I should be feeling more, I thought as I strolled the cobblestone streets of Stratford-upon-Avon, four hundred years to the day after he died.
My train arrived from Oxford after the morning parade honoring Stratford’s favorite son. Confetti and sprigs of rosemary (“for remembrance,” as Ophelia says in Hamlet) still littered the streets, lined with tourists snapping photographs of the town’s half-timbered houses and now dispersing to queue up at its historic sites. Many celebrants were sporting Bard-faced masks handed out during the procession. A few locals perched their masks on windows sills, Shakespeare staring vacantly out on his town nearly a half-millennium later. Actors dressed in period costume or as characters from Shakespeare’s plays stopped to pose for selfies with tourists. Stratford-upon-Avon was busy and festive on this special day.
For the train ride, I brought my volume of tragedies with me, thinking I’d start King Lear on the journey up. But the scenery was far too idyllic on this blue-sky Saturday – and the tray table far too small to accommodate the two notebooks I use while reading. I decided to read some background material on the Bard instead, because I don’t really know a whole lot about Shakespeare, I’m embarrassed to say.
I stared into his portrait’s eyes in a copy of the First Folio; I really have to pee, I thought.
I can recall scribbling “Anne Hathaway,” “Hamnet,” and “d. 1616” from Mrs. Smith’s introductory lectures in ninth-grade English. She explained that Shakespeare wasn’t just a writer but an actor, director, producer, businessman: a whole Hollywood studio in one. Years later, a Shakespeare course was required for my Bachelor’s degree in English. Dr. Northway fleshed out our understanding of the political, cultural, and creative world Shakespeare inhabited. We combed over Elizabethan theater inventories, debated if Shakespeare would be considered a plagiarist today, and investigated state-sponsored violence in the English Renaissance.
One visit to London, I happened upon a Shakespeare exhibit at the National Gallery: All the known documents and artifacts Shakespeare left behind, from legal papers to the Chandos portrait, where he is wearing a pirate-like earring, were gathered together in one room. I stared into his portrait’s eyes in a copy of the First Folio; I really have to pee, I thought. My dad, brother, and I had just come from a pub when we passed the museum. They went on to another while my buzz fuzzed my appreciation of the curation.
On that same trip, we stopped off in Stratford the next day or so, actually. My dad pretended he didn’t know “decompress” was my code for “cigarette” as I broke off from them again to walk through the town. I chain-smoked up and down the streets, eventually stumbling upon his birthplace and snapping a few photos of the exterior before heading into a pub. I’m not sure, exactly, why I didn’t go in.
I taught Shakespeare once, too. Romeo and Juliet, during my student-teaching. I chose to skip over most of the biographical details that typically accompanies one’s first Shakespeare unit. Those lectures are usually boring. So, we listened to an audio performance of the play as we followed in our texts and watched, of course, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 screen adaptation, Romeo + Juliet. The students enjoyed the play quite a bit. They couldn’t get past how stupid the star-crossed lovers were in their climactic double suicide; I agreed. In my time working in public education, I’ve actually found that most students are quite taken by Shakespeare, when you pass on all the tedious note-taking and get right down to the stories – and watch a young Leo smoke a cigarette, of course.
I didn’t have a map, a plan, or any real knowledge of Stratford-upon-Avon other than that Shakespeare was born and lived here when he wasn’t in London. I had actually forgotten Shakespeare died and was buried here, too, at Holy Trinity Church until I followed a crowd of visitors there. In the lush churchyard along the River Avon, willow trees shaded tombstones, many of whose epitaphs had long been weathered away. The Bard was interred inside. We slowly shuffled down the aisle to the chancel, bursting with yellow flowers, cameras, parish officials managing the crowd, and light pouring in through the stained glass windows.
Another crowd signaled a second important site: Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall. On the ground floor, Shakespeare’s father, John presided over Stratford’s municipal affairs when he earned enough money – and status – from his glove-making. John petitioned for a coat of arms, which signified gentry, but his son, having amassed enough wealth from the theater, later bought it for him. At the far end of the dark-wood walls of this low-ceilinged room was once a chapel; historians are still finding evidence of murals once painted there. I noted some roses, now a faded and faint red, bordering the moulding.
Upstairs, thick, wooden school desks, like benches with wide, angled writing surfaces, were rowed before the schoolmaster’s lectern, which sat austerely like a squat throne. Even back then, naughty students carved their names into their desks. A man in a friar-like costume discussed 16th-century education with visitors in an exaggerated, historical accent. Younger tourists tried their hand quilling out their signatures and first-conjugation verbs on worksheets.
Stratford-upon-Avon was indeed stunning on this sunny Saturday, and the exhibits were informative without overwhelming the atmosphere of the beautiful and historic structures. The guides, too, were very cheerful and welcoming. I was grateful to be here, but I just wasn’t feeling anything above what my natural curiosity and appreciation afforded. Since mid-January, I’ve read and written about a play a week. My head is filled with Shakespeare. Shouldn’t I be feeling more?
I stopped off in a pub, ducking my head under its low, exposed beams, and ordered a pint of Shakesbeer. This was the Garrick Inn. The named honored David Garrick, an 18th-century actor who organized a 1769 jubilee that helped launch a tradition of literary pilgrimages to Shakespeare’s birthplace, as I learned from a plaque tucked among other Shakespeare-y paraphernalia crammed in its old nooks.
About half a pint in, an older man sat down next to me at the communal table. After a sip or two, he left for the toilets. He was there for quite some time. When he returned, an older lady had joined the table with a half-pint. He struck up a conversation with her; I think he fancied her, in fact, if his repeated questions after the length of her stay were any indication. She had a difficult time understanding him, as he talked softly, and he her, hard of hearing as he was. Sitting in between them, I chimed in to clarify something she was saying (she shared she was German-Canadian after he remarked on her American-sounding accent) and the three of us fell into conversation. He insisted on a buying us a round.
Even in his very birthplace the Bard’s words still pose their challenges, I was relieved.
The man (Steven, his name I learned later) was local; she, Patricia, was visiting, like me, expressly for the 400th anniversary. Quiet-voiced and ramble-prone, Steven was sometimes hard to follow. He was concerned about new housing developments in the town, because that meant children, children became adolescents, and adolescents made graffiti.
But Steven did get us on the subject of Shakespeare when he mentioned that it’s rare for a person to be born and die on the same day, as he said Shakespeare was. Patricia and I quickly corrected that, while it’s traditional to celebrate his birthday on April 16, we only know he was baptized in Holy Trinity Church on April 26, likely a few days after he was born. Patricia added that Shakespeare’s mother may actually have left the village to give birth to William at her sister’s, as a pox was infecting the town in 1564. This could also account for a delay between his birth and baptism, though nulling the town’s central attraction: the house that claims the very room the Bard was brought into the world. Aloud, I mused how English literature and language – and the many things they influence – would have been so very different had an infant William fallen to a plague in his hometown.
Patricia knew a lot about Shakespeare, and was feeling a lot about Shakespeare during her visit, too, I could tell. She and I chatted a bit more about Shakespeare during gaps in the general conversation. I mentioned I had just finished Titus Andronicus and was floored by its violence. She shared that a recent performance at the Globe actually was halted because multiple theatergoers – women and men, she emphasized– had fainted, so gruesome the production was. Her favorite play, as I asked, was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I shared how my wife recited the play the night we met: Helena’s monologue, about love.
“The ‘not with the eyes’ part, you know,” I tried, “but with the, um, with the–
“–mind,” Patricia provided.
For all the Shakespeare I’ve been reading, I blushed, I struggle to quote lines like so many Bardolators seem able to do.
Steven added to our Shakespeare sharing, too. He recalled a teacher he had once took a whole term just to cover Julius Caesar. Line by line, word by word, the teacher explained the play. Even in his birthplace the Bard’s words still pose their challenges, I was relieved.
Patricia took her leave after her second half-pint and some of Steven’s friends and family joined us. They bought me another round and we talked about America’s gun problems, British crime dramas, the advantages and disadvantages of white Christmases, and Steven’s appetite for drink.
Three pints in, I still had three hours left before my train back to Oxford. I headed over to the main attraction: his birthplace. I hoped to start feeling some sort of special tingle about my time here – and not just from the Shakesbeer.
I tried to hear a newborn William, covered in placental blood, screaming as he took his first breaths out of the womb.
I waited in line to purchase admission to Shakespeare’s birthplace-cum-museum, a two-story timber-frame house along Henley Street, a busy pedestrian thoroughfare in the town. It was once one of the largest houses in town, I learned after I made it through another line to walk through the house. A French couple ahead of me exchanged kisses every few seconds, it seemed. Clearly, they were feeling something.
Off the side of dining room was John Shakespeare’s workshop. John Shakespeare was a glover by trade, and Elizabethan tradesmen worked out of their homes. Butterscotch-colored tannins still stained the simple white walls. A costumed guide explained glove-making in the 16th century with artifacts and replicas. Glove-related quotes from the glover’s great heir were displayed throughout the room, suggesting he was inspired by his father’s work, even if he didn’t follow in his footsteps.
Upstairs, another docent explained that the Shakespeares had beds, quite expensive – and quite the status symbol – in Shakespeare’s day. Shakespeare would have slept in a small crib on the floor next to a trundle bed pulled from under the bed. He demonstrated how an older Shakespeare would have tightened the ropes before retiring. Loose ropes could trouble one’s sleep, he continued, which is why even today we say we feel ropey if we didn’t get a good night’s rest. The man, whose vigorous expounding belied his age, explained that the family would have piled the bed with the all blankets, clothes, and fabric they owned to keep warm in the dead of winter. He then inserted two, tall pegs into slots on the side of the bed-frame; these prevented all the heavy textiles from falling on and suffocating Shakespeare, sleeping below in the trundle bed in the middle of the night.
In a side room, the original windows in the bedroom were on display. More illustrious visitors, the likes of T.S. Eliot, once etched their names into the panes. Eliot’s “I was here” was actually written over, so crowded the panes had become. I imagined the Modernist master walking the rooms, listening to the creaks of the dark-brown floorboards, now worn smooth and shiny from so many footsteps, for some insight into the Bard’s genius.
I tried myself to hear a newborn William, covered in placental blood, screaming as he took his first breaths out of the womb. I tried to hear William the child, his head just at eye level to his father’s workbench, bombarding his father with questions about his craft. But I just wasn’t hearing anything. In the garden at the back of the house actors performed passages on request. I was able to identify a few that I caught in medias res.
The Bard’s ghost wasn’t speaking to me yet, but at least I knew my stuff.
My entry into Shakespeare’s house granted me admission into some other sites, including the Harvard House, an impressive three-story timber-frame that came into the hands of John Harvard, who founded Harvard University. Right before it closed, I quickly toured Hall’s Croft, the Jacobean house of Shakespeare’s oldest daughter, Susanna, though I spent most of my time there chatting with a guide. He described many of the parties subsequent owners held there over the centuries before we fell into conversation about Key West, cowboy boots he bought at the covered market in Oxford, and how the Catholic belief in transubstantiation is technically cannibalism.
I still had some time to kill before my train, so I stopped by another tavern. Here, I shared a table with a couple a few miles outside of town. They, too, missed the parade but enjoyed simply being in the town on this milestone day, shuffling through the rooms with a hushed reverence, though they didn’t have a lot of experience with Shakespeare themselves. We chatted about the husband’s former work in Denver, my move to Dublin, and our mutual love of Edinburgh, where he gained a lot of weight, he mentioned, from all the drinking he did there.
I didn’t do any reading on the train back to Oxford. I gazed, vacant-eyed like the Shakespeare masks in the window sills, as occasional sheep and church steeples passed by the rolling green countryside.
Back in Oxford, I met my wife for dinner and some drinks in town. “So, are you feeling inspired?” she asked.
“Um…” I bit into some pizza and chewed for a while.
I don’t think I gained many insights into Shakespeare’s genius, I realized, but I do think I learned more about his humanity. And it was Shakespeare’s own insights into humanity, I think, that was genius.
I recalled the floorboards he must have run across as a kid, the trundle bed whose ropes he tightened, the desks in his schoolroom where copied out amo amas amat, the intricately carved church ceiling he may have stared at during a boring sermon, the trail along the river where may have chased swans, the alleys he must have cut through on errands for his father. I don’t think I gained many insights into Shakespeare’s genius, I realized, but I do think I learned more about his humanity. And it was Shakespeare’s own insights into humanity, I think, that was genius.
“I really enjoyed the people I met and talked to there,” I offered. There were thousands of people in town, I’m sure, many from far outside the United Kingdom. Some knew a lot about Shakespeare and felt a personal, even magical connection as they toured the town. Others, and I think most, didn’t really know much about him. They haven’t really read much other than what was required in high school, if that. Maybe they’ve have seen the occasional play. But we were still all there for the same reason, to try to better understand this man who has wormed his way into our very literary, linguistic, and cultural consciousness. Whose verses we still quote, whose coinages we still use, whose stories we continue to see, whose truths we still draw on, whose genius we still crave to know. Perhaps in so small part because we make these sort of pilgrimages, because we specially esteem his genius.
Shakespeare has created us, in a manner of speaking, but we’ve also created him. We put on the Bard-faced masks, as if to see the world through his eyes. Yet it’s our eyes that peer through the slots.
“Yeah, I think I really felt something.”
All photographs by me.