“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
What an enjoyable weekend I just spent in Stratford on Avon. I was there to join in the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday and to commemorate his death 400 years ago on 23 April 1616.
The town, where I lived during my teens, was festooned with flags and shields from almost every nation in the world. There were banners with Shakespeare’s likeness waving high across the streets or pinned to railings. There was blue and yellow bunting in side streets and blue and yellow market stalls along the waterside leading to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Shakespeare’s colours of blue and yellow amuse me as in theatre superstition wearing blue and yellow means you will forget your lines! My school uniform at Shottery Manor in Stratford was mainly purple but with blue shirts and blue and yellow striped ties. We wore straw boaters in the summer months with a purple blue and yellow band round them. In the winter we wore purple felt hats with the same coloured band round them. Wearing the hats at the wrong angle on the head was considered a very serious misdemeanour and a detention would surely follow if spotted.
The RSC put on a special celebration, Shakespeare Live!, in honour of the occasion. It included Opera, Comedy, Ballet, Hip-hop, Poetry, and of course extracts from the plays. I thought the whole evening was a resounding success. It appealed to almost everyone whatever their age or tastes in entertainment.
The well-known, justifiably renowned and much-loved, stars who took part included Judi Dench who took the part of Titania falling in love with Bottom played by comedian Al Murray. The costumes were brilliant, the set was great, and the acting was superb. The overall effect was slick, professional and absolutely hilarious. I loved it. There is a wicker sculpture of Titania and Bottom outside the theatre in the new Stratford Garden. The flowers in it are all mentioned in the plays and the effect should be quite impressive when they grow.
Among lots of memorable performances in Shakespeare Live!, the most moving I thought was Sir Ian McKellan’s rendition of a speech handwritten by Shakespeare for the character of Sir Thomas More. I, like most people listening I imagine, had visions of the horrific ‘Jungle’ at Calais and the wretched scenes of migrants behind the barriers and fences, which have been erected along European borders to keep them out. Sir Ian McKellen brought tears to my eyes with this speech. You can hear an earlier rendition of it here
The whole speech is written at the end of this post and here is a link to the very relevant and learned Shakespeare Blog.
On Sunday and Monday I indulged myself by taking a walk along the river Avon and revisiting many of the houses and museums connected with Shakespeare. The weather was changeable but I managed to get some reasonable photos, especially at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage where the garden is a riot of spring colour with flowers including daffodils, bluebells and tulips. I also spent some time in the newly restored Swan Theatre with its amazing abstract sculpture, ‘For All Time’ created by Steven Follen. This representation of a head, shown in photo at the top, is made of 2000 stainless steel stars suspended from the ceiling by fine wires to make the shape of a 3 metre tall human face. It is surrounded by other stars which closely represent the position of the constellations on the day of Shakespeare’s birth.
There are two additional places to visit in Stratford now, which in previous years were not open to the public. One is King Edward the Sixth School for Boys, which Shakespeare attended. His actual schoolroom is open to the public with professional actors dressed in costume teaching Latin and chatting to visitors in character. It was a surreal experience being inside the actual classroom. I have been to the school before in the days when Mr Pratt was Headmaster, but it was a joy to visit the most ancient parts of the building, which have been beautifully restored.
The second is Harvard House where John Harvard was born in 1607. This is a three story Elizabethan house almost opposite New Place, the house which Shakespeare bought in 1607. It is remarkably authentic in its preservation and restoration, with lots of oak beams and areas of ancient wall paintings. John Harvard eventually married and emigrated to Massachusetts in America where he was a preacher and teaching elder. When he died of TB he left 230 books and a very generous legacy to a fund for the founding of a new college. This was to become Harvard College, the oldest institution of higher education in America. The house is owned by the American University but looked after by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. It is worth a visit just to see the Bible Box. This is a beautifully carved oak box for storing the treasured Bible. After Henry V111 declared that all bibles should be written in English (not Latin) so that they were accessible to ordinary folk who could read, it became fashionable for families to keep a Bible at home. Wealthier families would store their bible in such a box.
Of course I visited Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare, his wife Anne, and other members of his family are buried. It is traditional for all the dignitaries and important visitors who attend the bard’s birthday celebrations, to bring flowers to the grave. At this time of year, when daffodils are still abundant, the sight and smell in the church is quite literally breathtaking. There was a rather unusual floral tribute with Shakespeare’s dates on it. It was standing on trestles with a huge candle at each corner. It had been processed through the town earlier in the day looking rather coffin-like.
I have celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday in Stratford many times, most notably the 400th anniversary one in 1964, but I have never before attended a commemoration of his death. It was odd as both events occurred on the same date. But I have to say it was all very tasteful ~ well except for the countless people wearing Shakespeare masks?!
Do enjoy some of my photos below.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre
The Seven Ages of Man on Stained Glass in the Swan Theatre
Holy Trinity Church
King Edward Sixth School
Around The Town
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in Shottery ~ very close to my old school!
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….
Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.