This is part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare coverage. This is Louie Woodall here this week with the latest in Shakespeare news from London.
The life and legacy of Shakespeare has inspired generations of Londoners. Many of the playwrights, authors, and actors who call the city home owe a debt of gratitude to the Bard. So do dozens of businesses that have used his name and heritage to set the cash registers ringing. Interestingly, this confluence of business and Bardolatry has occasionally provided the catalyst for other great literary endeavours in the city.
London is home to two pubs named ‘The Shakespeare’s Head’. One, in fashionable Carnaby Street, is purported to have been established by distant relatives of the poet in 1735. It boasts a life-sized bust of the Bard that overlooks the street, but little else to endear it to those interested in the city’s cultural history.
The second, on Kingsway in Holborn, is a simple joint owned by Wetherspoons, the UK’s largest pub chain. However, this was one was founded in homage to a much more interesting pub that used to exist elsewhere in this part of London.
In the 19th century, this original ‘The Shakespeare’s Head’ was a popular watering hole with London’s dramatists, writers, and journalists–what Walter Dexter called “the Bohemian set of the Strand and Fleet Street”. It’s most renowned proprietor (in 1840) was one Mark Lemon, a playwright, journalist, and actor with a talent- appropriately enough- for impersonating Shakespearian characters. In the course of a long and varied career, he wrote over sixty melodramas, operettas and comedies that were often staged in the nearby Covent Garden area.
Lemon was also the first editor of the satirical newspaper Punch. Founded in 1841, Punch lit up the London literary scene and fast became a national treasure, feeding its readers a weekly diet of wit, humour, and clever political satire. Lemon said the magazine was written as an “asylum for the thousands of orphan jokes … the millions of perishing puns, which are now wandering about without so much as a shelf to rest upon”. Shakespeare himself would no doubt have been an avid reader.
Even before Lemon’s stint as landlord, the pub was a favourite haunt for some of London’s most feted writers. It is alleged that Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor and became a close friend of Lemon’s, who helped adapt some of the author’s works for the stage. Future Punch contributors Henry Mayhew and Douglas Jerrold– nicknamed “the little Shakespeare in a camlet [camel-hair] cloak”–were also said to be regular patrons. The number of literary stars who called the pub a second home led one chronicler of London’s lost buildings to refer to it as “a little quoting, quipping, quaffing club”.
It’s easy to imagine an establishment with such a pedigree could have stood the test of time and continued as a meeting place for the literary stars of today. But it was not to be. ‘The Shakespeare’s Head’, along with the whole of Wych Street on which it stood, was demolished by order of the London County Council in 1901 as part of a redevelopment works.
Yet it will always remain an important part of London’s cultural history. It also serves as a reminder that Shakespeare had, and will continue to have, a powerful effect on the hearts and minds of those who dream of adding to the city’s rich theatrical tradition.