Sunday, December 4, 2016

Welcome to Stratford-Upon-Avon

Welcome to Stratford-Upon-Avon
         “Henley street is up there, sir. Shakespeare’s birthplace is on the right.”
           I only had to ask, “Where is Henley Street?” The town tourism guide knew exactly why I was headed there. I thanked him, and found that Henley street was only a few paces from where I stood. I had no trouble finding Shakespeare’s childhood home.
On my right stood a large Tudor house. As you can see in the photo, it’s lovely, and yet humble. Much as the King of Kings was born in a stable—the king of all authors was born in an upstairs bedroom of this unassuming house. The wood bracing gives it a charming look, which I’ve always adored. One of my childhood neighbors had a Tudor house, and since then I’ve wanted to live in one. However, this home was not a prospective rental property. It was no less sacred, in my mind, to that manger that so many venerate. Stratford-Upon-Avon is a place of pilgrimage for authors, poets, musicians, and actors alike. It’s as if entering that house is a form of blessing.   
           In a large bedroom, on an unknown date in April, John and Mary Shakespeare welcomed their son, William, into the world. As I stood in that bedroom, I tried to imagine what his first cries would have sounded like. How they would have echoed off those oak beams that formed the frame of the house.
          I thought to myself, “Was it a warm, sunny day like this? Or, was it raining when he was born?”
          The pale sunshine of an English spring would have illuminated the bedroom—and cast white light onto the face of Shakespeare, and his parents.
          As was the custom then, he would have been baptized either a day or two after his birth. In some cases, the child was baptized the same afternoon. Holy water would have washed away the original sin, and the fluid of the womb. Visceral, would the Bard’s birth be. He was born like all of us, human. Though in Britain, and the rest of the world, he would ascend to a form of immortality—etched in both parchment and stone.
         As the costumed guide on sight told us of Shakespeare’s sleeping arrangements, I thought of the following dialogue from Henry VI.
        “For I have often heard my mother say I came into the world with my legs forward.”
        Though I doubt Shakespeare was a breach birth. Or was he? We’ll never know.

 The actual bed where The Bard was born is no longer extent. However, some period furniture is on display. The bed I saw is exactly like the one where John and Mary would have slept. Their young children would be positioned on a fold out trunkle bed that slid out from the side; almost like a drawer for children (and the occasional pair of socks). Eventually, young William would be rotated out to another bed, a full-sized one, which he’d share with his brothers.
        Shakespeare’s sisters would have their own room, but would have also shared a bed. It was in the girl’s room that I saw the panes of glass you see below. It was a tradition at one time for visitors to etch their names onto these panes. I’m not sure if that was to insure some blessing of the Bard, or to prove they’d visited. But these were no ordinary guests. Charles Dickens, Ellen Terry, and Sir Henry Irving were among the prominent Victorians to pass through here. It was Dickens who started a campaign to save the site, and preserve Shakespeare’s home. Remember that the next time you hear the music to Oliver!

        When Shakespeare inherited the house from his parents, he converted it into an inn. The Swan and Maidenhead Inn was a prominent lodging house for travelers passing through Warwickshire. The Bard made a unique deal in those days with the managers he’d hired to run it, Mr. and Mrs. Hiccox. They could manage the inn as they saw fit, but Shakespeare would be paid a residual of their profits. Not a bad deal in those days. Since Shakespeare was already living at his New Place, he didn’t need his old childhood home. Rather than sell it outright, he turned it into an investment opportunity. By having someone else run it, he wouldn’t be distracted from his plays. Yet, he was still able to make bank from it. Shrewd, indeed.
         Did you think I was going to make a Taming of the Shrew pun there? Well, I resisted the urge…this time.

        My palms sweated in that room, and not from the unseasonal heat.
         I couldn’t believe I was standing where Shakespeare was born.
         As I headed down the narrow staircase, I re-entered the first floor, and then a gift shop. After I bought a “Will Power” t-shirt there, I headed to the garden area, where there is a small, round stage. It was here that actors performed requests from the museum goers. One person requested Henry V. Another requested Macbeth. The actor repeated this request without calling it “The Scottish Play.”

I thought to myself, “I daresay. We won’t be seeing that actor again.” Though technically, this wasn’t in a theater.

I requested Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The two actors on staff that day performed like a tag team.
            “I’ll do it.” The one actor said.
            “You sure? I’ll do it.”
He looked right at me, and performed.

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.” (Act V, Scene I)
           He didn’t miss a single line! These were young, but highly trained actors. I imagine they came from the RSC. This was probably a part-time gig between plays.
          On the lawn, just a few yards away, was a dry-erase cube. It featured Tudor and fantasy scenes, and acted as a coloring book. I took a Sharpie to a Tudor rose, and filled in it in with wild colors—orange and violet. You won’t find that on any royal standard! Duke of Orange, Princess of Crimson, Duchess of Lavender!  

         I had a few quiet moments in the garden nearby at Shakespeare’s New Place. I saw several bronze statues there, that depicted characters from his plays. 

I also found a plaque that appeared to be of the Virgin and Child. I had to stop for a moment, and sit on the bench beneath it. I was reminded of my mother in that moment. I paused, reflected, and then took a few breaths. I took a photo as well. When I felt ready, I moved on. It was almost a month since my mother had passed. As a side note, I did have a few flashbacks during my visit to England. Fortunately, none of them eclipsed my holiday.
 From there I visited The Guild Chapel, a medieval church next door, and then a long Tudor building, which housed a recreation of a Latin grammar school. Myself and other visitors were given a lesson in the various conjugations of “amour.”
       “Say it with me.” The Schoolmaster in costume said, “I love. You love. We love. Now, in Latin. Amo. Amas. Amamus.”
       We all sat on forms, wooden benches. Traditionally we would have had slates to write on, but this was only a quick lesson.
       The teacher did warn us though, “In Shakespeare’s time you’d be speaking only in Latin in this room. Naughty boys who speak English get the birch rod!”
      He held up what looked to me like a cross between a hyssop broom, and the dried roots you see in a decorative pot. My naughty side thought, “I know some people who’d have a lot of fun with that.”

            After those thoughts, I pressed on to a more wholesome place—Hall’s Croft. It was the house of Susanna (Shakespeare’s eldest daughter) and her husband, Dr. John Croft. That house was lovely. I’d say more about it, but I don’t want to spoil the surprised that house has for future visitors. Though there was one exhibit that comes to mind.
          Hall’s Croft has rotating exhibits. This time around, I saw one about Shakespeare and warfare. Photos from WWI were on display, as well as uniforms and medals. What struck me most was a glass case with a telegram inside. It was handwritten, and was very legible. I knew immediately what it would say, before I read it.
        “Dear Mrs. Logan. We regret to inform you that your son, Pvt. Logan was killed in action in France…”
        I couldn’t read the rest of it. Instead, I imagined who Private Logan was, and what he must have been like. He was a boy from Stratford, who’d probably walked along Henley street many times. Considering that I was wearing an olive flatcap, and army-style jacket, I probably looked much like he did. Once again, I reflected, and then stepped into the next room.
      I smiled soon after, when I saw the little mouse named Miranda (my honorary niece is named after the character from The Tempest). I then saw other such mice, all of whom had Shakespearean name tags. Oddly enough, they didn’t have                                                           these mice in the gift shop!
       My next approach was Trinity—the baptism and burial place of The Bard. Before I entered the gates of that hallowed place, I took a detour. There was a “stone garden” nearby, a war memorial. I passed through an iron gate, and found a large stone cross standing before me. At the base were plastic poppy wreaths. I took a photo of this, but wasn’t sure if I should. It felt a bit odd to photograph a memorial like this, but then again, I’ve taken several photos in old cemeteries. Still, this was different. My photo was taken with reverence though.

        I then approached another memorial, one with names on it. They were all lads from Stratford, all deceased in combat. I nearly cried when I saw the most recent entry was from 2008. Poppy wreaths were also laid at the base of this memorial. Fittingly, the famous “band of brothers” speech from Henry V was quoted above the names of the fallen.
        I saw an elderly woman sitting on a bench there. She seemed serene and meditative, so I let her be. Though I had a feeling that she must have known some of those names on that memorial.
        I crossed the road, and stood before Trinity.
        I laughed for a moment, at I read the sign posted at the gate, which you see here.

        No one found Pikachu on Shakespeare’s grave. That would have been awkward. Though a friend of mine did find Charizard in The Tower of London. I choose you, Prospero!
        I took a few photos of the moldering tombs in the churchyard. It was a peaceful place, not spooky at all. Though I must confess that I thought Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee would have felt at home there. I could easily see the churchyard being used a set for a Hammer film. Taste the Blood of Stratford!
        I entered Trinity, and removed my hat. I then approached the sanctuary, which was a bit crowded. Shakespeare’s birthplace was busy that day, but there was lots of breathing room. However, Trinity seemed to be hopping.  

         I approached the altar, slowly, and with reverence.
         I stood before the burial places of Shakespeare, and his family. I learned on my visit in Oxford (two days later) that those who are buried at the altar are the most prominent members of the church. There he was, right in front of the altar! His wife, his children, their husbands, were all beside him. A wooden effigy of The Bard stood watch over their tombs, with quill in hand.
         I thought to myself, “The only thing that stopped me from having a conversation with him was four-hundred years.”
         I took a few photos, and some video, but had little time for reflection. Other people wanted to pay their respects, and so I had to step away. I did however see a copy of Shakespeare’s baptismal record. I was reminded that we don’t know the exact day he was born, but we do know when he was sanctified. He was baptized and buried in the same church that he attended since childhood. His home was about a ten-minute walk from there. His whole life could be traced on just a few streets. Well, not entirely, as The Globe and the Rose are located elsewhere.

 Still, I find it remarkable that Shakespeare’s story is that of “hometown boy makes good.” There’s a real cult of Shakespeare in Stratford, but a welcome one. It’s easy to see why he is so venerated and loved, even today. Every emotion, every thought any human could possibly have was documented by that man. Before therapy, before psychology, there was Shakespeare. He’s permeated our language, or world, and our dreams for over four-hundred years. He’ll continue to do so for eternity.

It would have seemed that my pilgrimage was at an end. There were other pilgrimages I had to make on that trip, and others still in the future. This was only the start. So, the story doesn’t end here.

I started to cough as I left Trinity. At first, I thought that maybe it was from the dust of the old church, or from the graveyard itself. Perhaps the leaves and the pollen? Maybe it was from the unseasonal heat? I stopped at a local pound shop, and bought some soft drinks (two for a pound, mum would be proud). Still, I coughed a bit. It wasn’t until I returned to Leamington that afternoon that I stopped coughing.

I thought to myself, “Did I breath in some of Shakespeare’s dust?”

I’ve since jokingly said, “I breathed in some magic bard dust.”

Perhaps I did. Visiting Stratford-Upon-Avon was an emotional experience. It seems to have also inspired me greatly, and helped tremendously with my writing. Since my visit to not just Stratford, but England itself, my writing output has increased. Maybe this was the environment I needed to help spur me on, and remind me why I love to write?

Or, as I prefer, I obtained some sort of blessing from The Bard himself. If that’s the case, I’ll take it. I may have just invented a country legend with that one. If so, may it be so.

Whatever it is, I love Stratford-Upon-Avon. I would move there in a heartbeat. The River Avon flows gently, as the Bard in stone sits, and watches eternal. People gather round, and children play by the banks. Workers go to lunch nearby, and dine at The Food of Love (no joke, a real café on Henley Street). There is a sense that this town was made special by Shakespeare’s presence…a presence that has never gone away, and never will.

It’s not just him, it’s also the people. We all can learn a lot, and be a bit more like Bill.

As the Bard wrote, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”

Always writing, as his Will dictates. 

Text and photos Copyright Riley Joyce 2016

1 comment:

  1. 4 out of 100 births will be breech and it doesn't mean mother and/or baby will die so it's entirely possible.