ONCE UPON A BARD

As William Shake­speare’s 444th birth­day cel­e­bra­tions loom, head to his fa­mous birth­place in Strat­ford-on-Avon, sug­gests Jeanette Scott

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

THE most fa­mous of Bri­tish bards turns 444 on April 23. In tourism in­dus­try terms, at least, he is still alive and well. And nowhere is his me­mory pre­served as ro­bustly as in the town from which he hailed. Strat­ford-onAvon in the county of War­wick­shire is not known as Shake­speare Coun­try for noth­ing.

Its eas­ily nav­i­ga­ble grid sys­tem ex­ists thanks to the cre­ation of Strat­ford-on-Avon in 1196 us­ing the new town for­mula of the time. It would be 368 years un­til a baby was born there by the name of William Shake­speare in a house in Hen­ley Street.

He was the son of a glove­maker and the third of eight chil­dren; the stone floor on which a young William would have played and ut­tered his first words is tram­pled to­day by hordes of tourists. They file pa­tiently through his birth­place, an im­pres­sive tim­ber home where at­tempts have been made to re­pro­duce life at the time of the Bard-to-be.

A glove-mak­ing work­shop and a war­ren of sur­pris­ingly light-filled rooms are also vis­ited by some of Shake­speare’s most fa­mous char­ac­ters, flit­ting from room to room, recit­ing the Bard’s words. Far from ghostly ap­pari­tions — al­though spec­u­la­tion about ghosts does make for an­other tourist at­trac­tion in the form of a ghost walk in the town — the char­ac­ters form part of a new draw to Strat­ford, known as Shake­speare Aloud.

Ac­tors are bring­ing the likes of Lady Mac­beth, Ham­let and Romeo and Juliet to life in the col­lec­tion of build­ings that make up the Shake­speare Houses: his birth­place, Hall’s Croft (home of William’s daugh­ter, Susanna), Nash’s House and New Place (his fi­nal home), Anne Hath­away’s Cot­tage, Mary Ar­den’s Farm and Har­vard House.

The Strat­ford of Shake­speare’s time might have in­spired ar­guably Bri­tain’s great­est play­wright but the Strat­ford of to­day would prob­a­bly strug­gle to stir such bril­liance. There is an abun­dance of ref­er­ences to its fa­mous son but many of the streets are car­bon copies of ev­ery other street in many of Bri­tain’s face­less town cen­tres. There are the same cof­fee houses and shops with familiar goods in the win­dows. But Strat­ford is never go­ing to thrive on Shake­speare alone, de­spite a pop­u­lar­ity that shows no sign of wan­ing.

Strat­ford does make a brisk trade of Shake­speare, though. El­iz­a­bethan ar­chi­tec­ture of his time has con­tin­ued to ex­ist, in most places, with­out thought­less restora­tion and the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany has its main base here with the­atres that have con­tin­u­ally trot­ted out the Bard’s works for more than 100 years. The the­atres are be­ing re­stored and while progress is never at­trac­tive on such a huge scale dis­rup­tion is as sub­tle as it could be.

Shake­speare aside, War­wick­shire has an abun­dance of other at­trac­tions. Still in Strat­ford is Bri­tain’s largest but­ter­fly farm; nearby Royal Leam­ing­ton Spa has pump rooms to ri­val the more fa­mous spa town of Bath; and the neigh­bour­ing towns of War­wick and Ke­nil­worth (both within a half-hour drive of Strat­ford) boast im­pres­sive cas­tles and the oblig­a­tory tea­rooms to pro­vide respite dur­ing a rainy day off the ram­parts.

If hav­ing Shake­speare as its most fa­mous son is not no­table enough, War­wick­shire claims as rich a writ­ing her­itage as the coalmin­ing in­dus­try that once sus­tained the re­gion. If Shake­speare is War­wick­shire’s son, then Ge­orge Eliot is the county’s daugh­ter. The town of Nuneaton (one hour north­east of Strat­ford) is the place to find out about Eliot, oth­er­wise known as Mary Ann Evans.

Born in 1819 on Nuneaton’s Ar­bury Es­tate, Eliot is one of the five names adopted by Evans dur­ing her tur­bu­lent life, which in­volved se­cret lovers and sui­cide at­tempts. She took on the Eliot moniker to earn ex­tra credit for her writ­ing when women’s work was not looked on with as much re­spect as that of men. She em­braced her home town’s virtues and many of her most fa­mous works, such as The Mill on the Floss , Si­las Marner and Mid­dle­march , throw a men­tion to­wards lo­ca­tions around Nuneaton.

Af­ter a swift half-pint at the Ge­orge Eliot pub in the town cen­tre, join a walk­ing tour to find out more. Thank­fully, the Eliot statue is back on its plinth in the mid­dle of the town. The writer was knocked off her perch re­cently by a brew­ery lorry but has been re­stored to for­mer glory (al­though she looks over a pro­saic hand­bag shop, bank and de­part­ment store). The town’s hospi­tal is even named af­ter her.

For cen­turies, Shake­speare’s life has also been dogged by ru­mour: whis­pers of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, drug use, deer poach­ing (for which he was sup­pos­edly driven from Strat­ford to Lon­don), why he left his wife, Hath­away, the fam­ily’s sec­ond best bed and, per­haps most fa­mously, ru­mours about the au­then­tic­ity of his work. But such con­jec­ture has never dented his im­age; in­deed, it prob­a­bly has kept his celebrity at a pre­mium given the fameob­sessed so­ci­ety that has de­vel­oped since his hey­day.

Un­like many great artists of the past, Shake­speare was rich and fa­mous dur­ing his life­time. Records prove the own­er­ship of many prop­er­ties and he was revered (and cri­tiqued) by some of the most famed creative minds of the age. Ben Jon­son said of him in 1623, a few years af­ter the Bard’s death: ‘‘ He was not of an age, but for all time.’’

Per­haps one of the big­gest un­knowns about Shake­speare is his birth­day. It is widely thought he was born and died on the same date, April 23, in 1564 and 1616 re­spec­tively. April 23 is the date cel­e­brated as St Ge­orge’s Day, the pa­tron saint of Eng­land. But there ex­ists no of­fi­cial record apart from Shake­speare’s date of bap­tism, April 26, 1564, in Strat­ford’s Holy Trin­ity Church (also his fi­nal rest­ing place).

What­ever the truth about the Bard’s birth­day, Strat­ford throws a party in his hon­our ev­ery year and the week­end of April 26-27 this year will be no dif­fer­ent. Pro­ces­sions, work­shops, ex­hi­bi­tions, town walks, tra­di­tional folk danc­ing, mu­sic, com­edy, a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val, flut­ter­ing flags and even a marathon lit­ter the cal­en­dar of events to say happy birth­day to the Bard.

It’s a time, too, to re­flect that Shake­speare is re­spon­si­ble for more than 1700 words in ev­ery­day lan­guage, such as barefaced ( Ham­let), birth­place ( Co­ri­olanus), amaze­ment ( KingJohn) and scuf­fle ( AntonyandCleopa­tra). Some of his best-known phrases in­clude: all that glis­ters is not gold; break the ice; the naked truth; it’s Greek to me; green-eyed jeal­ousy; for good­ness sake; with­out rhyme or rea­son; van­ished into thin air, and the truth will out. www.shake­speare.org.uk www.vis­itbri­tain.com.au

Hearth and home: Half-tim­bered houses in Strat­ford-on-Avon

Time­less scenes: The room where William Shake­speare was born, top left; Anne Hath­away’s Cot­tage, bot­tom left; gar­den of Shake­speare’s Hen­ley Street home, main pic­ture; a bust of the play­wright, right

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