Some of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays may have been inspired by his elite neighbours, according to a theatre historian who has spent a decade trying to pinpoint the Bard’s address.
Geoffrey Marsh, the director of the V&A’s department of theatre and performance, spent 10 years researching the exact location and surroundings of Shakespeare’s east London home, close to what is now Liverpool Street station, in the late 1590s.
Marsh has cross-referenced various official records to find the location and believes the playwright lived next to a set of powerful international merchants, doctors and artists at what is now 35 Great St Helen’s, which then was in one of the city’s wealthiest parishes.
Plays such as Macbeth, King Lear and As You Like It could all have been informed by conversations Shakespeare had with his neighbours, Marsh said. While he lived at the east London address in his late 20s and early 30s, “for at least four or five years”, Marsh said, he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet, among others.
Marsh believes his findings could explain why so many of Shakespeare’s plays are set in foreign places he had never travelled to, such as Italy.
Among his most influential immediate neighbours could have been two doctors, Edward Jorden and Peter Turner, who had lived in Germany and Italy, the historian believes, although he cannot prove conversations between them took place.
Their medical expertise and personal lives may have provided material for several of Shakespeare’s plays. The three witches in Macbeth, for instance, could have been inspired by Dr Jorden’s involvement in a prominent witch trial known as the Mary Glover affair, Marsh said.
“The key thing is that at the time in a parish, you had to go to church every Sunday, it was the law,” he said.
“This wealthy doctor, Peter Turner, who had studied at Heidelberg University in Germany, literally lived next door to Shakespeare. Another neighbour was Edward Jorden, also a doctor. These people were very progressive thinkers, who had gone to train in intellectual centres of Europe. Shakespeare would definitely have seen them at church every week.”
The question plaguing all historians concerned with Shakespeare, Marsh said, is how he got the ideas for his plays and characters.
“This is a guy who came to town from a provincial place, seeking to restore his family’s reputation and to re-establish his wealth,” Marsh said.
“He had to churn these plays out, had to write quickly. There were no newspapers, books were pretty unusual, so you had to speak to people to learn anything, and I think he did and picked up all this radical, progressive information, and used it to develop his unusual characters.”
Marsh’s research also reveals Shakespeare knew the musician Thomas Morley, who is believed to have collaborated with him on a song in As You Like It. Morley is also thought to have been one of the Bard’s neighbours in St Helen’s.