Shakespeare’s writing shaped our modern language, but how did his plays describe the landscape of 15th- and 16th-century Britain? This guide will take you on a mini tour of the Bard’s favoured locations
Yorkshire, Richard II & III
In its prime, Pontefract Castle was one of the most imposing fortresses in all of Europe. It might be hard to believe due to its present ruinous state and the throngs of happy tourists, but its fearful reputation was once so strong that the Bard used it to suggest power and terror.
In Richard II, Pontefract is the gruesome scene of the king’s murder and three men are condemned to execution at the castle in Richard III.
Now, Pontefract is the perfect destination for a grisly yet fascinating day out. Originally built over an Anglo-Saxon burial ground, hundreds of soldiers met their death in the castle walls during the War of the Roses.
A huge network of dungeons hollowed out 35 feet below ground still bear the marks of the unfortunate prisoners’ names, scratched into the walls during weeks, months or years of internment.
Says communications officer Kate Lahive, “Today’s visitors can imagine life as a civil war prisoner in dungeon tours, explore the historic grounds and enjoy a range of exciting events throughout the year.” Visit pontefractcastle.co.uk for more information.
West Yorkshire, Henry VI
First built from timber in the 11th century, by the 13th century Sandal Castle had become an impressive stone fortress.
In the 15th century, the castle found itself at the epicentre of a long-fought and bloody battle, as the War of the Roses raged. It was this conflict that inspired Shakespeare’s Henry VI.
The site of the battlefield is now a peaceful farm and all that remains of the once imposing castle are crumbling walls and the commanding motte and bailey.
Visitors can wander in and out of formerly grand rooms, such as the great chamber, kitchen and bake house. Climb to the top of the motte for spectacular views of the Calder Valley or head to the nearby Wakefield Museum to glimpse finds from the extensive excavations of the site.
News of upcoming large investments in the castle means areas previously closed to the public, such as the bridges and stairs to the keep, will soon be opening. Watch this space! Visit experiencewakefield.co.uk for more information.
A castle built atop Dunsinane Hill in Scotland is one of the dramatic backdrops to the blood-soaked horror of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, Macbeth.
After the army of his rival, Macduff, advances on Dunsinane Hill, Macbeth loses his stronghold and is murdered, as predicted by the three witches, who told him:
“Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam wood to high
Shall come against him” -Act 4, Scene 1
Today, the hill boasts the remains of two forts, one of which is the site on which the real Macbeth suffered a military defeat in 1054.
Visitors to the hill can access it through the pretty Perthshire village of Collace. There are still some impressive ramparts standing, although much of the site was ransacked by 19th-century Shakespeare enthusiasts. Visit walkhighlands.co.uk/perthshire/dunsinane.shtml for more information.
Cliffs of Dover
Kent, King Lear
Much of Shakespeare’s grandiose tragedy, King Lear, is set in Dover and during the fourth act, one of Lear’s advisers is tricked by his own son into believing he’s standing right at the edge of the famous cliffs.
When he attempts to jump to his death, he instead faints in fear and simply falls to the ground. Shakespeare makes this suicide attempt so ridiculous that it borders on comedy. Never before had a playwright crossed the line between tragedy and comedy so brazenly.
Dr Stephen Purcell, an English literature lecturer at Warwick University, explains that this is also “what the cliffs represent to many—a boundary between land and sea, high and low, Britain and the outside.”
Shakespeare’s play brought so much attention and tourism to the cliffs that one of them is now named after him. Visit nationaltrust.org.uk/the-white-cliffs-of-dover for more information.
Forest of Arden
Warwickshire, As You Like It
Situated in Shakespeare’s home county of Warwickshire, Arden was once a heavily wooded area and provides the labyrinthine setting for the Bard’s pastoral comedy.
Plans set in motion by the late Felix Dennis, owner of magazine The Week, have promised to bring this romantic forest to life once more. When he died in 2014, Dennis left his £500m fortune to the development of his forest, and asked to be buried beneath the leaves.
Visitors can enjoy several picturesque walks around the young forest, which is now home to over a million new trees.
Says Heart of England CEO, Beth Brook, “The Heart of England links the two great ancient woodlands—the Forest of Arden and the Forest of Feckenham. To date, over 1.6 million trees have been planted, creating England’s largest new native broad-leaf woodland.
“With long-term plans to plant 30,000 acres, this will play a large part in restoring the area’s woodland heritage, once again creating a forest to match the scale of those from Shakespeare’s time.” Visit heartofenglandforest.com for more information.
Northumberland, Henry IV
Though Shakespeare might have dubbed the castle a “worm-eaten hole of ragged stone”, thanks to English Heritage, Warkworth now stands tall as one of Britain’s most impressive castles.
Perched on a pretty hilltop overlooking the River Coquet, Warkworth remains one of the largest castles in northern England.
As you walk through the striking stronghold, keep an eye out for the bold lion badge carved into the walls. It’s the symbol of the Percy family, one of the most powerful dynasties in England during the Middle Ages, and the family who once called this grandiose castle home.
Shakespeare wrote the character “Hotspur Harry”, the son of the first Earl of Northumberland, into Henry IV Part One. It was his rebellion that caused the Percy family to lose Warkworth Castle, though it was later restored to them. Visit english-heritage.org.uk for more information.
Hertfordshire, Twelfth Night
Built by a Hertfordshire carpenter in 1580, The Great Bed of Ware is a huge four-poster bed that measures an impressive ten by 11 feet.
It’s assumed that the bed was originally designed to increase tourism to the quaint town of Ware, which remains a choice overnight stop for visitors to London or Cambridge. Those who stayed in the bed—which could accommodate up to four couples—would often document their stay by carving their initials into the bedpost or attaching their personal red wax seal.
These delightful details can still be enjoyed by visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where the bed now resides after a brief return to its hometown in 2012.
The Victoria and Albert Museum calls the bed the “single best-known object” in all their collection, which is quite a feat. Visit vam.ac.uk for more information.