A Pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s Birthplace: Stratford-Upon-Avon
By Dan Bacalzo, Contributing Writer, July 25, 2018
Stratford-Upon-Avon gave the world William Shakespeare, and you can hardly go anywhere in the town without some kind of indication of this distinction. The first place to visit, of course, is the birth home of the Bard, which is the centerpiece of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
While you can purchase an individual entrance ticket to this location, the thriftier option is to purchase “The Full Story Ticket,” which gives visitors one-year access to five different locations. On my recent trip, I visited three of these.
Shakespeare’s birthplace is located on Henley Street, a busy pedestrian thoroughfare with several shops and restaurants, many with a Shakespearean theme. According to one of the guides who staff various rooms in the house, Henley Street would have been bustling during Shakespeare’s time, as well. It was an active marketplace, with landowners and travelers passing through on a frequent basis. John Shakespeare, William’s father, was a glover, and sold his wares through the window to passers-by.
It’s fascinating to see the home, which includes some original elements (such as portions of the flooring, walls, and fireplaces), as well as reconstructions that mimic what the place would have looked like in the 16th century, during the time Shakespeare lived there.
Of particular interest is the “birth room,” which is the parents’ bedroom where William Shakespeare and his seven siblings (three of whom died as children) were born. A volunteer staffing the room told me that children typically slept in their parents’ bedroom until the age of five, and then would relocate to the adjoining boys’ room or girls’ room.
Out in the backyard, there is a lovely garden, as well as an area set up for actors who perform famous scenes and sonnets written by Shakespeare. During the time that I sat and watched, one of the actresses gave a rousing rendition of Sonnet 18, commonly recognized by its opening line, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.”
Not far away from the birthplace is the location on Chapel Street to which Shakespeare moved with his wife, Anne, in 1597. Dubbed the “New Place,” it is a curious location notable more for the absence of what was once there as opposed to what you might actually see. The house itself no longer stands. In its place, however, is a Shakespeare-themed sculpture garden, and next door is a restored Tudor house where Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth lived with her first husband, Thomas Nash.
A more substantial bit of Shakespeare history is found at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, located ten minutes away by car, or half an hour by footpath, which is the route that I took. This is the location where Anne grew up, and where it is thought that she and William began their romance. As a few of the guides were quick to point out, Anne was eight years William’s senior, and their first child was born six months after a hastily arranged marriage, so it is hard to say whether this was a true love match or one made by necessity.
Regardless, the cottage is a remarkable dwelling that represents several generations of the Hathaway family. It’s twice the size that it would have been during Shakespeare’s time, but the additions built starting in the 17th century represent the structure’s transformation from a farm house to an inn. There are a few notable pieces of furniture, including what is referred to as “Shakespeare’s courting chair,” which was supposedly used by Shakespeare when he came to woo Anne. However, while one of the volunteers I spoke to at the cottage insisted that this was the truth, it’s clear that later generations of the Hathaway family had sometimes told apocryphal stories about certain items, which they claimed had a direct Shakespeare connection. The courting chair – known to have been sold off in the late 18th century, and only recently recovered by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust at a Christie’s auction in 2002 – may have been one of these.
Another is the Hathaway Bed, also featured in the cottage. In his will, Shakespeare left his wife his “second-best bed” – a fact that many people of our era find curious and possibly even insulting. However, some scholars argue that the best bed would have been reserved for use by guests, and that the second-best bed was more likely to be the marital bed that Shakespeare shared with his wife. Hathaway family lore claims that granddaughter Elizabeth gifted the bed to the Hathaways, and that the oldest elements of it came from the second-best bed, which had been left to Anne.
The grounds of the Hathaway Cottage are as impressive as the cottage itself. There are lush flowers and woodland trails, as well as another Shakespeare-themed sculpture garden. It’s a beautiful place to while away the morning or afternoon, and for those who live close to the area, it must be great to visit at different times of the year and to see how seasonal changes are reflected in the vegetation.
In addition to the properties that are part of the birthplace trust – which also include Mary Arden’s farm (where Shakespeare’s mother grew up) and Hall’s Croft (home to Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, and her husband John Hall) – there are at least three other locations in the Stratford area that are worth a visit for the Shakespeare aficionado.
Just down the street from the New Place is Guildhall, which was originally built as the headquarters for a 15th-century religious fraternity, Guild of the Holy Cross. The building later became home to the King Edward VI grammar school where Shakespeare is said to have received an education that was immersed in the classics. In 2016, in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Guildhall building was opened to the public. Among the featured highlights that visitors can view are the remains of a Medieval painting of a crucifixion scene. While engaged in conservation work prior to the public opening, a heretofore unseen image of John the Baptist was revealed. A docent named Jane, who was volunteering at the time of the discovery, told me that the man who uncovered it was so overwhelmed that he grew faint and had to be carried out of the hall.
During Shakespeare’s childhood, his father held the office of Bailiff, which is equivalent to being the mayor of the town. He would have presided over the court, which met in Guildhall, and the docent informed me that young William may have attended several court proceedings as a child, which could help account for the way he represents courtroom arguments in plays such as The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale.
Upstairs is where Shakespeare’s classroom would have been, and according to records found in the building, this is also where traveling troupes of players would have performed during Shakespeare’s time. Young William would likely have seen some of the greatest actors of the day perform in this room, which could have served as inspiration for his future career as a dramatist.
Not too far from Guildhall is the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, alongside Anne and other members of his family. Shakespeare was a lay rector at the church, which accounts for his interment at this site. For a small donation, visitors can enter the Chancel, where the grave is located, and pay respects to the celebrated writer.
Of course, no visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon would be complete without going to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) theatre complex, which is strategically located off the Avon River. I recommend purchasing an Explorer Pass, which gives entry to the tower that provides a panoramic view of the town and surrounding countryside; the exhibit “The Play’s the Thing” that contains costumes, props, and interactive displays associated with various RSC productions; and a backstage tour of the complex. The tour I attended was led by actor Tony Homer, who proved engaging and informative. He seemed particularly keen on sharing the secrets of stage blood, perhaps because he has an ensemble role in the current RSC production of The Duchess of Malfi, which is extremely bloody.
This play was written by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, John Webster, and concerns a noblewoman widowed at an early age who secretly remarries, against the wishes of her two brothers. The play itself is rather overblown, and yet director Maria Aberg’s production manages to both revel in its excesses (particularly when it comes to the usage of stage blood, which literally pours onto the stage) and endow it with a moving gravitas. Joan Iyiola’s performance as the titular figure is particularly powerful, as are the moments of musical reflection, including an anachronistic performance of the song “I Put a Spell on You,” soulfully delivered by actress Aretha Ayeh; a gorgeous solo by countertenor Francis Gush; and a wailing lamentation by the Duchess, accompanied by the madmen that her brothers have moved close to her home as part of their efforts to punish her.
The other play that I saw at the RSC during my visit was the new musical, Miss Littlewood, featuring book, music, and lyrics by Sam Kenyon. While there are pleasant and informative aspects of this biographical work about experimental theatre director Joan Littlewood, the show is not entirely successful. I was particularly put off by the fact that the accomplishments of this remarkable woman are rendered secondary to the plotline of her romance with longtime lover, Gerry Raffles. It’s not that I object to the inclusion of this humanizing element to Littlewood’s story, but it is unfortunate that the show makes it seem as if she defines herself in relation to this philandering man.
The RSC frequently produces Shakespeare’s works, as well. Macbeth was playing in the larger of the two stages in the theatre complex, but, unfortunately, I was unable to get a ticket to see it during my stay.
Even so, I delighted in my visit to Shakespeare’s home town and have an increased appreciation for how the man’s humble origins could have shaped some of the greatest plays ever written.
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Cover: Stratford-Upon-Avon; photo: Dan Bacalzo / ZEALnyc.