Stratford Upon Avon. Birthplace of the Bard. The village where William Shakespeare’s relatively humble origins lead some to believe (rather snobbily, I think) that a fellow with a fairly ordinary education could not possibly have written plays which still resonated with audiences 400 years later (as though all, or even the best, education happens in schoolrooms).
After several trips to the UK I finally made it to this English town, wanting to pay my respects to a writer who has lasted so long in our minds and imaginations, and whose explorations of the complex state of being human still have us talking today.
My concerns that Stratford would turn out to be a kind of DisneyShakespeareland were mostly unfounded – Stratford Upon Avon is not wall-to-wall Elizabethan Fun Park, although the township is obviously proud of their famous son and their heritage. The houses that are related to Shakespeare’s life – the house in which he was born; the one in which his daughter and her husband, a doctor, lived, and more – are well preserved, well signed and have guides in period costume to explain elements of everyday Tudor life.
On one window of the upstairs bedroom of Shakespeare’s birthplace, names have been scratched into glass (that wouldn’t even have been there in Shakespeare’s time) – including that of Henry Irving, the great Shakespearean actor of the 19th century. A picture of the panel in question is in the gallery below.
At Shakespeare’s birthplace, a roving performer even did soliloquies on request. He first delivered Richard III’s opening speech, but then he said he remembered Margaret’s speech, having once done the role, and he let me film it.
Of course shops abound, filled with Shakespearean tat (say hello to William Duckspeare, above) as well as higher quality souvenirs. But the architecure is genuinely interesting – especially to an Australian. All the Tudor-style stuff we see here is obviously fake, from the 1960s and 70s I think.
Among other things, I learned that the expression ‘sleep tight’ relates to the way mattresses once rested on a kind of rope sling, and that the ropes would have to be regularly tightened to make sure sleepers didn’t eventually sag onto the floor!
The Shakespeare Centre next to the house is wonderful too, full of art and audio and souvenirs-through-the-ages, including a display copy of a first folio open at the first page of The Tragedy of Richard III!
Naturally I took the opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company in action! Their Henry V was excellent, with some new takes on familiar scenes. Henry addressing the troops was also addressing us, and when he pleads for assistance with his French in wooing the princess, I couldn’t help feeling that a Globe Theatre audience would have thrown some suggestions his way.
Visiting Shakespeare’s grave was a fascinating moment. Buried in Trinity Church, a pretty little place near the river, dear old Will continues to attract pilgrims. I’m not necessarily a keen tourist of Places Famous People Have Been, but there was something about sitting in a pew a little way down from his grave and the plea to leave his bones undisturbed that is carved into the stone that was quietly moving.
I suppose that we all want to be remembered somehow – and Will has managed that more effectively than most. The thing is, I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe that any immortality we have, such as it is, is in our deeds. Our names may not be remembered at all, in fact, but the things we do, how we treated people, how we engaged with our world – those are things that have ripple effects, in ways large and small. Perhaps a word I speak today, or a sentence I write, will mean something to someone one day. Perhaps something in my actions or words will prompt someone to think in a new direction (hopefully a more positive one) and that slight change now will mean something to someone else down the line. I get feedback on my work sometimes that leads me to hope this is so, even in small ways.
And here lies a man whose wit, compassion, subtlety and poetry, expressed through his words, has meant a huge amount to generations of readers and audiences. His characters and stories have opened up minds to many different facets of being human – that villains can have their better moments; that heroes can be flawed. That we are all made up of multiple motivations, and perhaps that ‘nothing is either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so’.
So Vale, Mr Shakespeare. You taught me a lot about writing, about humanity, and theatre and even myself.