To understand the beginning of the dramatic life of the great writer William Shakespeare, you have to start with a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was born and lived his early years. It was here that Shakespeare was born, grew up, met his wife, married and had children. In his later years, Shakespeare chose to return to this lovely place to spend the last five years of his life.
A Lucky Man
When I came to the city center of Stratford, it was like traveling through time and space into a small town in the Tudor era. The facades of houses are decorated with trusses, the streets are neat and flowers are in full bloom. Shakespeare’s former residence is one of these houses. Shakespeare was a lucky man born with a golden key, the area shows. There is an English garden next to the house, and the flat grass is dotted with colorful flowers, which complements the elegant style of this house.
Shakespeare’s story begins in a room on the second floor of this house. In the room, we see a wooden bed and a small bed that can be pulled out from under the wooden one, with hemp rope tied like a cross. Shakespeare was born on the wooden bed and slept in the small one until he was 5 years old. At that time, people tightened hemp rope to ensure that children can sleep peacefully. This is the origin of the English expression "sleep tight".
Next is the bedroom which Shakespeare shared with his two brothers when they were older. Here we learn about the different treatment of boys and girls. There is a fireplace in the boy's bedroom, and the room is covered with wallpaper to help ward off nightmares. The sisters, on the other hand, slept in the next room, which didn't have bed frames and a fireplace, and they endured the strong smell coming from their father's glove workshop downstairs.
A Wedding in a Hurry
In 1852, the 18-year-old Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway hurriedly held their wedding. Because Shakespeare was not an adult at that time, he needed Anne's father's permission to marry her. To make matters worse, Annie was already 3 months pregnant. In order to avoid the scandal of unmarried pregnancy, Shakespeare had to apply to the Bishop’s Court to speed up the process.
The bride, who was eight years older than the groom, came from Shottery, a village not far from Stratford. Anne's father was a respected and wealthy homesteader, and the family rented a 90-acre farm. Today, Anne Hathaway's Cottage has become an open museum with lush fields, gardens and orchards, while the 500-year-old thatched cottage is hidden among flowers and greenery. You can visit the house to understand how she lived at the time, and relive Shakespeare’s love story. It was here that Shakespeare proposed to his bride-to-be.
Since there is very little information about Anne, people today still discuss whether this marriage was a happy one. But the child—their eldest daughter Susanna did experience a happy marriage later. Shakespeare not only left her their estate, she also married a prestigious local doctor whose case notes were published after his death in 1657. In Hall's Croft, you can visit their mansion and learn how this doctor diagnosed diseases in the 17th century.
Fame and Fortune
From the 1680s onwards, Shakespeare began to divide his time between Stratford and London, living his family life and professional life rin two different places. By 1592, Shakespeare had become an official comedian and playwright in London. Five years later, he bought a new house in Stratford, which people call New Place.
Shakespeare spent the last days of his life in this new residence. The new home is located on Chapel Street, less than a 10-minute walk from his birthplace. This was the largest house in the town at the time. John Leland (the librarian of Henry VIII) described it as a "beautiful house made of bricks and wood", which was an innovation at the time.
This luxurious street-side house once had 10 fireplaces and 20-30 rooms. Behind the courtyard stands a huge late medieval style foyer, which was the main gathering point of Shakespeare's family. Shakespeare also added a long corridor to the house to display artworks and entertain. Two gardens and two orchards were mentioned in the deed of the new home. There is an ancient mulberry tree in today's "big garden", which is said to have grown from the branches of a tree planted by Shakespeare.
After Shakespeare’s death in 1616, the new home changed owners several times and finally passed to Francis Gastrell. The priest hated the constant flow of tourists, so he cut down Shakespeare’s mulberry trees and razed the house to the ground.
Many modern artworks have been built on the site of the New House today. At the entrance I saw a huge model of a sailing ship. "Shakespeare is as important to Britain as these ships were during the Age of Discovery," the guide of the New House told me, pointing at the boat. "At that time, Britain defeated the invincible Spanish fleet, gained maritime supremacy, and became prosperous."
A Top Stage
To understand Shakespeare's plays, you need to understand his school, I am told. In the small town’s grammar school (Shakespeare's Schoolroom and Guildhall), a guide dressed in traditional clothes tells us that, “Shakespeare’s plays began in this grammar school.” We walk in the wooden school building, exploring the place where Shakespeare learned Latin and poetry, lectures and recitations, and practiced drama with his classmates. While he was studying, the arrival of a touring drama troupe touched him greatly. Later, he described the performance of the troupe in the play "Hamlet".
In order to experience the charm of Shakespeare's drama, on the last night in Stratford, I went to The Swan Water Fountain in town. At this moment, the Avon River has become more quiet, and the colorful cruise ships have returned to the gate, embellishing the river surface so beautifully. The wind blows the metal swan statues on the square, and the swinging wings make people think that two swans are about to spread their wings and fly away.
The theater of the Royal Shakespeare Company is just 100 meters from the square, and the red modern brick walls are eye-catching among the retro houses. I watch Shakespeare's famous play "A Tit for Tat" here. The theater imitates the style of the past but is more luxurious. When the drama begins, the stage's background, lighting and sound are all turned on, and the whole theater seems to be covered with a fine veil. The actors on stage are passionate. The performance captures everyone's heart. If it were not for everyone's heartfelt respect and affection for Shakespeare, I believe it would be difficult to complete such a breathtaking drama.
Long after the performance, the audience gathers in the hall and we are reluctant to leave. Many of them are elderly people in wheelchairs. Compared with the lively talk inside, the outside of the theater seems quiet and peaceful. At this time, the Avon River flows quietly through the town as always, sparkling in the moonlight. Shakespeare’s footprints and his poetic language are hidden everywhere in the town, and the river Avon brings this poetry and glory to far away places.
Also Read: Christmas Castle Stories