You’ll bump into many figures of speech in the surprising and idyllic Stratford-Upon-Avon. I had a score to settle with William Shakespeare. Years ago, as a punishment in school, I had to learn by heart overnight the entire soliloquy of Lady Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger that I see before me?” I would have gladly daggered Shakespeare himself. More than 30 years later, I was standing in hushed silence right at his grave, in an ancient chapel in the picturesque Stratford-upon-Avon. Reading his epitaph, (written by himself naturally) it was clear that Shakespeare wanted no messing around with him, dead or alive. “Blest be the man that spares these stones. And curst be he that moves my bones”. With typical Indian reverence, I wondered whether I should be standing there with my shoes — even as a knot of jabbering Japanese tourists entered and immediately started click-clicking their Shakespeare experience into their biscuit-sized Nikons — and rushed away with hardly a pause. What was their connect to Shakespeare, I wondered. Mine, I knew, was as deep as it can get — just as with any English convent educated child in India. We grew up knowing much more about Shakespeare than about Kabir or Kalidas. We could still recall the exact sound of the voice of our English teacher, reading us Hamlet’s famous contemplation, or Shylock’s evil rant. We’d worn the legal gowns of Portia, and the donkey-head of Bottom in school plays. Like mine, was this a pilgrimage trip for the Japanese too? Or just a big tick mark in the Japanese translation of “1000 places to see before you die”?
Back to the beginning
But I have jumped too soon to Shakespeare’s grave. Our tour of Stratford-Upon-Avon logically started with the Birthplace Home — an extraordinary museum filled with both original and replica items from the 1500s that recreates Shakespeare’s youth.
With safe words like “in all probability” and “it is believed that” prefixing many sentences, the guide pointed out how young Will slept (probably) and ate (perhaps) and played in his youth (presumably). That is why it was a gooseflesh moment to see his name very clearly and definitely recorded in an ancient baptism register — opened and displayed right before our eyes. Shakespeare’s name was written against the date April 26, 1564. That means he was born a few days earlier — so April 23rd was Shakespeare’s birth date. Well, so it is assumed… Later when we saw that Shakespeare also died on April 23rd (1616), it was easy to see why historians settled on this perfect date as the birth date too. Or as Shakespeare himself may have said of this amazing coincidence: “Heaven hath a hand in these events” (“Richard II”).
With a dad who made gloves for a living, where on earth did Shakespeare get his astonishing writing gene, we wondered. Looking for clues to his genius, we walked around; and read the interesting panels tracing his life. “Shakespeare rarely invented his basic plots,” revealed one. He borrowed heavily from history and mythology, and embellished them with high drama, wit and human emotion. We also heard stories our English teacher never told us: young Will, just 18, had got his girlfriend Anne, 26 (an older woman!), pregnant, and did the honourable thing marrying her. An easy thing to do as Anne was a rich and comely lass who went on to bear him a daughter and a set of twins. The exhibition also gave us a peek into Will’s will: apparently he left his second best bed to his wife! (The best was always reserved for guests… ) Stepping into the bedroom to see a replica of the grand Hathaway Bed, we heard even more intriguing trivia. Notice the beds are somewhat tiny? asked our guide. Well, (it is believed) that people slept sitting up, as it was easier on the digestive system! But a more practical reason was their perpetual fear of fires, and a sitting position would ensure a faster getaway. Or even a fear far worse: the devil may assume you are lying dead and snatch you away.
–To be concluded