This year marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of the world’s most famous playwright, William Shakespeare. You can get to know him through his work, of course, but to better understand the man behind the prose, nothing beats a visit to his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. Just a couple of hours from London — a journey that would have taken three days in Shakespeare’s time — Stratford-upon-Avon is a pretty market town in the county of Warwickshire. As the name suggests, the town sits along the River Avon, making it a lovely spot for a day trip, particularly in the summertime. Here is a selection of Bard-based highlights you really shouldn’t miss.
One of world’s leading producers of Shakespearean works, the RSC has been based in Stratford since 1875 (though it was known as Shakespeare Memorial Theatre back then). The company’s main house, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, was officially opened by the queen in 2011. It’s an architectural reimagining of a theater that was built on the site in 1932, and is full of fascinating historical details — the floorboards in the front-of-house area, for example, were recycled from the old theater’s stage. Learn more about the building during a front-of-house or backstage tour, and don’t forget to climb the theater’s tower for great views over Stratford. Seeing a play is an essential activity for your visit, and there are two spaces to choose from: the RST hosts productions of Shakespeare’s works while plays by the Bard’s contemporaries are presented in the much smaller Swan Theatre. In repertoire at the RSC this summer you’ll find the critically acclaimed Henry IV Part I and Part II and Two Gentlemen of Verona, Middleton and Decker’s The Roaring Girl, the anonymous thriller Arden of Faversham, a one-woman performance of Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece and John Webster’s The White Devil.
The trust looks after five Shakespeare-related properties in town, with tickets available to visit them piecemeal or all rolled up in a package, depending on how much time you have. Your first stop should be Shakespeare’s birthplace itself, the house on the high street where the Bard’s family lived when he was born in 1564. As well as the house itself, whose decor shows what it would have been like in the writer’s time, there’s an exhibition that provides an engaging introduction to the man and the period in which he lived. A short walk away is New Place, the site of Shakespeare’s last home. The grand house he bought in 1597, after returning from London a rich man, was demolished in the 18th century, but you can wander through its pretty gardens and learn about archeological finds at Nash House, the well-preserved Tudor building next door. An even more charming dwelling with ties to Shakespeare is Hall’s Croft, where the playwright’s daughter Susanna lived with her husband, physician John Hall. Full of precious antiques, paintings and rare apothecary equipment, it offers an evocative look at a slice of life in a moneyed home from the early 17th century. Away from the center of town is Anne Hathaway’s Cottage & Gardens, where Shakespeare courted the woman who would become his wife, and Mary Arden’s Farm, where the author’s mother grew up. Open from March to November only, the attraction is a vivid re-creation of a Tudor farm that’s perfect for younger visitors.
The final stop on this discovery tour is the church where Shakespeare was baptized, where he worshipped and was buried. (It’s possible that he exchanged vows here, too, but no one knows for sure, as his Stratford marriage certificate does not specify a place.) This beautiful 13th-century building sits in a peaceful churchyard on the banks of the River Avon half a mile from the center of town; the walk from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is a lovely one. The Bard, his wife and various other members of the family are buried in the chancel, alongside copies of the register of his birth and burial. The font where Shakespeare was baptized is there as well. For more historical context, don’t miss the interesting displays on worship, baptism, marriage and interment from the icon’s day — you’ll find them in the crossing, the oldest part of the church.
Photos Courtesy of RSC_Peter Cook and Amy-Murrell-2011-76