William Shakespeare and Stamford
Hidden away within William Shakespeare’s King Henry IVth Part 2; a mention is made, almost in passing of Stamford. A seldom performed play which on occasions is shorted by the removal of some of the conversations between minor figures.
In Act 3 Scene 2 there is a conversation between Robert Shallow, a Justice of the Peace in Gloucestershire and his colleague Justice Silence, as they wait for the arrival of Sir John Falstaff who is recruiting soldiers for the Royal Army. Their conversation strays into a discussion of Shallow’s youthful indiscretions at Clement’s Inn which is part of the Inns of Chancery. It is within this part of the play that Stamford is mentioned:-
“Yes, that Sir John, the very same. I saw him beat Scogan on the head at the gates of the Court, when he was just a lad, only this tall. On that same day I happened to have a fight with a man called Sampson Stockfish, a fruit seller, behind Gray’s Inn. Oh Jesus, Jesus. I’ve had some wild times! And now so many of the men I used to know are dead.”
“That will be us one day.”
“You’re right. I know you’re right, that’s for sure. As the Psalms say in the Bible. “death is certain.” Everyone will die. What price are people charging for a good set of young bulls at Stamford Fair?”
“I’m not sure. I wasn’t there.”
“Death is certain. Is Dooble, that old man from your hometown, still alive?”
“He’s dead. Sir.”
“Jesus, Jesus, dead! He was such a good archer, and now he’s dead? He had an excellent shot! John of Gaunt loved him, and used to bet money on his incredible aim. Dead! Oh, he would have hit the target even from two hundred and forty yards away! He could shoot straight at the target from two hundred and eighty yards away, maybe even two hundred and ninety, it was quite something to see! How much are they charging for twenty ewes now?”
“That all depends on their quality, but twenty good ewes would be worth about ten pounds.”
“But old Dooble is dead?”
“Here comes two of Sir John Falstaff’s men. I think.”
At this stage of their discussion more characters join them on stage and the conversation changes.
In these preceding paragraphs Justice Shallow and Justice Silence seem to be talking about different things and then not listening to what the other has said. So what have we learnt about Stamford? Probably nothing as we have not discovered the price of two young bulls at Stamford Fair. And as to the price of twenty good ewes, was this the cost of sheep at the time of King Henry IV (1399-1413), or was that the price of sheep at the time the play was performed? It has been suggested that the play was written between 1596 and 1599, it was registered at Stationers Hall in August 1600 and published in quarto form by the end of the year.
So why did Shakespeare choose Stamford when he could have chosen any other provincial town and also why choose a Lincolnshire market town when the two characters are men from Gloucestershire? Of course we shall never know.