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Six things linking Shakespeare to Norfolk you may not know about

PUBLISHED: 11:45 23 April 2016

William Shakespeare engraving

William Shakespeare engraving

Archant

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare (and also his 452nd birthday). Stacia Briggs finds six Norfolk links to the man from Heacham to Caister, King’s Lynn to the Maddermarket Theatre, from ghosts to upstart crows and plagues to tempests.

1. In King’s Lynn, during a performance of the play Friar Francis, the story of a woman who murdered her husband after becoming obsessed with another man, and who was then tormented by his ghost, a townswoman found her conscience and suddenly cried out: “Oh my husband, my husband! I see the ghost of my husband fiercely threatening and menacing me…”

She then confessed that she had poisoned her husband seven years previously, having fallen in love with another man, and had since been haunted by his spectral presence. She was later tried and found guilty of the crime. The incident was recalled in A Warning For Fair Women, performed by Shakespeare’s company in 1599 and the episode appears to be echoed in the plot of Hamlet when the travelling players visit Elsinore and Hamlet asks them to perform The Murder of Gonzago, a play which bears an obvious resemblance to Claudius’s murder of Old Hamlet, with an insertion written by him, which pricks Claudius’s conscience.

2. Born in Norwich on July 11 1558, Robert Greene was a famous, popular and established writer by the time Shakespeare first appeared in London in around 1587 – some believe he may have been the first man to support himself as a professional writer in England.

Greene cut a colourful figure with his red beard styled into a trademark point and his fashionable clothes and was keen to not only write, but create Brand Greene, a flamboyant persona that would see his fame spread. Today, however, his fame pivots on the man he berated in print: he is remembered not for his own plays, but for writing a pamphlet with the first historical mention of Shakespeare – and it wasn’t particularly flattering.

In Greens Groats-worth of Witte he wrote: “…for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.”

In other words, Shakespeare is an annoying upstart whose talent is based on our plays, he thinks he can write as well as we can but he’s actually just a Jack-of-all-trades who is conceited enough to think he’s the best actor in the country. Ouch.

That said, the pamphlet was published posthumously so Greene never had to face Shakespeare’s wrath: his fellow scribe Gabriel Harvey attributed Greene’s demise to “a surfeit of pickle herring and Rhenish wine”. He was 34.

3. Heacham was the birthplace of John Rolfe, the 17th-century English settler who is credited as being one of America’s first entrepreneurs due to his canny cross-breeding of Bermuda tobacco with Virginian tobacco. He left England with wife Sarah in 1609 on the Sea Venture which famously blew off course in the infamous Bermuda Triangle during a powerful storm.

As the shop attempted to navigate the reef around Devil’s Isles to safe anchorage, it became wedged between two large rocks, a stroke of both bad and good luck that scuppered the boat but saved its 153-strong crew and passengers. Longboats safely took everyone and the animals on board ashore and the castaways were also able to make journeys back to the ship in calmer weather to pick up provisions, the rigging, the iron used to build the ship and some planking.

Among those on the island, who were castaway on the island for nearly 10 months, was William Strachey, an English writer whose eye-witness account of the shipwreck is thought to have been a source for Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Rolfe, who escaped the island with his shipmates after helping to build two small boats from the shipwreck, arrived in Virginia in 1610, but tragically his wife and newborn daughter died shortly afterwards.

He famously fell in love with Princess Pocahontas, a native American, and obtained permission to marry on April 5 1614. The marriage secured peace between Chief Powhatan and the English settlers, which lasted eight years and allowed the colonists to grow and prosper. In 1616, the Rolfes returned to England but Pocahontas became ill before they travelled back to Virginia in 1617 and died, leaving the Rolfes’ son Thomas to be brought up by his uncle Henry Rolfe at Heacham Hall.

4. Marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Maddermarket Theatre is holding a Shakespeare at 400 Mini-Festival until April 30. Every year, the theatre presents a Shakespeare production – usually in April – but this year there are a raft of performances to honour the Bard.

Tomorrow, Shakespeare’s Greatest Bits will focus on the seven ages of man from the world’s greatest wordsmith at 7.30pm while until April 30, the theatre will be staging King Lear, directed by Chris Bealey. For more information and tickets visit www.maddermarket.co.uk or call the Box Office on 01603 620917.

At Norwich Theatre Royal from Tuesday until Saturday, the Royal Shakespeare Company in a co-production with Norwich-based theatre group The Common Lot, will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of the RSC’s A Play For the Nation tour to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.

The Common Lot will play the Mechanicals in the Shakespearean tale of romance, magic and mischief with LAMDA-trained Owen Evans playing Bottom, the Weaver, Daniel Fridd as Flute, Amelia Hursey as Quince, Eve Pandolfi as Snug, Victoria Stone as Snout and Emma Trindall as Starveling. The group will perform alongside a cast of 18 professional actors and a creative team and will also reprise their roles on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s stage in Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer. For more information and tickets visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call 01603 630000.

5. Sir John Fastolf was born during the early reign of Richard II and grew up at his family’s estates in Norfolk, going on to serve Thomas, Duke of Clarence, the second son of Henry IV, and becoming a loyal servant to the new king Henry V.

Fastolf fought at the Battle of Agincourt, in the sieges of Harfleur, Caen and Rouen and, after the death of Henry V, attached himself to John, Duke of Bedford, who had been made regent of France under the new infant Henry VI. He was created Knight of the Garter after the English victory at Vernueil in 1424. His prestigious career, however, fell by the wayside when he was forced to flee and desert the army led by John Talbot, a significant English commander, at Patay where battle had raged against Joan of Arc.

Despite the fact that Fastolf was simply saving himself and his troops from certain death, he was considered to be a coward. Fastolf’s name was immortalised through Shakespeare’s character Sir John Falstaff, who in reality bears very little resemblances to the clownish, cowardly Falstaff who appears in the Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV parts 1 and 2.

The character was, in fact, an amalgam of several people with a dash of creative licence. Shakespeare’s Falstaff died early in the reign of Henry V, when Fastolf was only mid-way through his career, the real Fastolf retired from military service in around 1440 after which he lived in both Southwark and Norfolk, building Caister Castle where he died in 1459.

He was buried next to his wife Millicent in St Benet’s Abbey in a specially-built aisle on the South side of the abbey church. The ruins of the abbey and the castle can still be visited.

6. Did Shakespeare perform on a Lynn stage? The town was on the circuit for drama groups and a visit from the Earl of Pembroke’s Men in 1593 may well have included a certain William Shakespeare as part of the cast. Historians have discovered that the plays staged at this time included Shakespeare’s early plays, such as Titus Andronicus, Henry VI and The Taming of the Shrew and that the Bard was often present during performances during this time period.

This particular tour wasn’t a huge success and, according to diarist Philip Henslowe, some actors had to pawn their costumes to make ends meet. However bad the situation was on tour, however, it beat being in London where the bubonic plague was raging through the city.

•Don’t miss Monday’s EDP for more Shakespeare connections, ancient and modern...

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