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A date with Shakespeare in Stratford

One of the great things about middle age is that it’s no longer necessary make any attempt towards coolness. I can happily admit that I’m a Shakespeare fan – it’s quite OK to be a geek at my age. To celebrate this situation, I’m heading to Stratford-upon-Avon for the first time today to indulge myself in all things Bard-related.

My first memories of Shakespeare date back to teenage years, when my only experience of theatre was going to the pantomime. At ‘O’ Level we watched Roger Daltrey on TV in The Comedy of Errors. So far so good. At ‘A’ Level we studied Macbeth – murder and mayhem, treachery and treason. Brilliant!

But then we moved onto The Tempest. Challenging – it’s a bit out there. A ship is wrecked upon an enchanted island inhabited by a magician, his daughter, a monster and a fairy. Who on earth thought that would appeal to hormonal teenagers? Come on, Othello or Hamlet please! It wasn’t until I saw Ian McKellen play Prospero the magician at the West Yorkshire Playhouse that it all made sense. Well, if you need a wizard, who are you going to call? I still prefer Macbeth though.

It’s a dull drive of an hour and a bit down the M40 but hopefully it will be worth it. As I enter into Warwickshire a sign welcomes me to ‘Shakespeare country’ – Will is a big deal around here. I park by the River Avon at the Recreation Ground where a swathe of parkland stretches along the opposite bank to the town proper. First impressions are (1) it’s very pretty (2) it’s busy, inevitable with 25 degrees, sunshine and imminent further covid restrictions, and (3) the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is huge.

Home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the theatre was originally built in 1875 as the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Rebuilt in 1932 after a fire, the building was then totally transformed in 2010 to become the behemoth it is now, dominating the western bank of the River. Naturally, the first play to be performed after the grand reopening was Macbeth. Just like me, the general public loves a bit of murder and mayhem!

The original building, on a much more human scale, still survives and has been incorporated at the rear, now called The Swan Theatre. Any way you look at it, this is a statement building. It makes it quite clear – around here the Bard is King.

To reach the centre of town, I cross the pedestrian bridges over first the Avon River, and then the Stratford Canal, passing Cox’s Yard. An old timber merchants warehouse converted into a bar and restaurant, it looks a great spot for a leisurely lunch. However, I’m not here for frivolities, I have my mind on higher things – history, literature and theatre. Wine will have to wait.

Let’s start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews suggests. Shakespeare’s birthplace is on Henley Street in the middle of this ancient market town. Stratford has been inhabited since the 7th century due to its location on a Roman road at a convenient fording point of the river. King Richard I granted a market charter in 1196 which led to the village becoming a town and centre of trade. But it’s not until 1564 that things get really interesting, with the birth of the town’s most famous inhabitant (apart from Gordon Ramsey maybe…I’m joking!).

What’s really amazing about Shakespeare is that even now, 400 years after his death, he’s considered to be England’s greatest writer, with 39 plays and more than 150 poems to his name, performed more often than any other dramatist, and translated into every language in the world. It’s quite mind-blowing if you think about it, whether you like his works or not. And this is where it all began…

Fittingly, a rather smug looking statue of the Bard stands just outside his childhood home. This whole town revolves around him, so he has good reason to be pleased with himself. The son of a glove maker, with only a basic education, he became the leading playwright in London and his company was sponsored by King James I. He did pretty well didn’t he?

I’m following the Stratford Spine, which will take me through the life of Shakespeare from birth to death. Along the High Street I admire some of the well-preserved Elizabethan buildings of the town and notice that Shakespeare quotes pop up in the most prosaic of places, as below on the facade of W H Smith. I’m sure he would approve – he was all about making money.

Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582 and they had two daughters together. Next stop on my tour is Shakespeare’s New Place on Chapel Street. When he bought this property as his family home in 1597 it was the second largest house in the district, showing how wealthy he had become. It had at least 20 rooms and cost around £120 at the time which Sadly, it no longer survives, but the original gates have been preserved, and a garden has been established on the site.

The neighbouring house, which has survived, belonged to Thomas Nash, who married Shakespeare’s only granddaughter Elizabeth. They didn’t have children so the family of the Bard died out with her. Someone here is obviously a bigger fan of The Tempest than I am.

Directly opposite New Place is my next point of interest, the Guildhall. It’s here that Will was educated between the ages of 7 and 14, at the Guild School established in 1295. Students studied English, Classics, Religion and Music. Maths and Science were clearly not considered very important for Tudor schoolboys. Lucky them, no cutting up eyeballs or simultaneous equations!

Turning into Chestnut Walk, the next stop on our tour is Hall’s Croft. Built in 1613, it was the home of Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susanna and her husband, the well known doctor John Hall. Ahead of his time, Hall used plants and herbs in his medicines, rather than relying on astrology and blood letting like some of his contemporaries. Fascinating as it sounds, I’m very glad I wasn’t born in Shakespeare’s time.

At this point, a detour of about a mile outside of town, mostly along well signposted public footpaths, takes me to the village of Shottery, where Shakespeare’s wife was born and bought up. The property is now known as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage although it’s actually quite a large farmhouse. From 1463 the family farmed sheep here for almost 400 years, but it’s Anne who put them on the map.

In Shakespeare’s will, he left his wife his ‘second best bed’ while his daughter Susanna inherited his house and most of his money. This seems like an insult now, but in fact was quite normal at the time. Anne lived with her daughter at New Place until she died, so evidently there was no bad blood between them. I wonder where the best bed ended up?

Retracing my steps, I finally arrive at Will’s final resting place. In fact, he was baptised here at the Holy Trinity Church, as well as being buried on this spot. Shakespeare died unexpectedly in 1616 at the age of 52, despite describing himself as in perfect health shortly before. No-one knows for sure how he died, but there is a rumour that he became ill after attending a particularly boozy party with his friends. Well, if you have to go, at least go out having fun!

The monument to Shakespeare inside the church is not particularly flattering. My image of the Bard is not chubby and middle aged – he should look younger and a bit more dashing. Apparently it is a good likeness of him though, how disappointing!

Outside the church, there’s a path around the perimeter of the lovely, tranquil churchyard. I go through a gate and follow the pathway along the banks of the Avon back into town. Finally, my tour ends where it began, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

After seeing how this town is devoted to all things Shakespeare, and how many people are fascinated by his legacy (during a pandemic too) it’s strange to think that all this could have drifted into obscurity but for one man. David Garrick was an 18th century actor who loved Shakespeare and was determined to bring him back to prominence.

In 1769 Garrick staged a Shakespeare Jubilee here in Stratford to promote the Bard as England’s national poet. Despite atrocious weather (no surprises there), the event was a huge success, and cemented the popularity of both the man and his birthplace. So Stratford owes a lot to Garrick, but there’s no statue of him anywhere in town. There is a pub called The Garrick though. I’d be happy with that.


Published by stephpeech

So much world, so little time...

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