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We’ve all wondered this at one point: what exactly is the link between Shakespeare and Prescot? His connection to The Globe theatre is well established: it was the epicentre of Shakespearean productions. London was where he wrote, where his plays were first performed, and where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men would act… But why Prescot?
Historically, Prescot was a market town, once nicknamed “a town of workshops” due to its influence on the manufacturing industry in all stages of watchmaking, pottery, coal mining and tool making. It was the natural stopping point for those travelling through the North of England, as the highroad from Liverpool to Warrington passes straight through it. This road was once busy with activity, with carts and horses travelling to and from Prescot. The town thrived from being only eight miles outside of one of the country’s largest and most important dockyards.
It was Prescot’s position as a market town that attracted the attention of Ferdinando Stanley, the fifth Earl of Derby. The Earls of Derby had Stewards, who lived throughout the town, including Percival Harrington, who built a small playhouse at the end of Ecclestone Street, on the edge of the Derby Estate, in the 1590’s. This building is believed to have been the only freestanding Elizabethan purpose built indoor playhouse outside of London, and was regularly used by touring acting companies that were visiting Knowsley Hall and other nearby locations. There was a particular uptake in the amount of actors moving outside of London due to the plague closing down a lot of the theatres down south. The Privy council shutting down all London performances in 1592 may have been the inciting incident that led to Shakespeare’s connection with the North of England and the Earls of Derby.
Not only did the Earls own some of Shakespeare’s plays, but in the 16th century, Stanley sponsored a troupe of actors known as ‘Strange’s Men’ (named after his acquired title ‘Lord Strange’). These men would stage productions of Henry VI, one of Shakespeare’s Histories and his first dramatic work, set during the lifetime of King Henry VI of England.
Strange’s Men were also known to perform at Knowsley Hall, the ancestral home of the Stanley family. Some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays contain references to the Stanley’s, and it is believed that these references were included because they were first performed in front of them, at Knowsley Hall. It is also believed that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written for and first performed at the wedding of the new Earl of Derby, William, in 1595, following the untimely death of Ferdinando Lord Strange.
Strange’s Men included Thomas Pope, Will Kempe and John Hemmings: a super group of 16th century performers… But unfortunately, the troupe would not last, due to a combination of the loss of their patron and the rise of the plague. Following their disbandment, these men joined forces with Shakespeare, to form the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe in London. Once King James I became a patron of the troupe, they would be renamed as ‘the King’s Men.’ These men played a crucial role in the establishment of Shakespeare as one of the most famous playwrights of all time: and it all started with Prescot.
If you would like to hear more about the Earls of Derby and their connection to Shakespeare and Prescot, then why not listen to episode two of our podcast You’re Bard! In the episode, we chat to the curator of the Derby collection at Knowsley Hall, Dr Stephen Lloyd. Our conversation goes all the way back to Jacobean England, and explores Prescot’s original cockpit and Shakespeare’s historical connections with the town.
During the planning process of Shakespeare North, the architect took inspiration from the earlier designs of the architect Inigo Jones, who designed the theatre that once stood in Prescot in the 16th century. Since the original plans for that theatre were lost to time, the closest we could get to faithfully recreating it was by studying the earlier designs of Jones, most notably the royal cockpit theatre at Whitehall, which had once been used by the players of the Derby’s and by Shakespeare’s troupe ‘The King’s Men.’ Thankfully, a lot of information survived about the theatre at Whitehall, including some remnants of the building itself, which sits directly below 10 Downing Street. Unlike most theatres at the time, the one at Whitehall was an indoor theatre, making it an obvious choice for inspiration during the design process of Shakespeare North.
However, while structurally similar to the historical theatres of the time, our Cockpit has the added addition of being able to transform into a contemporary space, with both the stage and seating areas fitted with the ability to move around, allowing for it to be either a theatre in the round or a thrust stage. Our stage is the perfect representation of how at Shakespeare North, the past and the present work together: we pay tribute to the past, while at the same time accounting for the changes that have occurred over the past 400 years. Even back in Shakespeare’s day, the theatre was constantly being experimented on, with the indoor arrangements regularly being changed and moved around, in an attempt to find the best way to spin stories into entertainment. Dr Nicholas Helm described the stage of Shakespeare’s day as “a magical laboratory for theatrical experiment”. This was partly due to how it had to adapt to both the Royal brief and the conditions that the King’s Men required. In fact, it was the desire to research the many different forms of theatre space that inspired the creation of Shakespeare North: so it is appropriate that its arrangement is a combination of both old and modern designs.
If you want to learn more about the journey of Shakespeare North, from initial idea to final designs, then check out our interview with the Architect, Dr Nicholas Helm:
In May 1593, a special licence was granted to Strange’s Men, which permitted them to travel outside of London and tour Lancashire (which Prescot was once a part of.) Whilst Shakespeare was not listed amongst the six names on the licence, it is known that at least two additional hired men travelled with them, despite their names not being on the grant. This does leave open the possibility that Shakespeare joined Strange’s Men, during their tour and visit to Prescot, either as an actor or a playwright. Whilst not certifiable proof placing Shakespeare up North, it certainly cannot be ruled out.
Shakespeare wrote around 37 plays in his lifetime, and 36 of them were included in his First Folio which was published in 1623. The special thing about this Folio is that without it, many of these plays would have likely been lost to time. From October to November 2023, our exhibition gallery displayed the folio to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its publication, strengthening Shakespeare’s connection to Prescot and bringing together both the future of Prescot and its historical roots. We have already held performances of several plays that appeared in that folio – from A Midsummer’s Nights Dream to Macbeth! Our latest production: Richard My Richard, is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, updated for modern audiences by Philippa Gregory. It speaks to the timelessness of the works that were published in that Folio, all the way back in 1623, that the character and the heart of the story is still relevant to our modern times.
Listed in the First Folio are five actors, belonging to Lord Strange’s Men. Of these men, Will Kemp stands out, as he was considered a major celebrity back in the 16th century. When the 4th Earl of Derby passed away, his funeral was held in Orsmkirk, December 1593. Amongst the mourners in attendance was Master William Kempe… Perhaps this connection between Shakespeare’s actors and the North of England could be another suggestion that they did, in fact, once perform in Prescot.
About Knowsley Hall and its connection with Shakesepare:
More info on Strange’s Men:
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