All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages
One of Barnstaple’s claims to fame is that it is the birth place of the poet and playwright John Gay, however 80 years before he was born Barnstaple played host to a troupe of players amongst whose numbers may well have been another playwright – William Shakespeare.
Hidden away in the accounts for the Borough of Barnstaple are references of payments to the “Kynges Players.” They first visited the town in 1604/5 being paid 10 shillings for their troubles. They came back again in 1607/8 by “Master Maiors Commaundement” and were paid twice what they had been paid before.
The Barnstaple Borough records are now in the care of the North Devon Record Office, but before 1988 they were looked after by the North Devon Athenaeum. The records were offered a safe home with the Athenaeum in the late 19th century by the then Librarian Thomas Wainwright and one of the directors John Roberts Chanter, but that’s a story for another time!
More recently however, another director and current Chairman of our Board has drawn attention to another possible Shakespearian link with North Devon, this time with Bideford. Another item on our shelves is a copy of An Essay towards a History of Bideford in the County of Devon by John Watkins [D900/BID/WAT]. In it is a transcript of a decree issued from the Court of Chancery in 1608 against the Bridge Trust of Bideford after a case was brought against them by the town’s people…
part of the said rent were paid out for the private occasions of the said feoffees, as by entertainment of strangers and in banqueting and often feasting between themselves, as also for the seeing of stage plays acted within the Town of Bydeford;
[p 155, History of Bideford by John Watkins]
If the Kings Players had visited Barnstaple in 1604, they could well have visited Bideford in order to make the most money out of the trip as possible. The roads to North Devon in the 17th Century would have been awkward and unpleasant and any travelling group of players would have wanted to make the journey worth their while financially.
As well as the tantalising references to Shakespeare’s presence in North Devon on our shelves past and present, we also have several copies of his work. These stand alongside other fascinating items about his work and life including and interesting looking volume by Mrs Elizabeth Griffith entitled The Morality of Shakespeare’s Drama published in 1775.
Perhaps the most fascinating item we have on our shelves associated with the Bard is a copy of a book he is supposed to have used as a reference for his historical plays, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande, originally published in 1577. Whilst our edition was published later in 1597, not only is it the oldest book in our Library Collection it is also nice to think it may well have been in North Devon at the same time as Shakespeare and the Kings Players.
Back to the present and a few weeks ago we were visited by reporters from the local news who were putting together radio and television news items for BBC Shakespeare On Tour. Once again Shakespeare is making his mark in North Devon…