“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”— As You Like It
The long trip from Llandudno, Wales into England was quite a change in scenery. It took three different trains, and about 4 hours for us to arrive in Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare.
As we strolled towards our hotel, it was interesting to find, among the modern buildings of the city, a scattering of timber-framed Tudor styled buildings and homes.
Stratford-upon-Avon affords many opportunities to examine what is known about the life of Shakespeare. This is the city in which he was born, went to school, married, and then returned from London to spend his remaining years until his death, at age 52. He is credited with writing 37 plays and 154 sonnets over his lifetime, which include the widely recognized Romeo and Juliet, MacBeth, Hamlet, Othello, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Julius Ceasar, Taming of the Shrew, and All’s Well That Ends Well. Not only is he the most highly regarded dramatist in the world, his works are still being performed around the world, hundreds of years later. His influence reached other famous writers as well, such as Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner.
Two full days would probably be sufficient to visit most of the Shakespeare sights in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the city is small enough that you can walk from place to place, except maybe Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, childhood home of William’s wife.
We purchased a pass that allowed us entry into several of the sights. As we started our “Shakespeare” Day, we headed to his birthplace, passing a lovely market where we took some time to peruse the interesting merchandise.
Shakespeare’s childhood home was quite crowded, but we managed to snap a few pictures that made it seem like we were the only ones there! At the time of his birth, the property was only a portion of this building, and later the next door property was bought and combined into a larger home and Inn.
Before entering the home, there was a nice Exhibition documenting his life. I enjoyed the Shakespeare Wall of Words and phrases, used in his plays and sonnets, and made famous by him. Many of the phrases I recognized, like “Love is blind” — (The Merchant of Venice), “Wear my heart upon my sleeve” — (Othello), “As good luck would have it” — (The Merry Wives of Windsor), and “All that glitters is not gold” – (The Merchant of Venice). I was most surprised at how many everyday words came from him, words such as eyeball, addiction, assassination, bedazzled, dishearten, and even uncomfortable!
“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them. To die: to sleep;” —Hamlet
We entered his Tudor-style childhood home through the side entrance, and I was struck by the fact that we were walking in the footsteps of this famous man. Most of the walls were covered by tapestries, likely to cover the white walls worn black over time.
Shakespeare was born in 1564. His father was a Glover, a landowner, and a well respected member of the guild, later becoming town bailiff. He ran his glove business right out of his home. Shakespeare’s parents were fairly well off, and although the home appears modest, it was considered quite upscale for that time period.
Some interesting tidbits about beds in Shakespeare’s time: mattresses were stuffed with whatever materials were available, be it wool or moss, feathers, or hay (hence the expression “hit the hay.”) These mattresses were laid across a framework of tightly knotted ropes. The ropes would often need to be retied when they began sagging, and once tightened, gave way to the saying “sleep tight!” Also, the head of the beds were propped up so as not to lie completely flat. In those times, it was a widely held belief that if someone slept completely flat, devils could enter through their mouths and steal away their souls in the night.
(To the right is the bed that Shakespeare shared with his two brothers.)
Outside in the gardens, crowds gathered to watch impromptu scenes of Shakespeare’s plays being performed on a small stage, the actors taking audience requests. The gardens were very pretty, and included a Shakespeare Wall, with scenes of his various plays. There was also a fabulous gift shop for Shakespeare fans, with lots and lots of cool memorabilia.
At the age of 18, William married the town’s “old” maid, Anne Hathaway, who was 26 years old, and already pregnant with their first child. They had 5 children together, and he spent much of his time away from his family in London, where he became quite wealthy from his theater career. Later he bought New Place, one of the biggest houses in Stratford at the time, now just a property with beautiful gardens and sculptures that represent his life and where the home once stood.
“This above all: to thine ownself be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” —Hamlet
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date” —Romeo and Juliet
“By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes. Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” —Macbeth
Across from Shakespeare’s New Place, stood the Guild Chapel, a nice place to pop in for a quick look around.
The Avon River was just beautiful, and there were many people strolling, biking, kayaking, eating at the “food” barges (as opposed to the food trucks we are used to), or just sitting and enjoying the beautiful day.
Along the river sat Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where you can reserve tickets to watch a play or take a tour of the theatre.
We walked along the river until we reached Holy Trinity Church, burial site of William. The stained glass windows inside were very impressive. The memorial bust on display there is considered one of two authentic likenesses, approved by people who knew him.
We passed Hall’s Croft, and took a peek inside, but chose not to tour it, as we were losing steam, and figured he schoolhouse would be more of interest to the boys. Hall’s Croft was the Jacobean style home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, and her physican husband John Hall, who was known for his medicinal approach to healing his patients, even having a medicinal herb garden at their home.
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall was our final stop for the day, and it is believed that William attended school here until the age of 15, where he learned Latin classics, writing, and drama. There was an opportunity to “attend” school as it would have been in his day, with a no-nonsense instructor! We were able to sit at desks, write with ink and feather pens, construct Shakespeare puzzles, and try on some clothing from Shakespeare’s time. It was a good experience.
The following morning we had planned to visit Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, before leaving town, but we changed our minds, and headed straight for the lovely city of Bath!
“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” —Twelfth Night