I have been a fan of Shakespeare for as long as I can recall. I’ve read Shakespeare. I’ve watched Shakespeare, both on screen and the stage. I’ve even performed Shakespeare; my high school portrayal of Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing was greeted with much fanfare by my parents. I’ve written about Shakespeare, most recently for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And yet, until today, William Shakespeare the man remained a mystery, shielded from my eyes by the power of his words.
William Shakespeare undoubtedly existed, but it really takes a visit here, to Stratford-Upon-Avon, to get any sort of feeling for who he really was. It is why I made the journey, and almost certainly why you will, too.
The Bard himself!
Stratford-Upon-Avon, meaning literally “street to the ford of the River Avon” – and oddly Avon just means river, hence so many rivers Avon in the UK – sits just south of Birmingham in England’s midlands. It is, for all intents and purposes, unremarkable, except for the chance that William Shakespeare was born there in 1564. We don’t know the exact date of his birth, but Stratford’s Church of the Holy Trinity exhibits a copy of his baptism record from April 26, so it is assumed he was born on April 23, since baptism was traditionally done at three days of age.
The Church of the Holy Trinity
William was the third of eight children (five lived to adulthood), and the eldest surviving son, of Mary Arden and John Shakespeare, a leather artisan. He was born and raised in a home in Stratford, one that stands today. Shakespeare’s Birthplace looks much as it would have during his life, with the addition of some more modern amenities like glass in the windows, and the removal of the tanning facility in back. The modern road in front would have been dirt back then, but otherwise, the home is largely unchanged, and is open for touring.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace is the top attraction in Stratford.
At the age of eighteen, William married Anne Hathaway. The marriage was a quick one, as Anne was pregnant with the couple’s first daughter, Susanna. They would later add twins, Hamnet (no relation to Hamlet) and Judith, and all would live with William’s family in his childhood home, which must have been quite crowded by this point.
At this point, our biography finds a bit of a hole. We have no trace of William until 1592, nearly six years later, when he shows up in London, having left his family behind to pursue life as an actor and playwright. Success found him fairly quickly on, and he founded multiple theatre companies while writing the plays we know now as his folio. He made the journey back home to Stratford-Upon-Avon yearly, to be reunited with his family, although Hamnet – his only son – died at the age of eleven in 1596.
The River Avon
With his success, Shakespeare did not forget about his wife and children back home in Stratford, despite his being far away in London. He purchased for them what would have been one of the largest homes in the city, right next to the guild hall in the middle of town. Today, it is called New Place, and while the house is no longer standing, visitors can see gardens and hear about the home. (Of course, in the rain – as it was for me – gardens are of a bit less interest.)
Shakespearean characters (alongside traditional ones on occasion as here) decorate everything in the town.
Likewise, Shakespeare also took care of his father. John had always desired higher social status, to be a gentleman, and had been unable to obtain it. His son’s wealth and fame were able to purchase what he couldn’t get for himself. Shakespeare also designed the family’s crest, a spear with a pen tip instead of a point. Hardly original, but certainly appropriate.
Hall’s Croft, home of Shakespeare’s daughter and son-in-law
No plays are attributed to William Shakespeare after 1613, and it appears he mostly retired back to Stratford-Upon-Avon and New Place at this point. He took ill suddenly in early 1616, and died on April 23 (theoretically his 52nd birthday), attended by his son-in-law John Hall, a doctor who married Susanna. (The couple’s home at Hall’s Croft in Stratford can also be visited.) Only a month prior, Shakespeare had written Judith out of his will, as her husband Thomas Quiney had recently had an affair – the woman died in childbirth – and under Elizabethan law all of Judith’s property would have been legally her husband’s and this was the only way to write him out. His funeral and burial took place again at the Church of the Holy Trinity, and he is buried in a place of honor purchased for him by the estate, as it is doubtful anyone in Stratford-Upon-Avon would have seen or even heard of him as an actor and playwright to simply give him the honor.
Today, Stratford-Upon-Avon exists basically solely as a monument to William Shakespeare, with multiple professional (and many amateur) theatre companies, statues and fountains featuring the man and his characters, and nearly every business boasting at least a connection by name. Even my adorable bed and breakfast was called Hamlet House, with the proprietor Paul playing the Bard in BBC television shows over the years.
The Royal Shakespeare Company plays here most of the year.
In all, Stratford-Upon-Avon is a cute touristy town dedicated to a man whose life we really only know through his work. It was truly fascinating to get to know the person behind the plays. Do visit!
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