Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Shakespeare's Home and Gardens


Last June to research my novel “as u like it,” I visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. I wasn’t the first writer to do so.  Many authors have scrawled their signatures like graffiti on the walls, as if they could tattoo their mild celebrity on his literary skin. 

Shakespeare’s name is immortal, marked on our creative conscience.  The visit to his home reminded me that he was a real person, the son of a possibly illiterate tanner/glover.  His house was still impressively large, especially for his time.

The gardens were small but lovely, featuring blooms he'd mentioned in his writing.  In the courtyard period-dressed actors performed scenes from his plays.  Mid June is a good time to visit, before the big summer crowds.  Only the Shakespeare museum and gift-shop were tacky-touristy. 

The portrait gallery was worth the trip in itself.  Hanging on the wall, was the most recently discovered (March 2009) painting of Shakespeare, perhaps the only to have been done during his lifetime.  His hair is rich auburn and his expression bemused. The portrait is by an unknown artist and shows mixed mastery from the well-rendered beard to the clumsy ear.  There was still an emotional liveliness to it, unusual for the period.  Shakespeare was in his 40's, close to me in age.  I stared into his eyes for close to an hour and felt a connection.  A reproduction is pinned above my desk (blog image from the guardian.co.uk.)


We found the perfect place for lunch: the As You Like It Café.  A good sign?  It didn’t even rain on us in the courtyard.  The café is conveniently on 20 Henley Street.


After lunch we walked across Henley Street to the Shakespeare Bookshop.  Heaven.  I could have spent hours browsing through all the books that ranged from academic volumes to manga Shakespeare.  There would be room on the bookshelf for my “as u like it” in the children’s/young adult section.  I didn’t see anything else like it there. 

I bought The Arden Dictionary of Shakespeare Quotations and Bill Bryson’s short and entertaining biography, aimed at a general audience. Bryson explains in his usual droll tone:
 
“To answer the obvious question, this book was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare, as because this series [of biographies] does.  The idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record.  Which is one reason, of course, it’s so slender.”

With many amusing anecdotes, Bryson places Shakespeare in his historical context and dismisses the naysayers who claimed the parochially schooled actor couldn’t have written those most literary plays and sonnets.  It’s a fun and easy read.  I absolutely loved it.

For those looking for a more scholarly biography of Shakespeare, I'd strongly recommend Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt at Harvard University.  I didn't include biographical material in my young adult novel, but both books added to my understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare's work.  Call it character research as the Bard is a presence in my contemporary novel. 

Shakespeare is so much more than his words on a page.  No visit to Stratford-upon-Avon is complete without watching a Royal Shakespeare Company performance.  Book ahead.  In June they were performing As You Like it.  A second good sign! 

Over the three years that I’ve lived in England, I’ve seen many RSC performances in London.  This is Shakespeare at its best with perfect elocution, emotional depth and attention to period detail.  Every single actor is strong, working together as an ensemble.  RSC alumni include Kenneth Branagh (I love his Shakespeare films,) Ralph Fiennes and Patrick Stewart.

As You Like It came to life on the stage with a strong Rosalind (Katy Stephens) and an amusingly melancholy Jaques.  They had been banished from court to the northern woods.   At the interval (intermission) an actor actually skinned a rabbit on stage.  Shakespeare’s Arden Forest is a fallen Eden:

“Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows on my body….”

And yet in this harsh, adverse setting, the true meaning of life is found:

“Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

My pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s birthplace was well worth the journey.

Blog Watch: for the latest news on Shakespeare performances, books, movies, scholarships, blogs etc., check out The Shakespeare Post.

41 comments:

julia said...

what a wonderful trip - that picture of Shakespeare is amazing.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Sarah
Thanks for sharing your pilgrimage with your readers. I was visiting the Furman Univeristy campus yestersday and the theatre department is performing--As You Like It. Your post has sparked an interest in me so now I will go see the play and maybe one day I will take a class in Shakespeare.

Best
Tracy :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Julia, it was a wonderful trip. This is actually my third post about it. Blog lag! Here are the links to the other 2 posts:

Good Books and Country Pubs in England

The Dartmouth Arms Book Club (North London)

Tracy, you just started my day with a big smile. Enjoy the play!

Joan Mora said...

Enjoyed reading about your trip.

I was lucky enough to see Patrick Stewart in The Tempest there a few years back. He was born to do Shakespeare. Of course, he could read from my to-do list, and I'd listen.

A Cuban In London said...

That is one journey I will make soon. I loved this short sentence 'The visit to his home reminded me that he was a real person,'. I have often felt the same way. Not because I don't consider him a genius but because he has almost eclipsed everyone else into a minor role. And I don't think he actually did that himself but the quality of his plays, the beauty of his sonnets (my favourite bits of his extensive body of work) and his vision conspired to turn him into an ideal hard to emulate.

Excellent post and cracking images. I thoroughly enjoyed that tour.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

JM, I saw Patrick Stewart in The Tempest too! It was in London maybe 5 years ago. Wouldn’t it be funny if we’d been in the audience at the same time? Stewart made a brilliant Prospero. I totally forgot about Star Trek. We saw the Tempest a second time this past summer in Regent’s Park. It’s one of my favorite plays.

ACIL, you must go to Stratford – it’s an easy train ride from London although a bit of a hike from the station and to the theater – travel light. We didn’t even stay overnight. Excellent insight on Shakespeare’s luminosity, thank you!

tina said...

I like those gardens very much. Most lovely with the vertical accents and of course the peonies. Great portrait. I had no idea Shakespeare had auburn hair. Interesting.

Sarah Laurence said...

The gardeners couldn’t recreate his flower beds without a record so I love that they used his writing as a guide. Shakespeare often used flowers metaphorically. Thanks for identifying the peonies and design elements in the garden.

Barrie said...

What an interesting post--full of all kinds of facts and thoughts!

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Thank you for taking us along! I really enjoyed "tagging along" on your perfect Shakespeare day. It's been too long since I journeyed to Stratford. Wish I had been able to see a production when I was there. Oh well, next time.

Did you happen to see "Death Masks" on the History Channel recently? One of the death masks they did was Shakespeare's. They scanned with it with lasers and animated his face to show us exactly what he would have looked like. It was truly fascinating. He did look very similar to that recently discovered portrait, by the way.

lakeviewer said...

Nothing like stepping in that space to help one create.

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, thanks!

Alyson, I didn’t see “Death Masks.” How interesting that modern science matched art. What I liked about the painting was how realistic it was. Most portraits of that period are stylized. It looked much better in person.

Lakeviewer, exactly!

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Oh, I never made it to Stratford-Upon-Avon! But next time... Your photos make me terribly homesick for England in the Spring.

Sarah Laurence said...

JAPRA, I only visited Stratford-Upon-Avon after I moved back to the USA. Funny isn't it? Well, next visit back, you'll have to go. You'd love it. I get homesick for England too.

Susie Hemingway said...

Lovely Stratford!

Kelly H-Y said...

Thank you for taking us along on your amazing journey! What a wonderful post. And, that first picture is just gorgeous!

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

This is just an incredible post! And I would have never guessed his home would still be standing. I just love the yard, Sarah! Thank you for sharing all of this and for the fabulous tour! I'm very behind on visiting because of a terrible work schedule and zero energy left over.

Les said...

On a horticultural tour of England, the guide found an extra 30 minutes in the schedule and took us to Stratford-Upon-Avon. I have two strong memories of the place: looking for blister medicine in a Boots pharmacy where the English language was more confusing than helpful, and a lovely municipal park near Shakespeare's home full of blindingly bright golden yew meticulously clipped into pyramids.

☆sapphire said...

Hello Sarah,

I enjoyed this post very much.
Really excited to read about Stratford-Upon-Avon. It looks so chariming! When I visit England next time, I'd like very much to visit the place!! Thank you for sharing!

Sarah Laurence said...

Susie and Kelly, thank you!

Boomer, his house was in remarkably good shape. Sorry to hear you’ve been so overworked. Thanks for visiting!

Les, ouch! Yes, the English do like to shape their yews.

Sapphire, Stratford is definitely worth a visit if you have time.

Mama Shujaa said...

I am wondering whether you too added your signature to the walls? You completely wrapped me up in this post, surrounded me with your experience, your journey. Like an initiation, a passage, necessary for those who want to be serious writers; not just writers, but observers of life. I am inspired. You are right, his name is marked on our creative conscience and here, all at once, the way you have shared it, I feel like I can touch him thru you. My imagination is stirred. Romance reignited.

Dawn Maria said...

We are in the midst of planning a 20 year wedding anniversary trip to Europe next summer in June. England is on my list, but not on my husband's. We're working on a compromise (I may have to have bratwurst in Germany).

How far out from London is the Bard's home? I know I could lure my husband there with the promise of a local coffee shoppe!

I think I'd be one of the masses putting my name on a wall. Instead of the Wailing Wall, it's the Writer's Wall. Yeah, I'd want some of the karma to come my way!

Beautiful photos, as always Sarah.

Sarah Laurence said...

MS, no, they don’t let you write on the walls anymore, but they have a display of famous signatures. It was a very inspiring visit and even better for being able to share it with you. You get it.

DM, congratulations on 20 years! We are celebrating our 20th next June too. Going to Europe sounds like a fabulous idea. Vacation planning, like marriage, is full of compromise, isn’t it? Stratford-Upon-Avon is 2 hours outside of London, so you might want to save it for another trip if you are short on time. The Globe Theater in London is a recreation of the original and also stages Shakespeare. Sadly, they don’t let you sign the walls anymore although there probably was a visitor’s book. I like the sound of a “Writer’s Wall!”

troutbirder said...

What fun to revisit a place where I had taken a high school humanities students some years ago. It seemed crowded and touristy to me at that time. Perhaps I was distracted. Later, the kids chose a night at the Barbicon in London to see As You Like it. The girls were all dressed up in their finest for an enchanting & for small town kids, sophisticated evening with Shakespeare. All was well...

Ms. Wis./Each Little World said...

Thanks for letting us imagine we were there with you! Have you seen Branagh's "Love's Labors Lost?" Set between the two World Wars with the great love songs of the era. Much cut for length but rather fun. If only Branagh could keep from going so over the top; no film needs both Timothy Spall and Nathan Lane!

Sarah Laurence said...

Troutbirder, what a lucky class to get to visit Stratford-Upon-Avon! I was expecting it to be really touristy and crowded, but in mid June it was not. The RSC often plays at the Barbicon the winter, but I think it’s being renovated now. What a happy coincidence that you saw As You Like It too.

Ms. Wis, Branagh’s “Love’s Labor Lost” is on my list to watch. Somehow I missed it was first released. I saw his “Henry V,” “Hamlet” and “Much Ado About Nothing” when they came out and then rented them to see a second time.

Yoli said...

I was at my fellow country man's blog (A Cuban in London)when I spotted the picture of Wills home. So I rushed here. I am so glad I did, you dear lady are delightful! As to Wills, I can only say that I studied and received a degree in theatre because of him. No literary figure made more of an impact in my life than Shakespeare.

Sarah Laurence said...

Yoli, welcome to my blog! I’m thrilled to connect with another fan of Shakespeare and of ACIL. You sound like you stepped out of a page of my novel. I could imagine the Bard would have such a formative influence, and I’m glad to see he really did.

cynthia newberry martin said...

I am fascinated by all things Shakespeare and enjoyed this post about your visit. When I was in Scotland last year, I discovered this wonderful little bookstore. I was trying to buy a book every place we stopped. Of all the books, I chose "Stories from Shakespeare Told to the Children by Jeanie Lang" published by Thomas Nelson and Sons. There’s no publication date, but the bookplate shows it was given to Janis Murray for regular attendance at the Abbeyhill Methodist Sunday School for the 1947-48 Session. Another good sign: of the six stories included, one is "As You Like It."

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, what a gem! Our Complete Works of Shakespeare was also a school prize – awarded in 1906-7. I’m a bookshop tourist too. It makes for a heavy suitcase. I love how this post is collecting As You Like It references in the comments.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

What a wonderful post. Reading Shakespeare is a marvelous experience, but there is nothing quite like hearing his words preformed aloud. They are incandescent.

walk2write said...

Lovely post, Sarah. I've never seen As You Like It performed, but I'm sure I'd love it as it's one of my favorites. The most striking thing about Shakespeare's visage is his strabismic gaze. It makes you wonder what he was thinking about while his portrait was being painted.

Sarah Laurence said...

Pamela, I agree: it’s the beauty of Shakespeare’s language that draws me to him.

W2W, that’s an interesting observation. I would guess the lack of aligned focus in his eyes had more to do with the artist than the subject. I would hazard the guess that he/she might have lacked formal training, although had plenty of natural talent. I wondered about Shakespeare’s relationship to the artist. As You Like It is fun to see preformed because so much depends on the interpretation. It could be played more for comedy or romance. These were things I had to decide while writing my novel too. Writing fiction is a lot like directing a play.

Rose said...

Oh, Sarah, this is on my "bucket list"! I've always wanted to visit Stratford, and I appreciate knowing that not all of it is "tacky-touristy," as friends who've visited have told me. I am really looking forward to your "as u like it"!

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, as long as you skip the Shakespeare story museum and gift shops and avoid school holidays, you’ll be fine. I had low expectations overall but wanted to see the portrait. I was pleasantly surprised. The English are very good about preserving old homes along with period details. Thanks so much for your encouragement for “as u like it.” I’d love to be able to share it.

Bee said...

Gorgeous photograph of the house with its beautiful borders. I'm particularly intrigued by that "new" picture of Shakespeare; I've never seen it. It does look amazingly lively.

Sig read the Bill Bryson recently, and really enjoyed it. He has put it on my bedside table book stack.
Hopefully, next year we will be able to buy your "as u like it."

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, the new portrait was what initially drew me to Stratford. Sig has good taste. I’d be honored if my “as u like it” joined your illustrious bookshelf. Thank you!

Stacy Nyikos said...

Ooooooooh! I so loved visiting Stratford-on-Avon. Granted, I was a freshly minted high school grad on a penny budget on concert tour and could only afford scones and tea for any meal, but man, was it cool. I loved reading about your experience. It brought back very fond memories.

Sarah Laurence said...

Stacy, how lucky you were to visit Stratford right out of high school. If you can only have one meal there, I’d recommend the cream tea. I love how this posts has flushed so many Shakespeare fans among my readers.

Anil P said...

I quite enjoyed the trip.

I could never understand the need to scrawl names at places such as these. How insecure! And I find the same in India as well, where visitors have sketched their names on monuments, defacing not just the walls but a sense of history as well.

It's a big house for sure. Quite impressive.

Thank you for your literary trail.

Sarah Laurence said...

Anil, I agree about graffiti. I prefer the English custom of a guest book. That's only one wing of his house; it's twice that size although not deep.