In History

Bust of William Shakespeare in Windsor Castle

"Marry, this is the short and long of it”
Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor

Today, 23 April, marks the birth in 1564 and death in 1616 of the world's most famous playwright, William Shakespeare.  During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare was part of a company called the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’ which went on to become ‘The King’s Men’ during the reign of King James I.

Here in Windsor, Shakespeare wrote his play The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1597 and in the play there are many references to parts of the town: Windsor Great Park, Windsor Castle and Datchet Meads, where Falstaff was thrown into the river.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy in five acts that centres on the comic romantic misadventures of Sir John Falstaff.  Sir John plans to hustle his way into retirement by seducing the wives of two wealthy men, however it is the women of Windsor (Mistresses Page and Ford) who pull the strings in this play.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only play set entirely in England with the main symbols being Herne’s Oak, Windsor Castle and the Order of the Garter.

Samuel Pepys stayed at The Garter Inn (now the site of the Harte and Garter hotel) and he wrote that the play The Merry Wives of Windsor was one of the first plays to be performed after the Restoration in 1660 (he saw it himself in December 1660).

The Garter Inn is mentioned throughout the play and it is possible that Shakespeare stayed there whilst writing the play for Queen Elizabeth I in 14 days.  The Fairy Queen in the play alludes to the queen herself.  Falstaff and his retinue stay at the inn for £10 a week.  Although the play was written in 14 days in 1597, the full version wasn't published until 1602.

On the staircase inside the Harte and Garter hotel are stained-glass windows depicting the main characters of the play: Mistresses Ford and Page, Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and Bardolph, the latter three coming from previous Henry plays.  It is believed that Falstaff was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and she wanted him to appear in the new play.

Windsor Castle is mentioned in the play, specifically the Order of the Garter which Mistress Quickly refers to in Act 5:

“And Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense ….”

This is a reference to the motto of the Order.  Falstaff himself is believed to have been either a Poor Knight (Military Knights today) or a degraded Knight of the Garter.  His behaviour in all the Henry plays lends itself to the latter.

There are other plays that can be linked to Windsor and the castle as although they were not written here, the people mentioned in them were present here.  For example, in Henry IV Part I, there is a reference to a council meeting here in Windsor.  In Henry V, Sir Thomas Erpingham is mentioned many times; he is a Garter Knight with a stall plate in St George’s Chapel and was in charge of the archers at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.  Other Garter Knights are mentioned: Bolingbroke, Richard III and the Beaufort family.  There are also references to people who are now buried in St George’s Chapel, namely Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, Henry VI and William, Lord Hastings.

Shakespeare also lives on in Windsor Castle's Royal Library. Here there are over 500 books on William Shakespeare including, in The Queen's collection, First/Second/Third Folios and mini books in the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls' House.  Shakespeare appeared in Ben Jonson’s play Every Man in his Humour, and it was Jonson who published his collective works on Shakespeare’s death in 1616 which paved the way for the First Folio.  The First Folio brought together 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, without which all his plays could have been lost to the world.

The King's Head in Church Street is an area where we believe Shakespeare would have researched his play.  We are not sure exactly where Shakespeare stayed whilst in Windsor but the King’s Head dates back to 1548 so would have been here when Shakespeare was thought to have been in Windsor.  If he stayed anywhere other than The Garter Inn, this was a strong possibility.

In thed Parish Church of St John the Baptist is the hatchment to Richard Gallys (1517-74).  Gallys was the host of the Garter Inn and was a rich burgess who had land in Datchet and Clewer and was educated at Eton College.  He was mayor of Windsor three times and MP in 1562.  At his first attendance, he unwisely suggested that a suitable husband should be found for Queen Victoria!

 We believe that Shakespeare based his character (the host of the Garter Inn in ‘Merry Wives’) on him.  Today Richard Gallys has a road named after him.

Queen Victoria was very fond of Shakespeare’s plays and she set up the Windsor Theatricals between 1848-61 in the castle.  She enjoyed watching performances of Shakespeare’s plays, for example Hamlet in 1849 and Macbeth in 1853.  There are no records of plays being performed after 1861, possible due to the death of Prince Albert that year.

Like Queen Victoria, Prince Charles is also a big fan of Shakespeare.  He wrote a book in 1995 about his favourite Shakespeare plays and performed in Macbeth whilst at school.  He is currently President of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

David Garrick (1717-79), is a famous actor who performed in many of Shakespeare’s plays and was the first actor to be buried in Poet’s Corner.  There is a portrait of him in the State Apartments in Windsor Castle.

Windsor Great Park is mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor in Act 3/5, in particular Herne’s Oak and Herne the Hunter.  Here Falstaff has dressed up as Herne when he is met by the ladies of the play:

“Am I a woodman, ha! Speak I like Herne the Hunter!”

William Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616 aged 52 and is buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Shakespeare’s plays are performed and watched all over the world and he was aware of the outer world whilst alive. This is reflected in the famous line from As You Like It:

“All the world's a stage, and all men and women merely players”.

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