Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall: opening up the bard’s place of study to the public

From tomorrow Shakespeare’s Schoolroom will open up as a visitor attraction for the first time following extensive restoration, conservation and new interpretation

The project to turn the Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall into a place of discovery originated more than ten years ago through discussions with the King Edward VI School’s Governing Body, which own the property and still use it for classes. Following three applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the last of which was successful, and with substantial assistance from the Gatsby Charitable Trust the dream has been realised as part of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary.

Shakespeare attended the grammar school in the Guildhall between c. 1571 and 1578. In common with the vast majority of grammar schools created under Henry VIII and Edward VI, no record has survived of attendances at the school. However, it is clearly evident say academics that from Shakespeare’s plays, with their allusions to classical writers and their references to schooling and schoolmasters, that he must have spent an extended period at his local grammar school.

The objectives of the project were to make accessible to the public a unique insight into William Shakespeare’s boyhood and youth, through the schoolroom in which he received his education. As well as this the new visitor centre celebrates the 600-year-old half-timbered Guildhall in which the Schoolroom is located and tells the stories of Stratford’s Borough Council and local Governance, including its law-court, located for more than 400 years in the Guildhall and the continuous use of the Guildhall for more than 450 years by King Edward VI School.

“Our aim is to realise these objectives in an entertaining and accessible way through modern technology,” says Professor Ronnie Mulryne. “For example, the rare 15-century wall paintings will be made fully visible once again by projecting modern reconstructions onto a ‘smart glass’ panel.  We will also be using audio and visual recordings of re-enacted court proceedings of actual trials of the day.”

A specially commissioned film with historian and broadcaster Michael Wood will bring to life the historic context of the building; as well as short films featuring students from our very own modern day King Edward VI School, re-imagining Tudor lessons as they would have been in William Shakespeare’s day. Actors performing the role of Master of the schoolroom will also enhance the schoolroom experience.

During term time the visitor attraction will open at 11am, which will allow the School to continue its age-old practice of teaching in the Guildhall, ensuring that every boy (and now every girl in the Sixth Form) has the opportunity to experience learning in the building where William Shakespeare was educated.

“The Guildhall was a building very familiar to the youthful Shakespeare, both as his school and as the place where he must have seen professional theatre,” says Mulryne. “More than 30 visits were made to the Guildhall by the pick of the country’s professional actors during Shakespeare’s early years in Stratford (up to 1598 when he was 34). He must have seen some of their performances in the days when his father was a leading member of the Borough Council (up to the last years of the 1570s) and after.”

In the Guildhall Shakespeare would have learnt Latin as preparation for a possible career in the Church or public administration, as Latin was the common language of communication among educated classes across Europe at the time.

In Shakespeare’s case it is more than probable that his interest in the study of Latin was awakened by the great writers in Latin such as Ovid and Virgil, which he repeatedly echoes in his plays, and even more probable that his interest was sparked in the Latin playwrights Terence and Plautus, whose work was routinely performed in grammar schools as well as studied as literature.

Wright & Wright Architects was appointed in 2013 to restore the 15th century Guildhall with the brief for the project to open the building to the public, so that its fascinating heritage as Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and the centre of civic life in Stratford, can be better understood.

Built in 1420, the Guildhall has a rich legacy as the historic home of local government and guild authority. It was also used as a space for professional theatre companies to perform and is thought to be the place which led to Shakespeare becoming a playwright.

“The programme of restoration and conservation has been made possible by a £1.4million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which Wright & Wright was instrumental in helping to secure,” James Taylor, Partner Wright & Wright Architects.

“Using our expertise in historic buildings, we started to plan our approach,” says Taylor. “Initial repairs were necessary to the timber structure as well as upgrades to the interior and the conservation of important historical elements, including a group of rare medieval paintings depicting a crucifixion scene.”

The main challenge for the architects was how to work on such an important historic building, treating it with respect and sensitivity, while integrating contemporary updates that will preserve the structure and make it useful and accessible for future generations.

“The result is almost invisible architecture – but this seamless integration of old and new is only possible through painstaking attention to detail, combining careful architectural planning with an intuitive sense for materials and their respective qualities.”