Stratford and Shakespeare: Exploring the Birthplace of the Bard

 

     Two years ago, I was assigned to read Shakespeare’s play Hamlet at college for English Literature, and would later delve into King Lear for the same reason. As part of my study of the famous playwright, I also went on a college trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire, the town of his birth and schooling, and where he spent some of his adult life. It turned out to be a great day. 

     Ironically, on hearing of the trip a few weeks before I moodily decided not to go. I can’t be bothered with this type of thing at the miserable time of year it was. It’s too cold and too dark and I was too tired to be wandering round outside for hours on end. The thought of a seminar on some aspect of Shakespeare and his times didn’t exactly fill me with excitement either. Not that I have anything against Old Shakespeare, I just didn’t like the idea of actually doing work while on a trip out. I just wanted to get on with my normal college day. 

   In the end, after a bit of pressure from the staff, I gave in and decided to go, although I still had my reservations. On the day, as predicted, it was absolutely freezing. Frost and ice embellishing the ground testified to that. I was wearing a vest top, two t-shirts, a hoodie and my coat- and I was still cold. But I decided to just make the most of the day.

  Just going on the coach was enough to lift my spirits. I felt in some way important as I and the rest of the group clambered aboard the larger and fancier than expected coach while everyone else was stuck behind in a dull classroom (simple minds have simple pleasures as they say!). Unfortunately, the coach journey lost it’s charm when I began to feel a little sick en route to Stratford. 

    I hadn’t been to the town for some time, and I’d forgotten how big the center actually is considering it only being a market town. To add to it, at the time of our arrival, there was a Christmas market on selling little knick-knacks and trinkets. It was all very festive, especially later in the day when it was getting dark. I was feeling a kind of relief at not being trapped in a drab classroom. 

    Shortly after arriving, for lack of anything else to do, I sat in a cafe with the members of staff. I see teachers as kinds of deities so I always find it rather odd seeing them chatting and giggling together like common people who have friends and a life outside of the classroom. Me being my normal, socially confused self, I had little idea of how to act in this situation. 

    Afterwards we went to Shakespeare’s birth place and the little museum attached to it. For those of you who have been to the Trafalgar Experience in the Historic Dockyard, Porstmouth, I found that the museum was rather like that- with big projections and scenery and far more stylish then I would ever have expected. Although tiny, it was very impressive. 

    The house itself is of course very old, dating back from the sixteenth century, possibly earlier, and I find it amazing that such an old, fragile looking thing could have survived so long. It’s obvious that it’s been well cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, an indication of just how loved and influential Shakespeare still is today. Apparently, the Birthplace is rated one of the best attractions in the UK. This is hardly surprising given Shakespeare’s worldwide fame. 

     The inside of the house was very interesting. Amazingly, over thirty of us managed to squeeze into the little rooms, some of which were really tiny. They had placed objects and furniture inside that would have been typical of the time and it was fascinating to see how some (better off) people lived all those years ago. There were also actors hanging around and a couple acted out little bits from Hamlet and A Winters Tale. I loved it and they themselves were clearly enjoying it. They were very funny and I was genuinely entertained by their performances. 

    Following the Birthplace, we were given some time to ourselves and given some questions to answer about Shakespeare and Stratford. To answer them involved wandering around and finding various bits of info. It was bitterly cold. To give you an idea of just how cold it was, I took a photo of some birds standing on a frozen canal. I have real stamina, I tell you. And, despite being chilled to the bone, at one point, the teaching assistant I was with and I were quite happily singing along to ‘Jingle Bells’ as someone played it with an accordion.

During our quest for knowledge, I had an encounter with a scary silver Shakespeare that appeared intent on pinching my nose, and my companion conjured up the joke of the year while buying a Christmas decoration from one of the market stalls. Being almost as indecisive as me, she pondered whether or not she should buy an ordinary ornament or one to put on the Christmas tree. ‘To tree or not to tree…’ she exclaimed – which I thought was completely hilarious. Honestly, you really can’t make this stuff up.

     In the end, we managed to answer nearly all the questions correctly (we’re just so darn good) and after answering a tie-breaker question with another group, I won the grand prize. I am now the proud owner of a Shakespeare rubber duck. 

    The seminar was, somewhat to my surprise, actually very interesting (although I was starting to fall asleep by the end of it). While how useful it would actually be to me as a Literature student is questionable, it nonetheless gave fascinating insight into the world of Shakespearean theatre. Did you know, for example, that they would roll canon balls in a small trough above the stage to recreate the sound of thunder? If they weren’t able to do that, they’d roll around barrels instead. It never fails to amaze how people coped with simple problems like this long ago and came up with crafty ways to overcome them. People were certainly far more creative in those days than they are now! 

    So, I grudgingly have to admit that I was glad to have gone and my teachers were right. It was a good day out and it definitely was a day with a difference. I truly feel like I’m spending my entire life at college at the moment and this trip was a most welcome change. For anyone in that area of England, I’d recommend stopping by at Stratford and the Birthplace and Shakespeare Centre, while a tad pricey, it’s most certainly worth a trip, and there are others things to do within the town to fill out an afternoon.

By Rae-Rae

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