’s Town: Shakespeare in London

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William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest literary figures in English history and quite possibly the greatest playwright in the world.  Interestingly enough, for a man who spent the entirety of his life in England and London (and of course, Stratford-on-Avon), most of his plays seem to be set elsewhere.  Italy, Scotland, Denmark, and other parts of Europe provide most of the settings to his classic works from Julius Caesar to Twelfth Night.  Of course, there are also a number of his plays that take place in London, though interestingly they’re practically all history plays.  Each of these plays chronicles the life of one of England’s kings from Richard II to Henry VII.  Enjoy this list of Shakespeare’s London plays and look up some of the places where they took place.

King John

Written approximately in the 1590s, this play chronicles events surrounding the infamous King John and his conflicts both with France and his own nobles.  A good bit of King John’s scenes in London take place in the palace, which is likely to have been Windsor Castle, as John spent part of his reign renovating the accommodations.

Richard II

This play about King Richard II focuses on only two years of Richard’s life from 1398 to 1400.  Having learned nothing from his ancestor John’s example, Richard seizes the property of John of Gaunt and gets accused of wasting the kingdom’s money by his nobles.  Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, then challenges his rule and wins, leading to the Henriad plays (discussed further down this list).  Several important London locales appear in the play including Ely House, Westminster Hall, and Windsor Castle.

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

It might be easy to win a kingdom, but as both parts of Henry IV can attest, holding it is a different matter.  Part 1 follows King Henry IV as he fights back rebellions to his rule and Part 2 continues these rebellions while also giving time to young Prince Hal’s journey to the throne.  Portions of the play take place in the palace, which was likely Eltham Palace, a known favorite location of Henry IV.  The Palace of Westminster features as a location in Part 2.  Lastly, the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap features in both parts, but the original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, and its successor was demolished in 1831, with the current building’s design as a homage to the original and its literary significance.

Henry V

Taking place during the Hundred Years’ War, Henry V sees the young king engaging in his most successful campaign against France and the victory at the Battle of Agincourt.  While the play does have some scenes in London, it’s the least descriptive of where those scenes occur with locations described as “the King’s palace”, “a street”, and “before a tavern”.  Most of the action, of course, takes place in France.

Henry VI, Parts 1 through 3

This trilogy follows the life of King Henry VI as he deals with the aftermath of England’s losses to Frances and the events that lead up to the War of the Roses.  King Henry VI had several palaces in and around London in which he lived that feature in the plays including the Palace of Westminster and Eltham Palace.  It’s likely Henry was at Eltham during the conflicts between Duke Humphrey of Gloucester and Bishop Henry Beaufort of Winchester in 1425.  Kenilworth Castle, Blackheath, and the Tower of London also feature in the plays.

Richard III

Taking place during the War of the Roses, Richard III features a historical villain upgrade on King Richard III, who is presented as a hunched villain scheming to take the throne of England for himself.  In addition to the Tower of London where Richard imprisons his nephews (who later disappear) so that he can take power, another important real place that appears is Baynard’s Castle.  While the castle was destroyed because of the Great Fire in 1666, the site is now home to the Baynard House office block.

Henry VIII

Featuring the biggest personality to ever sit the throne of England, Henry VIII sees the downfall of both Catherine of Aragon and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and the elevation of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer.  The play primarily exists to pay homage to Queen Elizabeth I, whose birth serves as the play’s finale.  Most of the play likely takes place in Hampton Court Palace in both the King and Queen’s apartments.

John Rabon
Author: John Rabon

John is a regular writer for Anglotopia and its sister websites. He is currently engaged in finding a way to move books slightly to the left without the embarrassment of being walked in on by Eddie Izzard. For any comments, questions, or complaints, please contact the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson's haircut.