William Shakespeare portrait

Links with Shakespeare

Shakespeare & The Earl’s of Derby

The Earls of Derby had a close interest in the market town of Prescot, whose governance they kept a close eye on through the stewards of the town. In the mid-1590s a gentleman called Richard Harrington – whose brother Percival Harrington was steward built a small playhouse on the main street of the town. This building, which operated as a theatre until at least 1617, is one of the very few purpose-built indoor theatres to have been constructed outside London during the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. It would have been used by touring acting companies that were visiting Knowsley Hall and Lathom House in addition to other nearby locations in the North West of England.

Henry Stanley, 4th Earl of Derby (1531 – 93)

It is known from the household book of the Steward to Henry, 4th Earl of Derby, for the period from 1586 to 1590 that a number of the leading English acting companies performed at both Knowsley and at the Stanley family’s main seat at Lathom House near Ormskirk. These companies included The Queen’s Men, as well as those of her two great favourites, the Earl of Leicester’s Men and the Earl of Essex’s Men. Undoubtedly the house companies of Lord Derby’s Men and of Lord Strange’s Men would have also performed in these two great houses. It is highly likely that the young Shakespeare would have gained experience of the very large Derby household and the family’s acting troupes.

Ferdinando Stanley, (Lord Strange) 5th Earl of Derby (1559-94)

In the late 1500s, the 5th Earl of Derby, Ferdinando Stanley, also known as Lord Strange, was patron of an acting company called ‘Lord Strange’s Men, which was the most important group of players in Elizabethan England during the late 1580s and early 1590s.  Six of the leading actors in Lord Strange’s company included – Edward Alleyn, George Brian, Augustine Phillipes, Thomas Pope, John Heminges and William Kempe, who alongside Shakespeare later formed the core of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe theatre in London. Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous plays for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and then for The King’s Men but beforehand he had already established his career as a playwright, working with most of the same actors, when they were part of the 4th Earl’s company of players. Ferdinando was Earl for less than a year before being murdered. He was poisoned with arsenic at Knowsley Hall in 1594 and died ten days later at Lathom House.

William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby (1595-1601)

In 1595, the new Earl of Derby, William, the 6th Earl, the younger brother of Ferdinando Lord Strange, was married at Greenwich Palace – in the presence to Queen Elizabeth I – to Elizabeth de Vere, daughter of the 17th Earl of Oxford, another major patron of poets and playwrights. It is likely that Shakespeare’s ever-green comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written for and first performed at this wedding banquet celebration. The Earl had a great love of music, poetry and plays, being patron of his own company of actors known as ‘Derby’s Men’, who performed at Court, in Lancashire at Knowsley and Lathom, and indeed toured over the whole of England until he died at the onset of the Civil War in 1642.

Shakespeare North Playhouse

The cock-pit-theatre in Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, Liverpool.

In July 2022, Shakespeare North Playhouse opened its doors in the heart of old market town of Prescot, reviving the original late Elizabethan and early Jacobean playhouse on the main street..  The new 470-seat playhouse is a striking modern structure designed by Nicholas Helm of Helm Architecture and incorporating an octagonal wooden theatre – designed and built by Peter McCurdy of the Globe and Sam Wanamaker theatres fame – which is a replica of the Cockpit-at-Court theatre once housed in the long-demolished Whitehall Palace in London. The development has been funded by Knowsley Council, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, private supporters and the Treasury costing £38 million.  The project has been some 20 years in the making, with the Shakespeare North Trust, spearheaded by the Earl of Derby, counting Dame Judi Dench and Glenda Jackson as its Honorary Patrons.  The playhouse is hoping to attract 140,000 Shakespeare fanatics each year. Take a virtual tour of Shakespeare North Playhouse.

The Playhouse as completed the “Shakespearean triangle” made up of London, Stratford-upon-Avon and Prescot.

Shakespeare North Playhouse provides a perfect and unique opportunity for a permanent home which will undoubtedly draw people to the area, not only from the UK but from all over the world, and become the crowning glory of the North of England.

Vanessa Redgrave – Patron of Shakespeare North Playhouse
knowsleyhallvenue.co.uk