Shakespeare the Great

On the first day out of London we joined the masses of summer sightseers in the town where William Shakespeare was born in 1564, lived and died in 1616, Stratford on Avon.  It’s such a picturesque place, with a respectable little river flowing through its centre, and it includes several buildings linked with “the Bard”, who is by far the greatest-ever wordsmith of the English language and arguably the greatest dramatist ever.

Overlooking the River Avon is the 20th century built theatre and home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and behind it is the very old Holy Trinity Church in whose grounds England’s No. 1 playwright lies buried.  Churches like this one are so numerous in the Old World, but they blow the mind of this Ozzie New Worlder: the first Christian church on this Stratford site was built in AD 845, and the present one’s development started in 1210!  Wow!  (But must remember this is a blog and not a sermon.)

The quaintest building linked with Will Shakespeare is the cottage his wife inherited from her family: Ann Hathaway’s Cottage, and she lived here till she married the great man.

The house where Shakespeare was born and spent his early years is close to the centre of Stratford.  It was bought to become a national monument in the mid-19th century, and has been beautifully restored to show how people lived around 1600: how his father worked as a glover, how the family lived and slept, and how 16th century wattle and daub houses were built.  William inherited this house from his father but lived in London for most of his adult years; close to his retirement he bought another house in Stratford but this no longer exists.

Two actors reciting excerpts from Shakespeare's plays outside his birthplace

Some of the details of how families lived were quite enlightening.  The Shakespeares were not poor so they had bedrooms, one for the parents, one for the boys and one for the girls.  Children under 5 slept with the parents in a trundle bed that was pulled out from under the side of the main bed – up to three in the little bed that had a rope mattress that could be tightened – hence the expression, “Good night, sleep tight”.  The baby had its own crib, but the littlies were kept close to the parents as a safety precaution.  Stakes at the sides of the parent bed prevented them rolling onto the kids!  I wonder how much sleeping they all did!  The Shakespeares seemed to have wool in their mattress as Will’s father was also a wool merchant.

Understandably but sadly, no photography is allowed in many places of great interest!

It was magic to be in Stratford on Avon, a place that has been part of us since our school days.  Being there, hearing the stories, walking through the locations in Stratford and London that were part of Shakespeare’s life and work – what an experience.

What also struck me was the evidence of Shakespeare’s influence on the English language.  At school we read the plays and at university some of his other work, but among the mountain of Shakespeariana in the tourist shops were books and posters of very familiar and other imaginative expressions that come from his work and continues to enrich our language today.  Expressions such as “with bated breath” (Merchant of Venice) and “a foregone conclusion” (Othello) are just two examples that have become part of everyday English speech.

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