To mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, we tried to find references to our great city of Winchester in his work.
Apart from the Bishop Of Winchester appearing as a character in the history plays, the word ‘Winchester’ only crops up twice in Shakespeare’s canon. Unfortunately, those of us hoping for a flattering tribute to the ancient city are in for a disappointment.
In Henry VI Part 1, the Duke Of Gloucester taunts Henry Beaufort, Bishop Of Winchester, about the many brothels in his parish in Southwark, London. With reference to the fact that the Bishop not only tolerated the brothels but collected taxes from the sex workers, Gloucester describes Beaufort as ‘thou that gives whores indulgences to sin’.
The final dig Gloucester aims at him is the apparently common expression ‘Winchester Goose’, a ‘goose’ being a slang term for a prostitute.
Shakespeare goes further in Troilus And Cressida with a reference to a ‘galled Winchester goose’. Far from being some Tudor gourmet dish, this is an accusation that the prostitutes in the Bishop of Winchester’s Southwark parish are covered in sores (‘galled’), with the implication that they are infected with the sexually transmitted disease syphilis.
Given that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was forced by the authorities to locate itself in Southwark, the opinion of actors back then was pretty clear. To get to it, audiences not only had to brave the Winchester Geese, they also ran the gauntlet of muggers, disease carriers and gaming houses (we’re glad to see that times have changed).
We’re pleased to say that Theatre Royal Winchester is located in a very respectable part of our city and our audiences can safely visit us to enjoy performances from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory to mark the great playwright’s 400th anniversary. Hamlet and All’s Well That Ends Well will be on stage 3–7 May 2016.