On 23 April 1616, William Shakespeare – champion of the English language, and the world’s pre-eminent playwright – died, leaving behind just under 40 plays and 154 sonnets. Four hundred years later, the world celebrates his life and works and, to join in, we chart his Greenwich connections and the history of drama and performance at the Old Royal Naval College.

The first professional actors to visit Greenwich came to the Greenwich Palace to perform for the Kings and Queens, in particular Elizabeth I and James I, both of whom were avid play enthusiasts. Among them was one William Shakespeare! The Treasurer of the Chamber records a payment of £20 in 1595 to “Willm Kempe Willm Shakespeare…for twoe severall comedies or enterludes”.

Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, lived on the ORNC site working as Secretary to the Admiralty. He saw many plays by Shakespeare, although we’re not sure how impressed he was. On 29th September, 1662, he wrote, Saw Midsummer Night's Dream which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life!”

Picture: Admirals House

Other famous visitors include John Gay, writer of the Beggars Opera, who in 1726 visited the Painted Hall, the great dining room decorated by James Thornhill. He was given a tour by a Greenwich Pensioner living in the Hospital and Gay jokes in a letter how he had mistakenly referred to its artist as ‘Mr Cornhill’!

The annual Greenwich Park Fair (shut down in 1857 for its ‘ribaldry and vice’) attracted numerous performers and theatre companies. Most famous was Richardson’s Theatre, which offered the experience of “a melodrama” with three murders and a ghost. Other amusements involved hill rolling, exotic animals and ‘Sling the Monkey’ - a game similar to tag or Piggy in the Middle, but with the added drawback that many Greenwich Pensioners had only one or no legs.

Picture: ‘Sling the Monkey’

When the Royal Hospital at Greenwich closed in 1869 the site became a Royal Naval College for the training of officers.  In 1933 a Night Pageant was put on to re-enact important episodes of Greenwich History such as Nelson’s funeral and the knighting of Francis Drake by Elizabeth I. It was attended by over 120,000 people and over £3000 was raised for Naval Charities.

Picture: Reenacting Elizabeth I at the 1933 Night Pageant

Officers themselves had a chance to tread the boards as members of the Royal Naval College Dramatic Society, an amateur group run by the College staff, performing at the Trident Hall (a building by the East Gate, Park Row). Shakespeare would have been proud!

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