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 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