A recent BBC web article examined this subject in some detail. Shakespeare's company visited Ipswich ten times - an unusually high number for that company. They first visited Ipswich in 1594-5, the year in which the troupe was re-formed as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. As a young writer-actor, Shakespeare himself would probably have travelled with the troupe.
James Stokes, Suffolk editor from the Records of Early English Drama, writes: “Ipswich had been a port, perhaps England's oldest, since AD 600, and the city (sic) had been a chartered borough from 1200. It was counted among the ten richest provincial cities during the period. An important trading centre since before the Conquest, it was the hub for converging river traffic; it had become an important cloth town; engaged in continental trade. In addition, the city, as was Suffolk in general, was home to nationally important families of the first rank. For those reasons and others, East Anglia was the favoured playing circuit among major troupes.”
The town paid Shakespeare's company 40 shillings for its performance (four times as much as four of the other troupes visiting the town, and twice as much as the Queen's Men, which was mainly a provincial touring company. Clearly Shakespeare's company was perceived locally as the most important of the six troupes. The date, venue, or play title for this first visit by Shakespeare and his colleagues are not recorded, but the company would have had access to Shakespeare's early history plays, The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, and Richard III, among others: all of them huge crowd-pleasers.
The troupe next visited in 1603, now as the newly formed King's Men or His Majesty's Players. For that performance they received 26 shillings 8 pence. They were the only professional troupe to visit Ipswich that year, but the town did pay considerable amounts to its own company of waits (singers and musicians). Given the extensive use of music in many of Shakespeare's plays, perhaps the waits became part of the performance; other records confirm that the Ipswich waits acted as well as played music.
Whether Shakespeare was present with his troupe in Ipswich in 1603, the records do not say. But this was their first visit representing the new monarch, King James I: a rather important moment. During the intervening eight years since the company's first visit, the Bard had written his great history plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, other great comedies, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. Why would the troupe have picked something other than one of those masterpieces - accessible in their repertoire - for the mayor, burgesses, and others in the Ipswich audience?
Shakespeare's company performed again in Ipswich on 9 May 1609, by which time The Bard had written all the great tragedies, and two of the romances. The King's Men visited again in 1617-18, as did the Queen's (Anne's) Players. The two troupes were each paid one pound, six shillings, eight pence, an amount that appears to indicate both monetary inflation and the growing importance of royal troupes throughout the kingdom. Although Shakespeare had retired in 1613, the company still had access to the complete canon of his plays.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, Ipswich was a magnet for the most important national troupes. During her long reign, between four and seven of those troupes visited annually. In the reigns of James I and Charles I, the number fell to between two and three troupes each year.
Two striking features occur in the records. First, the Queen's Players (the royal troupe committed to provincial performance) visited far more often than those of any other patron. Second, during the reigns of James and Charles, most troupes fell away. Only the various royal troupes (Queen's, Prince's, Princess, King's, Children of the Revels, and Lady Elizabeth) visited regularly. The Queen's Men certainly would have had access to Shakespeare's plays as their performance texts.
Appearances by The King's Players in Ipswich tapered off. Eventually in 1634-5, on 2 May 1637, and on 20 February 1638, each time when they arrived, the town paid the players not to perform; in consideration of their royal patron, the worthies of the town gave the troupe what the city called a gratuity, essentially a payment to go away.
Whether the town worthies feared the spread of illness, or local puritans objected, three refusals in four years seems a significant pattern. The company's appearance in 1638 marks the melancholy end of sponsored professional drama in Ipswich until the Restoration.
Between 1564 and 1572, some records indicate that the plays were staged in the Moot Hall (also called the Guild Hall or The Hall), ‘converted from, or erected immediately to the north of, the redundant medieval church of St. Mildred.' which was located on The Cornhill. Shakespeare's troupe probably performed in the Ipswich Moot Hall in 1594-5, 1603, and 1609, during the peak of Shakespeare's time with The King's Men. In 1614, the town ordered that no plays be staged in The Moot Hall, indicating that officials were putting an end to a common practice.
[See also John Southworth's book Shakespeare the player, History Press 2002.]
Here is a view of the north side of the narrow Tankard Street (now Tacket Street) looking east. The Tankard Inn had begun life as the home of Sir Humphrey Wingfield (Wingfield Street is nearby). It was transformed into an inn during the early 18th Century. The Salvation Army Citadel in the foreground began life as the first permanent theatre in Ipswich; it was built by Henry Betts, a local brewer and owner of the Tankard Inn in 1736. In 1741 an unknown actor called Lyddal made his debut appearance as an African slave called Aboan in Thomas Southerne's play Oroonoko. This unknown actor was in fact the soon-to-be-famous Shakespearian, David Garrick. All of the buildings in this view were demolished during the road widening of Tacket Street. Today's entrance to the NCP car park on the site of the old Steam Brewery is to the left of this picture.