If I’m being honest, I’ve never enjoyed a Shakespearean play, as I find them hard to understand, and thus never had that much interest in Shakespeare the man either (though part of my disdain for him is due to Sharon Kay Penman). Being in Stratford-Upon-Avon now, however, with the Enchanted Book Club, I set out to change my perspective, in the hopes of finally finding Shakespeare understandable and enjoyable. First, I was determined to learn more about Shakespeare’s personal history in the hopes that humanizing the great playwright would make me more excited about engaging with his writings (It worked with Poe!). And second, after deliberating, I decided to join the optional outing to see Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Theater, in the hopes that perhaps this time I’d find it enjoyable.
Humanizing William Shakespeare
What I thought I knew was that the theater profession in the Shakespearian era was not highly regarded as a career, so I therefore assumed William Shakespere was not very well off. And considering Shakespeare’s Globe Theater was (and is) in London, I assumed his connection to Stratford-Upon-Avon after being born there was minimal and the city was clinging to any Shakespearian thread they could for tourism purposes. All of these assumptions were wrong!
Our tour of Stratford-Upon-Avon (yes, that’s the name of the city, not just “Stratford”) took us through the life of William Shakespeare from birth to death, but not chronologically. So here I’m going to rearrange the sights we visited in order to tell his story in a more ordered manner:
Holy Trinity Church of Stratford-Upon-Avon
While there are several theories surrounding Shakespeare, such as he didn’t actually write the plays we attribute to him, what we do know is that there was a William Shakespeare and the records start with his baptism. While any sort of birth record has been lost to time, the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon has a record of baby William being baptized in 1564 and even has the font he was baptized in! The church uses a newer font these days, but speaking of tourism purposes, the old one in which Shakespeare was baptized had been put outside as a horse trough and at some point it was brought back inside when it was realized that tourists might enjoy seeing it preserved rather than left to crumble as it was doing outside.
Seeing the small font, and realizing that William Shakespeare was once a baby that fit into it, had the immediate effect of changing my perspective of the author. Instead of the giant of the playwriting world some might consider the scourge of today’s high school English class, here he’d been just Willy, a young boy who lived in a small town and belonged to the community of this church.
I had actually visited Stratford-Upon-Avon exactly 20 years ago. As a young child just out of Elementary School and still unfamiliar with Shakespeare or his plays, I did not have much memory of being here. Nothing in the city looked familiar to me, until entering Shakespeare’s Birthplace! I stepped into the first room, and one glance at the four-poster bed pinged something in my memory. I remembered being in this room before! This was the only thing I seemed to remember in the whole of the city!
What I had not remembered was that the house is divided into living quarters and working quarters. The working quarters once contained a tanning shop where Shakespeare’s father made leather gloves. Between the two halves of the house runs an area just wide enough for carts which would pull through to pick up goods from the leather shop. I instinctively wrinkled my nose even though the tanning room no longer smells of the leather trade (and thank you to the museum for not trying to bring back the authentic smell of the place!). I imagined young William, trying not to breathe as he came into this half of the house to find his father in the workshop.
Since that time the house has had quite a history. It was eventually turned into a pub and inn called the Swan and Maidenhead which lasted until the 1700s. Interestingly, literary tourism really got its start in the Victorian era and it was then that a group that included Charles Dickens made an effort to save and restore this house because of its connection to Shakespeare.
Walking through Stratford-Upon-Avon
Speaking of the Victorians, the architecture we recognize today as Tudor style, with the exposed black beams with white fill between, is not exactly the way Shakespeare would have seen the buildings of Stratford-Upon-Avon in his day. Much of the city is still made up of buildings that date back to the 1400s. So it feels like the place hasn’t changed much from Shakespear’s time here, except for the paved roads, cement sidewalks, and motorcars of course. In the Victorian era, however, it was fashionable to paint the exposed beams black! Thus today, when these old buildings have to be renovated, the newer beams are left unpainted as they would have been originally. This way you can identify newer beams from the original logs. We saw examples of this on the front of our hotel.
Also, in Shakespeare’s time, the overhanging part of the second stories of buildings would have served to provide those on the street with cover from the contents of chamber pots being chucked out of windows. Luckily there was no need to be dodging that as we walked! But I still found myself stepping closer to the side of the building after our walking tour guide mentioned this fact.
With a little imagination, you can definitely picture young Shakespeare ambling through town to school. Our guide pointed out the school building, which surprisingly, is still a school today, and more surprisingly, only started letting girls in two years ago!
At the next house we visited, the Hathaway’s family home, we learned about Will’s teenage years, during which he took full advantage of being plight trothed to the daughter of family friends. (I might be taking liberties with his name here, but once could assume he went by Will at this point.) The Hathaways were farmers who lived a mile and a half outside the center of town. By age 17 he was promised in marriage to their daughter Anne, even though she was several years older than him. During the taxi ride to the Hathaway House, I imagined teenage Will riding his horse the mile and a half to court his bride-to-be. I assumed he would have ridden through more of a rural landscape rather than the red-brick residential neighborhoods that we now passed through.
Upon arriving at the Hathaway House, I was surprised at how big it was. Our walking tour guide had told us that Shakespeare married up, and it seemed he had, in front of us was an 11 or 12 room house! We soon learned, however, from the Hathaway house docents that at the time Anne lived here, it had only been a three-room house in which she, her parents and eight (!!) siblings would have all slept on rush mats by the fireplace in the living room for warmth. The home was later expanded by one of her brothers during a period in which he owned the farm and cash was flowing in, but by that time Anne had married and moved out. So both Anne and Will came from humble, but economically stable beginnings.
Will was only 18 when he married Anne, and she was three or four months pregnant when they married! Perhaps he had read her some of his sonnets. At any rate, according to the docents, because they were already engaged to be married, the pregnancy out of wedlock was not so problematic.
As a married man, Shakespeare couldn’t become an apprentice or go to college, but he found a way to become a wealthy landowner anyway. William, at age 33 was husband to Anne, father of three children, owned 100+ acres of land and a large house with servants in the middle of town. Since then the land has been divided and much of it sold off and the house no longer exists, but the site where the house once stood is owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and open to visitors under the name Shakespeare’s New Place (as opposed to his Birthplace).
William’s theater work was in London, so he was often away from home. While he was away, Anne oversaw the family business as well as the servants and childcare. Part of the land the Shakespere’s owned was used for storing and selling molting barley for local brewers, of which there used to be several. Today Stratford-Upon-avon and the surrounding area has more distilleries than remaining breweries.
Thanks once again to the Victorians, the adult William Shakespere’s manor house was torn down and a large Victorian style house was built on the spot instead by Shakespere’s descendants. However, since then, that too has gone the way of the house before it. Today the site has been turned into a garden and Shakespere education center. The garden thoughtfully pays homage to Shakespere’s plays through elements such as sonnet lines printed on the ground, titles of his plays printed on metal pennants, and statues depicting scenes from his plays.
The education center and museum are in the still-standing building which used to be the house next door which was once the former boyhood home of the husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter. Inside we saw a first folio on display, a ring with Shakespeare’s seal on it, and a few other small items related to Shakespeare, though not originally his, such as a friend’s mourning ring worn after Shakespeare’s death.
Walking through Stratford-Upon-Avon
On the way from the New Place to Holy Trinity Church, we passed Hall’s Craft House, the house where Shakespear’s eldest daughter Suzannah lived with her husband before inheriting New Place. The Shakespere’s had Suzannah first and then twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately Hamnet died young, and Judith, according to our walking tour guide, married a man who William was not fond of, so he left her very little in his will so that it wouldn’t fall into the hands of her husband.
Holy Trinity Church of Stratford-Upon-Avon
It’s good Shakespeare was savvy enough to have his affairs in order, because he passed away fairly young at age 52. Being wealthy enough to afford spaces inside Holy Trinity Church near the pulpit, William Shakespeare has been laid to rest beside his wife, one of his daughters and her husband, and the first husband of his granddaughter. For a small fee, we were able to pay our respects at the great Bard’s final resting place. And as is fitting, William Shakespere left this earth with a curse on his grave for anyone who dares to move his bones!
Good Friend for Jesus’ sake forebear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed by the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
As we left the church, there was one other literary connection of note- outside two trees have been planted and dedicated to Shakespere’s twins Judith and Hamet by Maggie O’Farrell, the author of Hamnet, a historical fiction novel loosely based on the Shakespeare family.
TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read)…
So all of this is to say, I had no idea that William Shakespeare knocked up his girlfriend before marriage and then went on to become a wealthy landowner with three kids and, I suppose unsurprisingly, was a largely absent father. And that there are so many locations in Stratford-Upon-Avon to visit that relate to Shakespeare! And if you’re going to visit Stratford-Upon-Avon, I might suggest walking it in the order above, starting and finishing at the church, if you want to walk through his story chronologically. Our tour of Stratford-Upon-Avon certainly did create a picture of the whole man behind the portrait we usually think of that only shows Shakespeare from the shoulders up. I wasn’t sure, however, that any of this knowledge would make his plays more interesting because I still couldn’t see any relation between his life story and the stories he allegedly produced.
Making Shakespeare Understandable & Enjoyable
Back at our hotel after our tour of Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon, I mulled over all I’d learned as I changed for our theater experience. Despite finding the life story of William Shakespeare surprisingly interesting, I had not learned about any historical connections between the author and the Scottish play that made me suddenly more interested in seeing it. So I hoped seeing a Shakespearean play in the playwright’s hometown might just sway my feelings enough to make it enjoyable. Having not been optimistic that this would be the case, I had done some homework beforehand to prepare for our theater outing.
I had watched two Crash Course videos that provided a summary of the Macbeth plot and some analysis of the play so that I’d understand the story-line (Video I, Video II). Although I felt pretty confident going into the play with this knowledge in my pocket, I had one more educational aid hidden in my bag. I had packed the SparkNotes No Fear Shakespeare: Macbeth with me just in case.
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Dressed in the nicest clothes I’d packed in my carry-on only luggage (somehow I’d remembered to bring a book for the occasion, but not a fancy outfit!), I met some of the girls in the book club in the hotel lobby. The theater wasn’t that far away, but as some had smartly packed heels for this occasion and we’d already gotten our steps in walking the length and breadth of Stratford-Upon-Avon that day, we Ubered to the theater.
The theater building in Stratford-Upon-Avon is actually two theaters built back to back.The older side is called the Swan Theater, and the newer theater, built more recently, is called the Royal Shakespeare Theater. We were to be attending the play in the newer side. Although the outside of the building looked modern, the theater inside was built similarly to the Globe in London with one major difference. The seats are situated in the round, but this theater has a full roof! And unlike in Shakespeare’s era where the middle was standing-only, here all of the audience has seats.
From the moment the lights dimmed, it was apparent that this production was using real atmospheric elements to place us in the Scottish setting. There was real rain, real fire, real smoke, and really thick Scottish accents! Unfortunately between the Shakespearian language and the Scottish English which may as well have been a different dialect to my ears, I found myself completely lost quite quickly!
Wondering how I was so lost, I subtly reached into my bag and pulled out my book. Whenever the lights raised just enough to make out the words on the page, I began to follow along. The SparkNotes No Fear Shakespeare books have the original text on one page and plain English on the other, so I used the book in two ways. First, I used the original text like subtitles for the Scottish accents (have you ever had to turn on subtitles while watching a British show in English? That’s what I needed here.) And second, I jumped over to the plain language when I couldn’t understand the Shakespearian. This way I discovered how I’d gotten so lost! I realized this production had switched half the genders of the characters in the play! Having straightened out who was who and what was happening, I found myself now able to thoroughly enjoy the acting.
Sadly, during intermission half of the ladies with us, claiming “tiredness,” decided they’d seen enough and left. I presumed it was more likely a lack of interest in seeing the second half due to the same problem I had been having, not being able to understand what was going on! Meanwhile, I explained to the women seated nearest me what I had discovered about the switched genders, and what had happened in the first half. All of them decided to stick around for the second half.
As the play neared its climax, it became quite obvious that the actors totally knew the audience probably had no idea what was happening and if anything would only recognize the most famous line of the whole play. As Macbeth started this famous monologue, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow…” he trailed off, held up a hand, walked to the back of the stage, and brought back a microphone and stand. Then he restarted.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17–28)
This was the only point in the play where any of the actors used a microphone and the crowd went wild, ok that may be a slight exaggeration, but you could tell the audience members were familiar with this soliloquy.
I continued to follow along in my book,at least during moments when the room got bright enough, and in the end I found the play more of a comedy than a tragedy! SPOILERS- Yes, everyone dies in the end, but it turns out it’s all because a C-Section birth isn’t considered a natural birth from a woman! I was so glad I’d thought to bring my cheat sheet to the theater, and I think I’ll be doing that for all Shakespeare plays from now on. It made the whole experience understandable and enjoyable!
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