Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Literary Holy Ground: A Trip to Stratford

"We know what we are but not what we may be." (Hamlet, Act IV Scene V) In 1564, Mary Shakespeare gave birth to the most internationally renowned poet and playwright to ever walk the planet--William Shakespeare. When people think of important English historical figures, Shakespeare usually places near the top of the list.  So, Shakespeare enjoyed a life of blissful fame, right?  Not exactly. A look into his works reveals a deeply troubled man that used writing to question the core ideas of life, love and death. His works have been translated, adapted, referenced, and performed for centuries.  With humble beginnings, I doubt that he or anybody else expected his works to survive and achieve the recognition they have.

Stratford-upon-Avon boasts as the birthplace of William Shakespeare.  A small village nestled in the English countryside, it has become a tourist destination for literature lovers.  I fall into this category.  I came to appreciate Shakespeare in my high school English class when we read Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet.  Although I'm not an English major, I knew that I wanted to study more Shakespeare at the university level.  When I got accepted into Harlaxton, I immediately looked into taking a Shakespeare course.  What could be more English-esque than taking Shakespeare in England?  Luckily, not only was Shakespeare being offered, but it involved a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon on March 7.  This would be a full immersion experience!

On Saturday morning, I collected my packed lunch and boarded the coach.  A two-hour journey to Stratford, some people decided to read, some people decided to listen to music, and I decided to sleep.  I had a full day ahead of me, so I needed to be well rested!  Upon arrival, we each received a ticket that allowed us to enter a number of Shakespeare properties--including his birthplace and Holy Trinity Church (his burial site).  

I decided to visit his birthplace first. Before entering the actual house, I walked through a series of museum exhibitions.  There were copies of his original text and some artifacts from Shakespeare's time.  This made the whole experience more real.  I was really about to enter the home of this literary legend.  The home itself was much larger than I expected.  It had two stories, and each room was furnished as it would have been in the sixteenth century. Volunteers dressed in costume were located in different rooms around the house, explaining the role it played in Shakespeare's childhood and answering any questions.  My favorite room was the upstairs room where Shakespeare had actually been born.  There was a window on display inscribed with the names of visitors, including some famous writers.  As I left the house, a woman dressed in costume recited Shakespeare plays to visitors.  They could name any play, and she would recite a monologue from it.  Talk about memory!

The next stop was the Holy Trinity Church.  Located on the Avon River, it was a nice, scenic walk through a park--well, after fighting the crowds of tourists lining the street sidewalks.  I need to mention that the day for the Stratford trip could not have been more perfect.  The sunshine filled the cloudless sky.  People strolled through the park without jackets.  Families had picnics.  Couples walked their dogs.  Walking along the river filled with swans made getting lost acceptable.  I accidentally wandered to the opposite side of the river, thinking that there would be a connecting bridge farther down near the church.  But, once I discovered I was wrong and the only option to cross included swimming, I turned back.  

The Holy Trinity Church dates back to the 800s, becoming the stone structure in Norman times.  Inside lay the bodies of William Shakespeare, his wife Anne (Hathaway) Shakespeare, his daughter Susanna, his son-in-law Dr. John Hall, and Thomas Nash.  It is also the church where the Shakespeare family attended services.  William was baptized and probably married there as well.  As Dr. Walsh said, "I've never felt so close to Shakespeare as when I'm within two feet of his DNA."  I couldn't have said it better myself.

Later that evening, everybody on the trip attended a production of Love's Labours Lost performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company.  This is THE professional theater group of England, and they did not disappoint.  Even though our seats were in the nosebleed section, there wasn't a "bad" seat in the house.  I could see all actors performing (one of them even acted in the James Bond Skyfall movie!).  The plot was set in Edwardian England, so around the time of World War I.  I had never read the play, but I have never seen a play of that standard.  The props were magnificent, the actors were effective, and the emotions were delivered.  The audience laughed and cried.  I'm so glad I got to see that performance at the Royal Shakespeare Theater.

Our coach arrived back at Harlaxton just after midnight.  Even though it was a long day, I am able to cross yet another thing off of my bucket list.  I believe that Shakespeare knew he was a successful poet and playwright, but I don't believe he ever guessed the fame his works would bring him centuries later!  I would recommend Stratford to anyone visiting England, even if you aren't a Shakespeare fanatic.  There's something for everyone--even the UK’s biggest tropical butterfly farm!  There's truly something for everyone.
-Mackenzie Amundsen

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