William Shakespeare`s Birthplace and The New Place
Like myself, the first contact most people would have had with the world of William Shakespeare was from their schooldays. I was studying English literature at secondary school and we `had’ to do a play! Not knowing much about the world of drama, theatre or poetry, it was not something I was particularly looking forward to. The play we were going to study was a tragedy, titled Romeo and Juliet about two young lovers whose deaths ultimately reconcile their feuding families! It did not sound like I was going to enjoy this play.
To help me get to grips with the dialogue, I also watched the 1968 film adaptation by director Franco Zefferelli starring the stunning Olivia Hussey as Juliet and Leonard Whiting as her co-star crossed lover. Needless to say, I absolutely loved the play and from that day forward was hooked visiting the Stratford Royal Shakespeare Memorial Theatre on several occasions over my adult years to soak up more of `The Bard of Avon ‘s’, greatest works.
In my search to find out more about the man widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist, I recently visited the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, situated in the centre of his hometown of Stratford Upon Avon to explore the house where he was born and grew up.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust cares for over 1 million museum, library and archive items, many of them stored permanently below the house in the museums vaults. The collections are recognised as being of international and worldwide importance. The Trust regularly changes the items above ground so that many more of their `hidden treasures’ can be put out on display to visitors.
When I first entered the museum a small part of this fascinating collection of items were on display which included documentation of his baptism and burial which was recorded in the Holy Trinity Parish Register, copies of the First Folio of his complete works and a signet ring believed to have belonged to him. I was also pleased to find the Trust also cares for the archive of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which includes images, prompt books, recordings, and printed material relating to the Company and its productions, since its foundation. It is a truly remarkable and fascinating collection of material relating to the life of William Shakespeare, his family, his town, his works and his influence on the world then and now.
There was a short video showing scenes and words from several of his thirty – eight plays; then I went outside into the gardens where the real delights were to be found. There were three actors performing short acts from requested plays! Visitors were encouraged to sit on benches around a low concrete podium. Theatre in the round! The actors were simply stunning! Short acts with no props, music and stage.
It made me realise, not for the first time, how powerful and moving the words of William Shakespeare are. This is one of the reasons why his plays have been translated into every major living language around the globe and are performed more than those of any other playwright. Having listened and enjoyed Shakespeare Aloud for some time, I went into the house in which Shakespeare was born, which has been looked after by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for the last one hundred and seventy years! I must say the renovated building appears to be in very good condition considering it is reputed to have been built in the mid-16th century.
William Shakespeare was born in the house and grew up there with his parents and siblings. He also spent the first five years of his marriage living in the house with his wife Anne Hathaway. His parents John and Mary Shakespeare were wealthy enough to own the largest house on Henley Street. William was the third of eight children.
be not afraid of greatness:some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
Twelth Night: Act II. Scene V
His father John became the Mayor of Stratford Upon Avon In 1568 which was the highest elective office in the town. On a Sunday, dressed in his fine red robes, he would have been escorted to the local Holy Trinity church to attend mass. It was because of his father’s position as Mayor, that William was privileged enough to have attended the local grammar school to begin his education.
When his father died in 1601 as the eldest surviving child, William inherited the house. He leased part of the property and it became an inn called the Maidenhead (and later the Swan and Maidenhead). The inn remained until 1847. When William died he left the house to his eldest daughter Susanna, and when she died she left it to her only child, Elizabeth. Although she married twice, Elizabeth had no children, so when she died the house fell to a descendant, Joan Hart, one of Shakespeare’s sisters. The house was owned by the Hart family until the late 18th century, until it went up for sale and was purchased by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1847.
“Don’t waste your love on somebody, who doesn’t value it.”
Romeo and Juliet Act: I Scene: I
There were several costumed guides in each of the rooms and I learnt a lot about the living conditions of the Shakespeare family whilst they lived in the house. Shakespeare`s family were glovemakers and enjoyed the many benefits of wealth and status within the town. The glove making workshop was of special interest as I was shown how gloves would have been created.
The house appeared to have suffered with graffiti for a short period in its history. Visitors including William Wordsworth scratched their signatures on walls, ceilings and even the glass in window panes before they were discouraged and the graffiti painted over. I was told by the knowledgeable and helpful guides how low `trug` beds for the small children were literally pushed under the main bed of the adults and that the wall paper was often made from linen not paper! The guides helped bring the house and its rooms to life!
Along one of the garden walls is a nine-metre-long Shakespeare Giant Wall book which beautifully illustrates Shakespeare`s thirty-eight plays. This would appeal to younger children and older students studying his plays in school and of enormous interest to more mature students like myself!
`Sweet Swan of Avon` Ben Jonson 1623
After passing through a well – stocked gift shop containing a wide range of Shakespeare related gift ideas I decided to visit the most recent of the Trusts’ properties – Shakespeare’s New Place, just a short five-minute walk from his birthplace.
Shakespeare’s New Place was his family home from 1597 until he died in the house in 1616. The house was demolished in 1759 but a registered garden has been designed to commemorate the importance of the original site and allow visitors to make their own personal connection with Shakespeare.
William Shakespeare bought New Place when he was an established playwright and it is believed he wrote The Tempest and 25 other plays whilst living there. It was the largest house in the town and reflected his status, wealth and fame as a famous playwright. Several specially commissioned sculptures and artworks encourage the visitor to consider and reflect on the life, works and legacy of Shakespeare.
Having been a Geography schoolteacher in a previous life, I loved `The Globe` based on a map of 1600 with the axis running directly through Stratford upon Avon. I also enjoyed `His Mind`s Eye`, a striking sculpture which is meant to represent Shakespeare`s creativity and the sheer force of his genius throughout the world. Powerful stuff indeed!
`The Knot Garden’ was a delightful place in which to sit and consider all that I had seen and rest some very tired feet! Before entering the main exhibition building, I strolled along the sculpted Yew Walk, taking in the sculptures dotted about The Great Garden.
The viewing platform inside the house was also a great place to view the whole of the gardens and look across to the Memorial Theatre beyond the far walls of the Great Garden. The New Place really was a wonderful place to spend a short time away from the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets of Stratford outside the gatehouse entrance.
Whether you have a casual passing interest in Shakespeare or are studying one of his plays at school or college, you are preparing to perform a character in one of his plays or are a fine scholar of his work, you should take some time to visit Shakespeare`s birthplace and the other three properties cared for by the Shakespeare Trust. I am already looking forward to my next visit to Stratford Upon Avon when I shall get an even greater understanding of Shakespeare`s life by visiting Mary Arden`s Tudor Farm, Anne Hathaway`s Cottage and Hall`s Croft.
I really enjoyed my visit to Shakespeare`s birthplace and have come away knowing a great deal more about William Shakespeare than I did when I arrived and had a fantastic day out too!
The Shakespeare Centre and Birthplace
Shakespeare’s New Place
22 Chapel Street
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