As his novel The Box of Delights takes to our Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage, we look at the life of the Midlands-born prolific writer and poet.

With more than a hundred poems, plays and novels to his name, John Masefield is one of the Midlands' most successful writers. He was born in the reign of Queen Victoria and was named Poet Laureate in 1930, a role he held until his death 37 years later.

John Masefield in 1936
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Born in Ledbury, Herefordshire in 1878, John Masefield's early schooling, including time at Warwick School, was cut short after he was sent to train in the merchant navy at age 13.

His lack of formal education was made up by his experiences of travelling the world and a huge appetite for literature. Before the age of 20 he'd been to Chile, given up his seafaring career, and found his way to New York, where he spent his time working in a New York bar, a carpet factory and reading; it was said he bought 20 books every week.

Still only aged 19, Masefield took the steamship home to England where he began to write in earnest, getting his first poems, based on his experiences at sea, published. Alongside poetry he started writing novels; tales from sea, adventures from far away lands and children's fantasy. He was appointed Poet Laureate from 1930 and produced numerous verses for state occasions.

Masefield published The Box of Delights or When The Wolves Were Running in 1935. The book has been adapted for radio multiple times, both before and after his death in 1967. The £1m BBC TV adaptation was broadcast in November and December 1984, then the most expensive children's series the BBC had made to that date, and was widely acclaimed. 

John Masefield, 'William Shakespeare'

"Stratford-on-Avon is cleaner, better paved, and perhaps more populous than it was in Shakespeare's time. Several streets of mean red-brick houses have been built during the last half century. Hotels, tea rooms, refreshment rooms, and the shops where the tripper may buy things to remind him that he has been where greatness lived, give the place an air at once prosperous and parasitic."

John Masefield and Stratford-upon-Avon

The writer regularly attended Shakespeare performances at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford. His play, The Tragedy of Pompey the Great, was staged there in 1913, with a young Basil Rathbone among the cast.

Masefield was in Stratford on 6 March 1926 when the theatre caught fire and burnt down. He wrote in a letter “It is odd that the Stratford Theatre should mean so much to me, but I hated its being burned more than I can tell you. I went to see it burning & it was like poetry dying.”

The new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened in 1932, next to the original building. The first words spoken on the stage were not Shakespeare's, but a set of verses written for the occasion by Masefield, performed by actor Lillah McCarthy. Masefield attended the opening and kept his ticket stubs from the day as a memento. We also know that Masefield attended a production of Julius Caesar in the same year.

2 small cream ticket stubs labelled A20 and A19
John Masefield's ticket stubs from the opening of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre on Shakespeare's birthday in 1932
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A Message from England’s Poet Laureate

Verses read on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage, 23 April 1932

Beside this House there is a blackened shell,
The theatre that Flower built of old,
Lest English love of Shakespeare should go cold.
He, Stratford’s citizen, established here
A home for Shakespeare, that for many a year
Drew happy thousands till the fire befell.
I saw its ruins, black in smoke that rolled.

... And may this House be famous, may it
The home of lovely players: and a stage
Schooling young poets to a fruitful age.
We but begin, our story is not told:
Friend, may this day begin an age of gold,
England again a star among the sea
That beauty hers that is her heritage.

Extract reproduced courtesy of the Society of Authors, literary representative of the Estate of John Masefield.

John Masefield and Shakespeare

Masefield's dedication to Shakespeare led him to create a theatre in his garden, near Oxford. Productions staged included the bad quarto (early versions of Shakespeare's plays which weren't believed to have been printed from an authoritative manuscript) of HamletMeasure for MeasureMacbeth, and King Lear, with Masefield himself taking the role of Lear when the lead actor was ill. 

He wrote a book, William Shakespeare, which is available today on Project Gutenberg, about the playwright's life and his works, published in 1911. This work was extensively revised and reissued in 1954. The actor John Gielgud was known to be a big fan of it, with its concise plot descriptions and interesting insights.

John Masefield, letter to Wade

"Could you please tell me what stuff is usually burned in the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth. to give the effect of a boiling pot?...I hope that the stuff will not smell too vilely."

Masefield was invited by Oxford University to deliver the Romanes Lecture, their annual public lecture, in the Sheldonian Theatre, in June 1924. He chose to speak about Shakespeare and Spiritual life.

In 1955 he published a pamphlet entitled An Elizabethan Theatre in London, which called to rebuild an Elizabethan theatre in London, giving details of which plays should be performed as well as projected building and running costs.

The Box of Delights by Piers Torday, based on the book by John Masefield, plays in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from 31 October 2023 to 7 January 2024.

Thanks to Dr Philip W Errington, Senior Specialist at Peter Harrington, and archivist of The John Masefield Society.