On my visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, the Rev Dr Paul Edmondson, who is head of research and knowledge, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, gifted me a book on William Shakespeare. The book gave me an insight into why people, especially writers, thronged the place. “For all writers, a visit to Shakespeare’s birthplace is like going to Bethlehem,” says poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy in the book. For most Shakespeare lovers, visiting his birthplace and walking through his house is like an intimate act to connect with the playwright, besides through his works, of course.
For centuries, writers have been coming to Stratford-upon-Avon to retrace the Bard’s footsteps and get inspired. “The poet, John Keats, was certainly inspired by the genius of the place during his visit on October 2, 1817,” writes Edmondson in the book. “In the Birthplace visitors’ book, under ‘Place of Abode,’ Keats wrote ‘Everywhere.’
When visiting Shakespeare’s grave later that day he expressed the same sentiment in the Church’s visitors’ book, but in Latin, ‘ubique’.”
Charles Dickens, who helped raise money to keep Shakespeare’s birthplace from going into private hands, alluded to Shakespeare's birthplace in his novel Nicholas Nickleby. Mrs Wittiterly says in the novel, “I find I take so much more interest in his plays, after having been to that dear little dull house, he was born in.”
The house, however, would have been anything but dull during Shakespeare’s childhood since his parents, John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, had eight children. It also doubled as John’s workshop—he was a glovemaker. So his apprentices also lived and worked there. Not to forget its location, on Henley Street, a very busy market street in a big town.
The house had a parlour, which was considered to be the best room, where the family displayed its prized possessions, including the best beds. Back then, a good bed would cost around 10 pounds, which was about half a year’s salary of a school teacher. So, putting the best beds on display was a sign of a family’s wealth and social standing.
The parlour led to the dining hall and the workshop in the back. Not much is known about what Shakespeare did between 1578 and 1582. Being the eldest among four boys, Shakespeare may have helped his father in the workshop. It is quite a plausible theory, considering his plays have references to gloving, the tools used, different types of leather and leather-making terminology, which means that he was familiar with them.
Then there was the birthroom, where Mary took rest during her pregnancy. Visitors back in the day used to write their names on the window panes using a diamond ring. In fact, Dickens’s name can be easily spotted among the etchings.
A two-roomed cottage was added to the main house and it is believed that Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, lived there after they got married. He inherited the house in 1601 and later it was turned into an inn called Swan and Maiden Head.
Outside Shakespeare’s house today, professional actors perform scenes from his plays on demand. I asked for a performance of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not be’ soliloquy and was blown away by it.
Unlike his birthplace, the Bard’s resting place is quiet and tranquil. The Holy Trinity Church, where he was buried in 1616, is situated in a leafy corner of Stratford-upon-Avon. His gravestone bears a curse to ward off grave diggers.
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
To get an idea about Shakespeare's childhood, it is important to visit his mother's farm in Wilmcote, which was traditionally known as the Forest of Arden, but the forest was gone by the time Shakespeare was born. Mary's father, Robert Arden, was a rich farmer who held about 70 acres, which he rented to Shakespeare’s paternal grandfather, Richard Shakespeare. Mary inherited the farm after she turned 17, and she got married to John in 1557.
The farm was bought by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1930 and opened to tourists, who could see a re-enactment of the life in the farm where a variety of herbs, vegetables and fruits are grown today.
Shakespeare's wife, too, grew up on a farm in Shottery, not very far from Stratford-upon-Avon. The farm has a grand cottage, which remained with the Hathaway family for generations before the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust purchased it. It is clear that Anne belonged to a well-to-do family since her father left her a dowry of seven pounds, which was a huge sum back then.
With landscaped garden, the farm today is an ideal place to spend a day sitting amid the blooming flowers daydreaming.