In Search of The Bard. A Journey to Stratford On Avon.
On one of England’s hottest days on record it was perhaps fortuitous that I had a ticket to see Shakespeare’s “As You Like It ‘at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford thus allowing me to escape the insufferable heat of the city.
To my eternal shame, after living for several years in London I had never ventured to this part of rural England as, all too often it was a case of, “to visit or not to visit, that was the question.”
I have always had a deep and ongoing affection for all things Shakespeare and was slightly hesitant about visiting the place of his birthplace, suspecting that it would be overrun with hordes of visitors complete with twee stores bearing names like, ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe”
Stratford-upon-Avon, commonly known as just Stratford, is a market town, in the county of Warwickshire situated on the picturesque River Avon. At just 91 miles (146 km) north-west of London its an easy and altogether pleasant train journey from Marylebone Station through the quintessential English countryside with its neat fields and stone farmhouses.
Stratford is an altogether delightful town filled with buildings that date back to the middle to late 1500s. Tudor architecture abounds with thatched dwellings complete with exposed hardwood beams supporting the exterior walls and everything and I mean everything has been perfectly preserved.
I spotted just one " Ye Olde " type shop so I guess one must be a little forgiving.
The performance of " As You Like It " at the RSC was brilliant with cast and crew transporting the audience back to medieval times via this delightful romp of a play in one of the best settings for Shakesperian productions anywhere.
Besides attending the play it was my quest to discover a little more about the Bard himself and where he spent his formative and later life even though it was a trifle short. Actually, very little is known for certain about William Shakespeare and what we do know about his life comes from registrar records, court records, wills, marriage certificates and his tombstone in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. He was baptised here on 26 April 1564 Avon, three days after his birthday, on St George's Day.
John Shakespeare, William’s father was a wheat and wool merchant while also being listed as a successful glover while 'on the side' he operated as a money lender. (Inspiration perhaps for Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice”) In 1556 John bought the main part of a house in Henley Street now known as William’s 'Birthplace'
John Shakespeare played a prominent role in the municipal life of the town serving on the town council and eventually elected bailiff (mayor). However, around 1576 he was beset by severe financial difficulties and forced to mortgage his wife's inheritance. They had eight children: four daughters, of whom only one (Joan) survived childhood while William was the eldest of the four boys.
William almost certainly went to one of Stratford's 'petty' or junior schools where he would have learnt his letters with the help of a hornbook with most of the text being in Latin. He probably left school at the age of 14 or 15.
Shakespeare’s later plays reveal a detailed knowledge of the curriculum taught in such schools which were geared towards teaching pupils Latin, both spoken and written. For example, some of his ideas for plots and characters came from Ovid's tales and the plays of Terence and Plautus sprinkled with copious amounts of Roman history.
In 1582, when he was just 18, Shakespeare married a farmers daughter, Anne Hathaway and, according to records at Holy Trinity church show that his first child Susanna was born six months after the wedding meaning that William was toying with more than just his quill before the nuptials!
From 1585 until 1592, very little is known about Shakespeare and these are generally referred to as, 'The Lost Years' however, in 1592 we know that he was in London where he was singled out by a rival dramatist, Robert Greene as a budding playwright.
Unfortunately in1593 plague broke out in London forcing all theatres to close which is when Shakespeare turned to write poetry. Later that year he achieved some success when an erotic the poem, Venus and Adonis dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, a young courtier and favourite of Queen Elizabeth was published.
Shakespeare's earliest plays included Henry VI Parts I, II & III, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Titus Andronicus. The sonnets were also written about this time, though they were not published until 1609.
In 1594, Shakespeare became a founding member, actor, playwright and shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain's Men cementing his place in the literary world perhaps forever. William apart from his writing skills was obviously an astute businessman, unlike his father who lost his fortune and, from what we can gather he amassed great wealth in his lifetime.
In 1602 Shakespeare paid £320 in cash to William Combe and his nephew John for roughly 107 acres of land in Old Stratford as well as purchasing land in Chapel Lane meaning that by the time he died in 1616 he was able to live comfortably on the rents of his tenants.
Sometime after 1611, Shakespeare retired to Stratford. We know this for on 25 March 1616, Shakespeare revised and signed his will when he discovered that his beloved daughter’s husband was having an affair with a local inn keeper’s wife and he was cut from off from his inheritance.
William Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest playwright of all time died on 23rd April 1616 aged just 52 and was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. His widow, Anne died in 1623 and was buried beside him at the front of the church. The Shakespeare family line came to an end with the death of his grand-daughter Elizabeth in 1670.
The intriguing thing is that today, Shakespeare's house now comprises of an empty lot as apparently, a disgruntled creditor demolished the house a few days after his untimely death much to the displeasure of the city fathers. However, perhaps Willy, like his dad was also a cunning Shylock.
In essence, we'll never know.
Almost adding insult to injury, in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, John Heminge and Henry Condell had Shakespeare's plays published by William Jaggard and his son, Isaac.
This first folio contained 36 plays and sold for a paltry £1.
Photographs copyright Paul v Walters.
Paul v Walters is the best selling author of several best selling novels and, when not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali, he scribbles for several international travel and vox pop journals.