Searching Shakespeare stories at Stratford-upon-Avon

Searching Shakespeare stories at Stratford-upon-Avon

A Pilgrims Tale

A street play in progress at the Bard’s hometown.

When you’re reading William Shakespeare you except a few ghosts here and there — be it Banquo in ‘Macbeth’ or Hamlet’s dead father in ‘Hamlet’. They flit around in the mist and pop out of the pages of his famous plays, speaking of evil machination and ugly murders and leading the characters and the reader to where the action is. Not surprising then that outside the public library on Henley Street, Stratford (Shakespeare’s place of birth) a ghostly apparition in white stands still on a pedestal marked William Shakespeare. When you decide it is just a statue, he nods his head curtly in greeting causing the air to ring out with the shrieks of startled onlookers.

Despite having died almost 400 years back, Shakespeare continues to roam the streets of Stratford on warm summer afternoons as a vision in white or just sonnets recounted by well-versed visitors. And at his house, you may well run into Lady Macbeth sleepwalking through the corridors, Romeo and Juliet meeting in the garden or even Hamlet’s father’s ghost materialising before your eyes.

Some say that this scenic town, set on the beautiful river Avon at the very heart of England, would have been visited by tourists even if the world’s greatest playwright had not been born there in 1564. But he was and so Shakespeare repays his debt to Stratford for giving him education and an acute awareness of nature by making it a shrine on the world map. Those in the literary world who read, love and revere him throng the town to visit the ‘Birthplace’, the house where he courted his wife Anne Hathaway, three theatres and a beautiful garden memorial.

Old records tell us that Shakespeare’s Stratford would have been a prosperous place with merchants and tradesmen working under the protective guild of the Holy Trinity that funded the Grammar School where he learnt Latin. Shakespeare spent most of his life in London building a reputation as a playwright and a poet. It is believed that he left Stratford due to a charge of deer poaching brought against him by Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote. His revenge was sweet — Justice Shallow in ‘Henry IV part 2’ and ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ is said to be a caricature of Lucy. In London, either by accident or by design, William picked up a job with the capital’s leading theatres, initially working as a jack-of-all-trades. It is said that maybe his acting talent as an extra led him to being engaged by the Earl of Leicester’s company of actors, which soon made use of Shakespeare’s aptitude with the pen, initially by editing and rewriting other people’s work and then by producing his own plays. Among the first of these was ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, performed in court for Queen Elizabeth, and the last was ‘The Tempest’, written in 1611.

When he had made his fortune, Shakespeare bought a mansion in the town centre at Stratford and retired there. Unhappily, his retirement lasted only six years and he died, just 52, in 1616, probably after a convivial evening with fellow writers Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton.

The poet’s reputation grew after his death and gathered pace after the Shakespearian Festival organised by the famous actor David Garrick in 1769. Visitors flocked to see the birthplace and went away with pieces hacked off the poet’s chair, sold as souvenirs.

Shakespeare’s heritage has since been safeguarded and now when you enter the ‘Birthplace’, you are not allowed to touch artifacts or take pictures. A visit is incomplete without a town walk to see Garrick Inn, with its gettied upper storey. It’s a treasured memory of a romantic town that gave the world some of it most famous stories.

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