SEARCHING FOR SHAKESPEARE
It’s the final performance of a four-month theatrical run in London and the lavishly costumed actors are relishing their lines one last time as the audience rocks with laughter. If the playwright were here, he’d be celebrating a sparkling success.
But since William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 (400 years ago), he won’t be taking curtain calls after tonight’s As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre—a meticulous thatch-roofed recreation of the stages his shows first appeared on nearly half a millennia ago.
Reinterpreted by successive generations, the Bard’s work remains at the forefront of contemporary theatre. But, while London’s Globe Theatre was the main playhouse for his Falstaff-sized successes, his pretty Stratford-upon-Avon hometown—160 kilometres northwest—is an essential pilgrimage for those keen to explore the man behind the soliloquies.
“In his lifetime, people said Shakespeare was sweet, generous and charming. But, with hindsight, we now also say he was a genius,” says Dr. Paul Edmondson, head of research at Stratford’s Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, touching on the key characteristic of a small-town lad who somehow became the world’s greatest-ever playwright.
Founded in 1847, the Trust preserves five evocative Shakespeare-era sites around Stratford, each open to the public. These include the flower-framed cottage where wife Anne Hathaway grew up, a bucolic working Tudor farm where his mother once lived and the timber-framed home where Shakespeare was born above his father’s leather-tanning business. This home still lures the lion’s share of fans with its antique rooms and ever-busy gift shop (quill-wielding rubber ducks included).
But this year—alongside a local playbill of 400th anniversary events ranging from concerts to an academic symposium—two “new” Stratford sites will hook visiting Shakespeare enthusiasts.
“This is our big project,” says Nic Fulcher, interpretation manager at New Place, the first of the two new permanent sites (opening in July). New Place was the name of the palatial manor where the wealthy, semi-retired playwright died in 1616. The home itself was demolished by a later occupant who hated Bard tourists peering through his windows, but the site, extensively explored via archaeological digs, has now been transformed into a garden that traces the lost mansion’s outline, complete with dramatic outdoor bronzes. Next door at Nash’s House (a museum outlining the town’s history), the site’s complex past is further explored via exhibits.
“This is the only Stratford site exploring Shakespeare’s adulthood, and it tells us a great deal about how he lived,” says Fulcher, who adds that New Place’s interior would have been decorated with furnishings and finery that reflected the latest London fashions, and that the ostentatious home was meant to show the locals just how well-off Shakespeare had become.
In fact, the young William may have dreamt of owning New Place from the time he was a schoolboy. A few steps away, King Edward VI School is where the Bard-to-be sharpened his early quills. And, while the school is now far larger, the old, creaky-floored classroom where he studied remains. It is Stratford’s second new permanent Shakespeare attraction.
“You feel like you’re walking in his footsteps,” says deputy headmaster and Bard buff Perry Mills. “He would have been inspired here, probably by an instructor who was especially keen on drama. The students would have translated and performed Latin drama and William would have learned rhetoric—we see it in his plays.”
Mills thinks Shakespeare will always be tantalizingly enigmatic—“there’ll never be enough evidence about his life,” he says.
Even his appearance, Edmondson adds, is still subject to debate. But Edmondson believes the bust overlooking Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church (another must-see) is the most accurate Bard likeness. “He’s balding, with a trim moustache and he’s dressed finely in scarlet doublet,” says Edmondson. “This is how the people who knew him remembered him.”
Appearances aside, arguments also continue over whether Shakespeare even wrote the plays attributed to him. A small, but persistent group has long argued that someone with Shakespeare’s unsophisticated upbringing could not possibly have written so masterfully. The group claims aristocrat Edward de Vere, contemporary playwright Christopher Marlowe or a host of other “real” authors with multifarious reasons for not revealing their true identities must have penned the works. Not everyone is swayed.
“I reject that idea,” says Miles Richardson, an actor who performs regularly with Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company. The town’s RSC theatre complex stages essential interpretations of the Bard’s plays—including this summer’s Cymbeline and King Lear. “I’ve always dismissed the suggestion he was just a simple country boy with little understanding.”
Believing the contemplative Jaques character in As You Like It mirrors the real Shakespeare—“I’m sure he wrote that part to play himself”—Richardson adds that, while he’ll enjoy this year’s anniversary events, language will always be the Bard’s most important legacy. “He was and remains a poet, and he tells stories on stage as if they’re being created for the first time.”