In Love With Shakespeare

by Jenny Speller (courtesy of VisitBritain.com)

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

An ambitious, year-long Shakespeare festival starts in 2006 – the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s tragedy, Macbeth. What better time to follow in the footsteps of England’s great bard?

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with its witches murmuring sinister chants and foretelling plots of ambition, treachery and bloody murder, was first performed by his own company, The King’s Men, at London’s Globe Theatre in 1606. The actors would have played in the open air as they do today at the capital’s re-created Globe on the South Bank, where audiences can experience a play as it would have been performed by the playwright’s company.

Macbeth’s origins belong in the darker realms of 11th century Scottish history and legend. The dramatic castles of Cawdor and Glamis, set amid the magnificent scenery of the Highlands, hold centuries of secrets of Scotland’s mysterious past.

But it was the Warwickshire countryside in the Heart of England which provided the inspiration for much of Shakespeare’s poetry. The Forest of Arden was the setting for the comedy As You Like It where Jacques observes “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

That’s about to become true when from April, players from Britain and around the world will make their exits and their entrances on stages throughout Shakespeare’s home town, Stratford-upon-Avon, 105 miles from London, as part of a year-long festival celebrating the playwright’s genius.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is amassing an awesome array of theatrical talent including stars of stage and screen for its festival: The Complete Works (April 2006 – April 2007) presenting the entire canon of his plays – all 37 – plus sonnets and poems, for the first time in a single event. Highlights range from Dame Judi Dench in a musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Ian McKellan making his debut as King Lear, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, to Yukio Ninagawa’s Titus Andronicus in Japanese and an all-male Twelfth Night performed in Russian. Stratford is planning a year-long party with music, film and fringe events and a host of attractions to honour the bard.

Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 and died on his birthday in 1616, aged 52. The festival will be launched over his birthday weekend when, following tradition, boys from King Edward VI Grammar School, where he was a pupil, lead townspeople, actors and scholars in the Birthday Procession, carrying flowers to his grave in the chancel of the ancient Holy Trinity Church where he was baptised and worshipped. Shakespeare’s epitaph takes the form of a curse, which wasn’t uncommon in those days as he wanted to ensure his bones were not removed. Whenever I look at the stone I can’t help feeling a tingle down my spine and am glad he made sure he remained at the heart of the town. The church will be the setting for a performance of Henry VIII.

The old school house only opens at weekends during the school summer holidays so it’s a rare treat to see inside this beautiful building.

Shakespeare’s life and times can be followed at the family’s five houses in Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare’s Birthplace is the original family home, where his father ran a prosperous business as a glove maker and wool dealer. The Visitor Centre’s exhibition is excellent and there is even an original school desk covered in graffiti! Shakespeare bought New Place for his wife Anne Hathaway and their children when he was working in London. He retired to Stratford in 1610 and died there. The house was demolished in the 18th century but the Great Garden is preserved with a fine Elizabethan Knot Garden. His granddaughter owned the adjoining Nash’s House.

I fell in love with Hall’s Croft when I first went through the front door. Perhaps it is the friendly ghosts who reputedly appear to welcome visitors, especially the kindly Tudor lady in a blue dress. Victorian school children have been seen playing in the garden and badges in the gift shop mysteriously spinning across the floor.

Halls Croft was the home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna. Her husband Dr. John Hall was an eminent physician and there are some pretty intimidating surgical instruments on display as well as fascinating accounts of the treatment of disease and the devastating effects of the plague. The house still has the intimacy of a family home with open fireplaces, stone flagged floors and fine furniture of the period.

I can imagine the young Shakespeare on a summer evening sauntering along a country lane to the village of Shottery singing “It was a lover and his lass.” I’d like to think he was clutching a bunch of wild thyme and violets as he went to woo his lover Anne waiting for him in the garden or the parlour. Picturesque Anne Hathaway’s Cottage can still be reached on foot and has changed very little in four hundred years. Mary Arden’s House, the home of Shakespeare’s mother, is just outside Stratford and now part of The Shakespeare Countryside Museum.

Stratford lies at the heart of Shakespeare Country with its wealth of historic properties and a variety of stunning gardens. Shakespeare’s Richard II draws on the royal links with Kenilworth Castle owned by John of Gaunt in the 14th century. During the reign of Elizabeth I it was a magnificent Tudor palace. John of Gaunt’s Great Hall stands amongst these impressive castle ruins and the Tudor Gardens have been restored to their Elizabethan design.

For a rousing sense of the heat of battle, visit ‘Britain’s greatest medieval experience’ at Warwick Castle, a perfect fortress-cum-stately home.

Shakespeare’s appearance continually intrigues ordinary people and experts worldwide as no known guaranteed likeness exists. Searching for Shakespeare (March 2 – May 29) at the 150-year-old National Portrait Gallery, London will display a unique collection of portraits – including the first presented to the newly-founded gallery in 1856 – together with contemporary documents in another attempt to shed light on what he might have looked like. From May at the start of their summer season, the Globe Theatre plans an exhibition, I am Shakespeare, on the other great debate about the authorship of the plays.

With so much going on, the Shakespearean cry “let there be cakes and ale!” is sure to be heard widely this year. Perhaps at Stratford pub The Black Swan – or Dirty Duck, depending which side of the inn sign you are looking at!

For help in planning your tour of Britain, see the website www.visitbritain.com.

Useful websites:

Ideas for the classroom:

Work in small groups (or pairs) and let each group choose one event or place mentioned in the text. Use the links and encyclopedias (e.g. Wikipedia) to find out more about the event or place. Prepare a short presentation (or a project) to tell your class more about it. In the ego4u Writing section, you will find useful information on how to prepare presentations and written texts.

Prepare a Shakespeare festival at your school. Collect information on Shakespeare’s life, his works, relevant events and scenes in Britain. Why not watch one of his plays on DVD? Maybe you even have the talent to write and perform a modern version (or parody) … Let your imagine run wild!