April 2018: Oxford and Shakespeare

April 2018: Oxford and Shakespeare

At a place not far from here one extraordinary man draws people to place, Shakespeare and Stratford upon Avon.  At Oxford it is the place which draws the person, rather than the other way round, and many extraordinary people have been drawn here, or become extraordinary as a result of coming here.  Indeed, ‘extraordinary people’ is to be the theme for Oxford Open Doors September 8 -9 so put it in your diary now.

So what of Shakespeare and Oxford?  Could it be that the place has overpowered the man, for who knows of the links between Shakespeare and Oxford as a place, which is so little known or celebrated?  Is it that he was a visitor to town, not gown, for in his time professional theatre companies and playwrights were not polite company, the University policy banning members from attending productions.  All this seems a long way from the Shakespeare plays we regularly enjoy in college grounds on fine Summer evenings.

If his Plays in College Quads are the norm, then how appropriate it is to celebrate Shakespeare at  Oxford.  To mark Shakespeare’s birthday, on Monday 23 April Oxford’s civic dignitaries and University scholars will don their finery and join the parade from the Lord Mayor’s Parlour to the Painted Room in Cornmarket, once part of the Crown Tavern, but more of that later.  This tradition began in 1938 when Oxford Preservation Trust were in offices in the Painted Room and the Shakespeare links had recently been rediscovered.  The event disappeared in the 1960s but when OPT took back the Room in 2013 we just had to revive it. 

This will be the fifth year coming together to drink a toast to the immortal bard in malmsey and sack, a sweet wine and favourite tipple of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, nowadays all thanks to Jeremy Mogford and his Old Bank team.  Each year a different Oxford academic takes the stage, and Dr Emma Smith, who was much in the news a couple of years ago for discovering an unknown first Folio, will raise the toast and deliver a speech on Shakespeare.   Looking back to the 1930s photos it seemed a rather dour affair with men in grey suits and few smiles.  We, of course, take a different view, and whilst gowns and formal dress have their place, all are led by our own Shakespeare Town Crier, borrowed from Abingdon for the day, and medieval musicians from the Oxford Waits joining the procession, alongside pupils from the Oxford Spires Academy who will entertain our guests with excerpts from As You Like It.

So what of this Shakespeare link to the Painted Room which first appears in the Oxford diaries of antiquarian Antony Wood and of his friend John Aubrey?  3 Cornmarket was then the Crown Tavern, and the innkeeper, John Davenant, who had come from London and went on to become Lord Mayor, knows Shakespeare. The diaries tell that Shakespeare visited the Tavern on his journeys between London and Stratford, and that John’s son William, who becomes a playwright, is a favourite of Shakespeare.  There has even been mention of John’s wife Jane, being the only name linked romantically to Shakespeare other than Anne Hathaway, but no proof there sadly.

It is exciting to see how a resurgence of interest in Shakespeare and Oxford is unearthing new evidence of plays performed in Oxford at the time, and by the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s own company of actors.  Who paid them and who went to watch them perform?  In the City’s Archives there is record of the Lord Mayor, Thomas Harris, paying the King’s Men, and in Corpus Christi’s archive, we can only be grateful that Henry Jackson, theology fellow, bent the University rules, admitting in a letter that he and other clergymen-in-training ‘gathered together most eagerly’ to watch some plays, describing Othello taking place at the Guildhall it seems, where the Town Hall now stands. 

Oxford Preservation Trust has a Guide and Trail to Shakespeare in Oxford which will be available at the Painted Room when we open on Sunday 22 April, giving everyone the chance to see the medieval wall paintings more clearly now that panelling has been removed. I hope to see you there.