Long curtains around the four-poster bed were designed for some privacy, as alongside were smaller cots where the younger children slept. Our guide also pointed out a curious U-shaped wooden object and demonstrated its use — a quick turn with this made the cords of the bed tighter and firmer. Leading to the expression we use: “Goodnight. Sleep tight!” Soon, wherever we went we bumped into more everyday phrases — and found their delightful origin to be from either the Bard or his times. Our lunch halt had taken us to Bensons with the best soups and salads in town, and right alongside in the Shakespeare curio shop, I found a plaque with “In my salad days, when I was green in judgement”. “Salad days” came from Shakespeare? Yes, from “Anthony and Cleopatra”. But this one really got me: 300 years before Charles Dickens was even born, Shakespeare came up with “what the dickens is his name… “ (Go look it up in your complete works of Shakespeare: it’s there in “The Merry Wives of Windsor”.)
A poet’s hangouts
Continuing our tour of the idyllic Bard’s country, we went along roads that Shakespeare would’ve hung around, wooing Anne 400 years ago. We learnt why “a June bride” has come to be such a desirable thing: in Elizabethan times, people had only one real bath a year — usually in June. Understandable that any union was best celebrated then. But Shakespeare wasn’t allowed to wait that long: the marriage was hurriedly solemnised by November. As evidenced by a marriage license issued in November 1582, which curiously spells his name as “Shagspeare”! And if in their passion they had “not slept one wink”, oh yes, Shakespeare first used that expression too, in “Cymbeline”.
More phrases lay lurking in every street corner. Our guide took us to well preserved ancient Tudor homes, like that of Elizabeth Arden, Shakespeare’s mother. Richer people, like Shakespeare’s parents, normally had larger windows to let in more daylight (and subtly show off their lifestyle). But they soon began to board them up to look smaller, as a sudden “window tax” was levied on rich homes — an event that led to the coining of “daylight robbery”! Another one: the chimney those days was just a hole in the thatched roof and you’d be lucky if nothing inedible fell into the pot… Pot luck?
Right answer. And apparently, salt was a scarce and expensive item then, to add to that pot. And good soldiers of that time were often rewarded with sacks of salt. We guessed the phrase coming up: “worth his salt”.
One of Shakespeare’s houses
Even though Shakespeare wrote almost all his works in London, it was easy to see that the incredibly romantic Stratford was his muse for writing sonnets. In the Shakespeare-themed Bancroft Gardens, with statues of the best known of Shakespearean characters — Hamlet, Falstaff, Prince Hal and Lady Macbeth — I sat watching swans on the lake, almost to a Tchaikovskian rhythm. Altogether, too much of a good thing. (Apparently Shakespeare said that first too. In “As You Like It”.)
With Shakespeare coming out of our ears — and mouth (I couldn’t help showing off to our guide, how perfectly I could recite “Is this a dagger… “) — it was the ultimate finale to our Shakespearean holiday to watch a stage performance of “Henry VI” at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, sitting enthralled in the best seats of the house.
In the midst of action
Designed to be exactly like the original Shakespearean “thrust theatre” with a part of the stage going right into the audience, the play was overwhelming for its proximity to the action, no matter where one sat. Swashbuckling characters suddenly ran right past us, dripping blood in battle scenes, or swung down dramatically from castle ramparts, or even disappeared into the floor of the stage in a haze of smoke — effects to rival the best of Broadway or Westend. We felt incredibly lucky to have caught the year-long “Complete Works” Festival where every single one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays were being staged for the first time ever in one big event! With Hollywood actors like Dame Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart playing major roles in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “The Tempest”, this was a feast indeed, and the greatest hurrah to the world’s best-known playwright.
Walking back to our cosy Eastnor Hotel, (everywhere and everything is within walking distance here), I thought: you couldn’t be a theatre lover and not visit Stratford. Then again I thought, you couldn’t be a literature lover and not visit Stratford.
Just then I watched a couple in a boat go gliding along the dreamy river Avon, with swans in the twilight making it all just unbearably beautiful. And I thought, you couldn’t be in love and not visit Stratford.