Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the British Council's online course, Exploring English: Shakespeare. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 14 seconds Sometime in the late 1580s, a young actor named, William Shakespeare, left his family and home in rural Stratford-Upon-Avon to make his fortune here, 100 miles away, in London.

Skip to 0 minutes and 29 seconds Over the next 20 years, he produced some of the finest poems and plays in the English language.

Skip to 0 minutes and 38 seconds So what happened here, in London, to transform the son of a glove maker into one of the world’s greatest writers?

Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds Today, London is a global centre for finance, the arts, and fashion, and is one of the most diverse cities in the world. But what was London like when William Shakespeare first arrived here? It was obviously a much smaller city. Much of the activity was focused on the city of London, which is now the financial district. The rest of London was not very much developed. The West End didn’t exist. Covent Garden was still a garden. And like modern London, it was a very busy, bustling place. There were lots of people coming into the city looking to make a living. It was a very diverse population, lots of immigrants, different social classes living closely together, the very rich to the very poor.

Skip to 1 minute and 32 seconds And all of these people were hungry for entertainment and, particularly, the entertainment that the theatre could offer. The buildings that Shakespeare would have known were destroyed in 1666 in the great fire of London. So, sadly, we can’t see the city as Shakespeare saw it. Do you think London was a source of inspiration for Shakespeare? Definitely. I’m absolutely sure it inspired Shakespeare. Although he tended to write about faraway places, Athens or Rome, the plays are full of the energy of London. A city that’s a real melting pot of ideas. The centre of political power. And that world, I think, is the world of Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare in London

The characters in Shakespeare’s plays come from many places around the world, including Italy, France and Africa.

But Stratford, where Shakespeare grew up, was a small provincial market town in the middle of England. And he almost certainly never left the country. So where did he get the inspiration for this international cast of characters, and faraway, exotic locations? A lot of people think it was in London.

In this video, we join Ben Crystal again, as he goes to London in search of Shakespeare.

As you watch, make notes.

  • What are the differences between Shakespeare’s London and the city today?
  • How did London inspire Shakespeare?

Share your ideas with other learners.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Exploring English: Shakespeare

British Council