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Shakespeare, as you like it

Thus reads the curse on William Shakespeare’s grave at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare, as you like it

The bard's birthplace. Photos by the writer



Gagandeep Arora

“Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
 To dig the dust enclosed here. 
Blessed be the man that spares 
these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

Thus reads the curse on William Shakespeare’s grave at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare died on April 25, 1616. It is said during those days, it was common to exhume bodies for research or for making room for more burials. Shakespeare surely didn’t want anyone to move his grave, thus the curse. And the warning seems to have worked too. Not only his grave stays at the original place of burial, but his other family members, including his wife, are also laid to rest in the chancel alongside him.

The town, located 144 km north-west of London, is largely built upon Shakespeare’s legacy. It houses many historical buildings related to the writer’s life — his birthplace, King’s New School, New Place, Anne Hathaway’s cottage, Mary Arden’s farm and Hall’s Croft to name a few. After a tour of these places, it is surprising to see how much of the Shakespeare’s world still remains.

Rick Jones, a blue badge guide based in London, says: “For travel, the most convenient option is to board a train from London Euston station to Stratford via Birmingham. One can also take a coach from near London Victoria Station. It’s a two-and-a-half hour journey. The ticket costs £20.25 each for access to all five properties and £15.75 for single property.”

William was born to John Shakespeare, a glove maker, and Mary Arden in a half-timbered house on the Henley Street on April 23, 1564. The house was bought by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in the 1850s following efforts by a delegation led by novelist Charles Dickens.

It is believed that Shakespeare spent his entire childhood and the first five years of his married life in this house. Much of the original stone, oak beams and fireplaces are still in place. Every year millions of people visit this place to walk in the footsteps of the immortal Bard.

Jones puts in: “For his admirers across the world, the journey to Stratford-upon-Avon is a pilgrimage and the Shakespeare’s birthplace a shrine.”

On entering the house, visitors are shown a short film on the Bard’s life.  One can also hear tales of the family from costumed guides. The Trust has preserved rare artifacts related to the playwright’s life, including one of the three First Folios (the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works).

Outside the house, the meticulously tended garden contains many trees, flowers and herbs mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. One can also look out for costumed actors in the garden, who bring Shakespeare’s works to life with speech and song.

Next to his birthplace is King’s New School where Shakespeare studied. Jones says it is believed that this is where he saw his first play and performed for the first time as an actor. The school is very much in place and continues to shape many lives.

Right across the street is New Place, the house Shakespeare bought in 1597 and where he died in 1616. During the 19 years he lived here, he was at the height of his creative powers. The Trust has transformed the site into a heritage landmark where visitors can discover the world of Shakespeare as a successful playwright, a family man and a prominent citizen of Stratford.

Not far away is Holl’s Croft, the house of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband, physician John Hall. It is famous for its stunning period interiors. Alice Smith, a tourist from California, US, says, “I just couldn’t stop admiring the place. It’s an impressive piece of architecture. The walled garden is a beautiful, restorative place.”

Shakespeare married (at the age of 18) Anne Hathaway, who was 26 at that time and was pregnant with their first child (Susanna). Her beautiful cottage is a sight to behold. This is where William and Anne’s romance blossomed. The Trust took over the property in 1892. Nathan Brown, a student from Cambridge, says, “The cottage is in the beautiful setting. This is my second visit to the town. It takes you on a journey back in time. You can literally follow Shakespeare from cradle to grave.”

And finally, the Holy Trinity Church. This is where William was baptised three days after his birth and buried 52 years later. There are entries in the Parish register of both the events. A few years after his death and during the lifetime of his wife, a memorial to Shakespeare was raised and is said to be a good likeness.

Stratford-upon-Avon offers a tantalising glimpse into Shakespeare’s world. While travelling to Britain, a visit to this town is not to be missed.

Tagore at Stratford

A statue of the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore is installed in front of the family home of Shakespeare. In 1916, Tagore wrote a poem in the honour of the Bard on his 300th death anniversary. In 1946, Indian High Commissioner to London Dr LM Singhvi, whose love of Shakespeare had been inspired by Tagore’s poem, conceived the idea of a permanent monument to Tagore at Stratford-upon-Avon. Much later in 1995, a bronze bust, cast by Kolkata sculptor Debabrata Chakraborty, was presented to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by the then West Bengal CM Jyoti Basu. The plinth is engraved with Tagore’s poem to Shakespeare in Bengali as well as in English.

Dr Paul Edmondson, Head of Research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, says, “Every year, the Trust honours Tagore on his birth anniversary on May 7 with a commemorative event at the Shakespeare’s birthplace. We regularly welcome a batch of students from a Mumbai school on a short course with us. Last year, they performed their own Indian dance version of Romeo and Juliet in Stratford-upon-Avon.

“Shakespeare started getting popular in India in the days of the British Empire, with the earliest theatrical performances taking place in Calcutta in 1831 and in Bombay in 1849, but his stories and the inspiration of his poetry have remained and become Indian themselves. Shakespeare is the international figure who crossed borders and explored issues that are relevant even today, the beauty of his works is that they can be adapted to any language or art form, and that, in itself, is remarkable.

Travel tips 

How to reach: The town is 144 km from London. One can take a train from London Euston station to Stratford-upon-Avon via Birmingham. The journey takes  nearly two hours 30 minutes. Coaches take the same amount of time and can be taken from near London Victoria Station.

Guided tour: Tour operators offer multiple guided tours to Stratford-upon-Avon combining these with other destinations in England. Single tour costs around Rs 1,500 per person, which includes entry to Shakespeare’s birthplace.

Entry ticket: £20.25 each for access to all five properties, £15.75 for single property

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