Stratford-upon-Avon receives no less than 3-4 million visitors annually, and it has therefore been geared to cater to the needs, tastes and interest in Shakespeare — Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
The colonial education system of my generation exposed us to English and French literature during our secondary school years, and to Roman and Greek literature for those who went into the ‘classic’ instead of the science stream, which were the only two options then. It may not have been, as in India, the Machiavellian, Macaulayan scheme designed to create an army of WOGs (Westernised Oriental Gentlemen) who would obsequiously serve the colonial masters, but it did leave us with a penchant for their culture, which included appreciation of their art, music, literature – and so be it, why not. As long as we also had an opportunity to correct that bias, which Professor Ram Prakash did in his weekly class for the senior students, and in extracurricular activities at the level of the Indian Cultural Society, at the Royal College Curepipe, which had students from all the classes.
And so it is that, inevitably, we studied Shakespeare, and through his plays and our lessons in European and English history we came to know about the kings, queens, princes of England in particular, and their involvements in affairs, intrigues and conspiracies, murders, conflicts with the Catholic Church, wars and so on – all of which impacted the rule of Britannia and its colonies. Although my formal studies in English literature stopped after I completed School Certificate, since I was doing science, I kept a continuing interest in it, especially poetry, amongst which the sonnets of Shakespeare held a particular appeal.
The ‘bard of Avon’
That the ‘bard of Avon’ was from Stratford-upon-Avon was of course known to those of us who had studied Shakespeare, and after all these years I got an opportunity last week to visit the place where he was born, lived much of his life, and died. This meant travelling the 70 miles or so from Wolverhampton to spend a few hours there, but it was an enjoyable and worthwhile tour of the heritage sites. To begin with, the journey itself was quite pleasant, because the drive was smooth with no traffic issues and no rain, and we were able to feast our eyes on the colourful changing leaves of autumn that adorned the trees along the motorways, reminding me of the poem of John Keats, ‘Ode to Autumn’, the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’.
What we discovered at Stratford-upon-Avon was what I can only call the Shakespeare industry, with which my host and relative in Wolverhampton, a paediatrician who had lived all his adult life in the UK, concurred. Indeed, that town of Shakespearana receives no less than 3-4 million visitors annually, and it has therefore been geared to cater to the needs, tastes and interest in Shakespeare of all these visitors. They come from all over the world, since the erstwhile British Empire spread far and wide, and the British Commonwealth is still quite active. It is a fact, too, that ‘the power of his poetry and the depths of understanding of the human condition transcend limitations of language and of space’ – as is put by Professor Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in his foreword to the official guide.
The Trust was founded in 1847 by public subscription. As a matter of fact, by the end of the 18th century there was no family line of Shakespeare left. His birthplace fell into decay and was put up for sale. A national campaign was launched by the Shakespeare Committee (later the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) set up in 1846, which included such figures as Charles Dickens, and it managed to raise the 3000 pounds needed to buy the house for the nation. The building was subsequently restored in 1860.
Today the Trust is an independent educational ‘charity that cares for the world’s greatest Shakespeare heritage sites in Stratford-upon-Avon, and promotes the enjoyment and understanding of his works, life and times all over the world. Celebrating Shakespeare is at the heart of everything we do’ (italics added) – it is commendable indeed to find such dedication to the cultural icon that Shakespeare is for the English. It is noteworthy that the Trust receives no public subsidy or government funding, and depends entirely on funds that are derived from supporters, donors and visitors taking part in the multifarious activities that are held at the heritage sites. These include the guided visits, educational events, lectures and courses, purchases from the retail outlets which each has its own theme and sells the relevant paraphernalia, sales at the bookshops, and of course eating food sourced locally at the cafes on the site.
As is to be expected, there is an abundance of material on Shakespeare the poet, dramatist and actor that is available online, and much also on the website of the heritage site about the latter, www.shakespeare.org.uk. I will therefore highlight only a few points as needed, and share some of the material that the guides provided each in his own style and which supplements what is found in the guide books.
Tour of the heritage sites
We started the tour with visiting the Birthplace House, which is where William Shakespeare was born as the third child in 1564 and grew up with his parents John and Mary (Arden), who were wealthy enough to own the largest house on Henley Street – to accommodate their children, who were eight in all. William also spent the first five years of his marriage living here with his wife Anne Hathaway. His father was a glover – maker of gloves, and we saw his reconstituted workshop with the leather pieces, the implements, etc. He was a very successful man, but he also got into trouble with the law when he dumped waste on the street opposite his house and was fined for it.
Of note is that in 1568 John became the Mayor of Stratford, which was the highest elective office in the town, and because of his father’s status as Mayor, William was privileged enough to have attended the local grammar school to begin his education. John Shakespeare died in 1601 and, as the eldest surviving child, William inherited the house. But by then he had shifted to his own house, New Place, which was his family home from 1597 until he died in the house in 1616. He was an established playwright when he bought New Place, and it is believed that he wrote his later plays there, including The Tempest.
We learnt that Stratford was an important trading place, and that William not only helped his father in his glove making, but learnt the process as well, and also the business, during which he must have met many people early on in his life, seen his father bargaining and so on, and most likely picked up news from where the traders came too. This exposure is supposed to have fed into his plays and other writings. There is a ‘ghost period’ in his life, 1585-1592, when no one is sure what he was up to. But he had started to go to London and try to make his name there, so it is presumed they were years of struggle. However, it is also averred that he was by no means poor’ In due course he bought shares in the newly built Globe Theatre, along with his close actor friends, and he also acted in his plays. He used to travel back and for the between London and Stratford where the family continued to live, a journey that would take four days on horseback, and he would therefore stop at inns where his sharp ears and eyes no doubt helped him to pick up material for his writings.
An interesting detail is that he was eight years younger to Anne when they married, and she was three months pregnant, so it was in a way a ‘hasty’ marriage. Another point of note is that he died relatively young, at 52; his death was fairly sudden and not precipitated by any illness, so the real cause is not known.
Upstairs in the Birthplace House, we walked into a room where a charming young woman, dressed in the costume of the time, was the guide. And imagine our pleasant surprise as we broke into French when she learnt that we were from Mauritius! She was French, married to her English husband for 24 years, and was thoroughly enjoying her guide’s role. We also visited New Place, and later Anne Hathaway’s 500-year old picturesque cottage where 13 generations of the family had lived.
Of much interest to me was the beautifully furnished Jacobean home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband, the physician John Hall, with its tranquil walled garden, and discovered the fragrant medicinal herbs, as John Hall would have used in his remedies. While some physicians practised astronomy or blood-letting, John Hall’s preference was for treatments made from plants, herbs, animal extracts, gemstones and rocks. His case notes were compiled in a book and was for long used by other practitioners after his death. One of the exhibits was a complaint letter – ‘plus ça change plus c’est la même chose! –– written by a patient who Dr Hall did not have time to visit as planned because he had to go away for a meeting. But the letter was addressed to him – there being no ‘ministry’ nor ‘Medical Council’ then – and I must say the tone was not impolite.
There was also the bookshop with new editions of Shakespeare’s works, including one on his Sonnets – of which I already have a copy, hard bound, bought in New York at Barnes and Noble many years ago. But it was a pleasure to flip through the new study with its extensive commentaries, as well as through some other works.
We ended our visit at the beautiful Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare and his wife are buried. All in all, I was glad to have made the trip, because there will be no second one, for there are other horizons that beckon…
* Published in print edition on 24 November 2017