The Stratford librarian who doubles as William Shakespeare
When not seeing to Stratford’s literary needs, working in the library, William Stafford can be found dressed as Shakespeare guiding Tudor World visitors on a tour of the town. He tells Gill Sutherland about his life as the Bard as Shakespeare’s birthday is celebrated this month.
Tell us about your early life and how you came to be a part-time Shakespeare.
Well, I am a Dudley boy. I still live there so I commute into Stratford most days of the week. I did drama at Liverpool and I taught drama in schools and colleges for about 20 years, all around the Black Country area and the West Midlands. I taught at secondary schools and post-16. I finally escaped 10 years ago and I don’t miss it because I’m busy doing other stuff. I started at Stratford library seven years ago.
As we are door to the birthplace I thought it would be fun to grow the little beard because the hair was going naturally anyway so it was easy to get the Shakespeare look.
People wander into the library and see that on my name badge it says William – they look at me and do a double take. Great fun all round.
Then a position became available at Tudor World, the museum on Sheep Street, they wanted a Shakespeare who could guide people around the streets. A friend of mine who does it is a Shakespeare as well, so I sort of knew what was involved so I went along. As soon as they saw me the jobs was mine, I didn’t even have to speak. They sort of staggered back in amazement and said when can you start. This year would have been my fifth parade because I started just before the birthday parade started so 2016.
Is that when you acquired your doublet and hose?
They had a bespoke costume for me to wear, I had to go get measured up. They made this beautiful black and gold costume with trim and shoulder pads on it. I’ve been wearing that ever since – it’s starting to smell a little bit! Any bookings that people want go through Tudor World. We do the public tour every Saturday afternoon where anyone can pay and come along. We are available for private groups as well.
How many other Shakespeares are there?
I think apart from me there is another two that are active. There’s another one that’s like a sleeping agent! There is a pool of us. I am the most authentic obviously.
There is also an older chap – I think the town council employ him to do the birthday parade.
How old are you William?
I am 56 so I’ve lived longer than the original model. He was gone when he was 52.
Was Shakespeare your thing when you were a drama student?
From sort of middle school really. We did that awful thing where the teacher would give us each a copy of Henry V and we’d take it in turns to read it, which is death to anything. I would just read ahead whilst just waiting for everyone else to catch up and I was thinking this is really good. So I’ve always had an interest. If Shakespeare was ever on the TV I’d commandeer the living room to watch it. The BBC was doing their thing where they broadcast the whole lot over six years so I watched those. On my degree course I directed a production of Much Ado About Nothing and they said it was the best Shakespeare they ever had – it all went downhill from there!
Then I became a teacher and you have to teach certain scenes to year 9 and try to drum up some interest and enjoyment from it. We always did the same scenes from Romeo and Juliet, and that can be quite challenging but then as a drama teacher you are then freed up to let them be a bit more active before you hit them with the language.
Shakespeare’s always been a presence in my working life and in my personal life as well. I am also a writer and in one of the books I wrote the main character was a Shakespeare tour guide. I wrote that years before I was a tour guide – life imitating art.
Were your family into Shakespeare? Did you go to the RSC as a kid?
Oh no - only on school trips. My parents were publicans, so they worked every evening. They turned a blind eye to my theatrics.
When you were younger did you want to be an actor?
I enjoyed acting but I was always more of a writer – I was always writing plays and books and stories and things which I still do a lot of today. At the moment I’m putting on a one-man Shakespeare show at Tudor world sort of a greatest hits kind of thing. I’m gonna act, they’ll be songs, audience participation, the odd puppet here and there – anything I need to help act out these stories.
So you divide your time between the library, the writing table, and being Shakespeare and it’s all come together but without any masterplan is that fair to say?
I think it’s down to time management skills – I do most of my writing on the way into Stratford on the train from Dudley, because what else am I going to do for that journey? I do all my first drafts by hand and then type them up and edit them on my days off. I’ve got quite a good routine going – you should be precious about your writing time. If the trains delayed I think I’ve got to get that chapter finished!
When you’re dressed as Shakespeare what’s it like to see everyone’s reactions?
I really enjoy it as soon as I put it on, I call it my Shakespeare drag. I become cockier I walk around like I own the place. People call me Will or William and I don’t know whether they’re addressing me or the character. I just smile and photobomb people and yeah it’s good fun. Obviously people from the town that know me from the library are pleased to see me out and dressed up. It sort of adds to the illusion for the people that don’t know me when they call me William they think, oh God maybe it is him!
What kind of things do visitors want and what don’t they know that you can bring them edification on?
You can see their faces light up when you say certain facts or phrases. The main thing for me is that it is entertainment it is not a lecture or anything dry or learned. Obviously there are certain facts we have to stick to but there’s also a lot of room for manoeuvre. We have a set script of what to say outside each building we stop at, but you are always riffing off the audience. Some are more vocal than others. I always do a Q&A session at the end which always keeps me on my toes. That’s always fun.
What kind of things do people usually ask and what have people asked that has stumped you?
A question which crops up quite frequently is what’s your favourite of your plays and I always go for Titus Andronicus because that’s the one that made the most money in his lifetime and was a box office hit. I tell them that they always have St John’s ambulance there on standby when it’s performed because people get stretchered off.
Someone asked me the other day what Shakespeare means. It wasn’t as deep as it sounds I mean what does the name actually mean. Apparently the name was an insult a Shakespeare is someone always spurring for a fight. So it became an insult then a surname. No one’s ever asked me that question again but I’m ready! You never know what they are going to throw at you. As long as it sounds halfway plausible they go away happy.
Some people might get a bit snobby and think a Shakespeare impersonator is cheapening the playwright’s legacy, what’s your take on that?
I’m putting Shakespeare where he belongs: with the people. I try to make him as relatable as possible – I’m not all ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s because people wouldn’t understand. I make lots of pop culture references, which he did in his time. I don’t go around quoting him all the time – I don’t think writers do that go around quoting themselves. I make him a sort of man of the people. It’s not all laughs I talk about the death of his son Hamlet, a tear-jerking moment on the tour. So they get to see him as a person and not just this icon that must be worshipped.
How do you refer to yourself when you are Shakespeare? Is impersonator ok?
I just say I am William and I am your Shakespeare for this afternoon. Our job title is tour guides not impersonators – we’ll leave that to the Elvises.
Are there any other Shakespeares that you admire?
I always take issue with them because I didn’t get the gig. With Upstart Crow (David Mitchell’s sitcom) I enjoy I just don’t like that cod language they speak. I think that’s a bit silly. I watched All is True a few weeks ago and it was alright apart from his big nose. That wasn’t true that nose!
Shakespeare’s been a real touchstone for many people over the last year – is this true for you?
It’s been frustrating not being able to put the doublet and hose on and do what I do. Covid has kept me away from what I enjoy doing most. Last summer when we were allowed to do it we were doing tours every day of the summer holidays. It was just a way of being with people after months of being locked down and isolated. To be out in the streets again and to be telling his story and seeing the joy in people’s eyes it was a real point of connection.