This Rough Magic: Touring the Bard's England
by SUSAN KOSTRZEWA
For Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews,
Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,
Make tigers tame, and huge leviathans
Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.
(The Two Gentlemen of Verona: 3. 2. 78-81)
Standing along the Thames in the shadow of the Globe Theatre, the sights and sounds of Elizabethan England come alive around me.
Cries of ferrymen fill the air, eager to take the next inebriated client home on the one-penny ride across the river. Along cobbled streets, wagons transport goods to the bustling docks. Here and there, the smell of rosemary clutched in the fist of a midwife in transit hangs still and sweet. One man, who weaves his way through the crowd with sparse beard and distinctive satin suit, is hailed from the window of the theater looming above. Joyfully, the voice bellows, “Master Shakespeare!”
Even for literary enthusiasts like myself, the life of William Shakespeare as a living, breathing mortal seems more abstract than real. But on my six-day tour of Shakespeare’s England, I grew closer to the “man behind the myth,” traveling through London, site of the original Globe Theatre and heart of all that was delightful and dissipated in the Elizabethan era; into nooks and crannies in Oxford where one might find a Tudor fireplace hidden in a pizza parlor; and into tranquil, wooded Warwickshire county, an idyllic landscape that repeatedly lured the famed author back into its shaded folds.
“A World Upside-Down”
Guided by professors in literature, drama and history from Oxford University, the tour explored the romance and reality of 16th-century England, a landscape of harsh realities, inconsistencies and reevaluations that was also the stage for a cultural and political renaissance.
While the tempest of change raged on, it was the magical, “golden touch” of the poet, playwright and philosopher that reigned supreme — amusing, educating and pacifying audiences bombarded with hardship at every turn. Though the dazzling courts, courageous expeditions and exuberant pageantry inspired the work of many artists, one man, born of humble farming stock, his start in life decidedly undecided, was to transcend all others: William Shakespeare.
While development has nearly wiped out all trace of Shakespeare’s bucolic England, the occasional glimpse of a quiet copse of ancient trees running down to a stream, or the eccentric gables of a timbered house rising high above the non- descript buildings around it, remain as testament to a golden era of English history.
Overnights in Oxon
Our tour began in Oxford, where Shakespeare would often break his journeys from London to Stratford in the 1590s — the heyday of his London theatrical career. Though the expanding university town has plunged ahead into the 21st century and is scene to many modern architectural projects, its Tudor and Elizabethan importance is displayed in a sprinkling of timber-framed structures still standing near the town center. Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s education never progressed beyond grammar school (unlike Oxford- and Cambridge-bred contemporaries Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe), his influence in the town was considerable.
The author’s reputation as man of talent and means earned him the best room in a local inn, in whose courtyard Shakespeare was reputed to have staged at least one play. Though much of the inn was long ago transformed into independently leased offices, its colorful past lurks behind wooden partitions and heavy curtains.
Climbing a flight of rickety stairs past betting parlors and bland offices, we were led into a medium-sized room whose many-paned, Tudor-style windows look out onto the noisy street below. We let out a gasp as our guide pulled back a partition to reveal an intricate, colorful mural of intertwining flowers and borders, its design interspersed with spidery Elizabethan calligraphy. With another wave of the hand, a curtain was drawn back to reveal the room’s original stone fireplace, complete with the 16th-century innkeeper’s initials engraved above the mantle.
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
The image of Shakespeare nodding off by this very fireplace after a long day’s journey on horseback, a book and pint in hand, is both evocative and awe-inspiring. Less inspiring but equally amazing is the knowledge that the playwright was rumored to have dallied in this very room with the innkeeper’s wife, a woman of reputed great beauty and wit.
The visit shed light on the real Shakespeare, a man with a taste for sensuality and occasional indulgence which was powerfully realized in characters like Juliet and Falstaff. For visitors eager to imbibe the spirits the Bard was known to enjoy, a visit to the poet’s favorite corner in the tavern evokes images of long nights of laughter and libations.
Our journey continued into the rolling and unmistakably English countryside of Warwickshire, beloved home county of Shakespeare and inspiration for many of his reflections on country life and natural beauty. For the modern traveler, much of Warwickshire’s charm lies in its timelessness, the manner in which centuries have barely disturbed the thatch atop the Guild Hall in one of its tiny hamlets. A panorama of hearty woodlands, blossoming orchards and pastoral meadows, the area’s predominant role in English history is made evident in the ancient monuments and buildings nestled in its forests or banking the River Avon.
Though worth a visit for its beauty alone, the county is probably best known for Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown and a periodic haven throughout his adult life. Stratford’s unrivalled collection of grand Tudor structures, among them five homes intimately associated with the poet himself, make it a mandatory stop for any Shakespeare devotee. From the first glimpse of its eclectic storefronts spanning over 400 years of architectural style, and the glistening waves of the Avon just a block from the bustle, it’s easy to understand Shakespeare’s love of the place.
From Boy to Bard
Our first stop was Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street, one of the most visited sites in England but no less charming because of it. After hundreds of years moonlighting as a tavern, an inn, and a museum, the house has finally been restored to the original domestic dwelling that Shakespeare would have known as a young man. Low-lying, timber-beamed ceilings give the interior an intimate, time-weathered feel, while the huge open hearth of the kitchen, and re-created dining area in the hall fill the mind with images of Will daydreaming at table or watching the cook as she turned the hen on the spit for supper.
The most interesting room in the house, father John Shakespeare’s glove-making workshop, further accentuates the idea of this house as a working man’s abode. Once opening onto the street for daily commerce, the workshop was used by Shakespeare’s father for preparing, cutting and sewing leather gloves — a respected craft of the time. Though John Shakespeare eventually ascended to prominence as the town bailiff (mayor), the many references to glove-making, leathers and skins in William Shakespeare’s plays make it evident that he identified himself as an artisan’s son.
Though other houses such as Halls’ Croft (home to Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, Susannah), mother Mary Arden’s House and granddaughter Elizabeth’s “Nash’s House” offer a time-warping glimpse into 16th and 17th century England, the most romantic and personal site is Hewlands Farm in Shottery, a mile from Stratford.
The commodious farm was the family home of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, and probable location of their courtship. The farm is surrounded by natural scenes evoked in Shakespeare’s plays. Nearby, Shottery Brook evokes images of Ophelia’s last mad moments floating downstream, and the woodland environs of the Forest of Arden bring to mind scenes from As You Like It. Flower-strewn banks seem ideal for a courtship between 18-year-old William and his 26-year-old conquest.
Into the Forest
A day immersed in Shakespeare’s intimate life was ideally concluded with a performance of As You Like It at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. After wandering through places beloved by the poet, his character was further illuminated by the enduring humor and insight of the play.
Another fascinating site associated with Shakespeare’s England was Broughton Castle, used as muse Viola’s (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) home in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love and occupied by the Fiennes family since the 15th century. Situated on a small island and encircled by a moat blanketed with water lilies, the stone Tudor-style mansion is both inviting and imposing.
To our delight, we were shown around the castle by its amiable owner, the Lord Saye and Sele, who pointed out notes of interest such as the room in which Queen Anne I slept, and made us feel as if this magnificent Elizabethan castle were our own home. Standing on the roof and gazing out over fields strewn with wildflowers and dotted by sheep, we felt quite sure we could get used to living in such baronial splendor.
An earlier visit to Blenhiem Castle (birthplace of Winston Churchill and set of the 1996 film version of Hamlet) had already given us a taste for the opulent, and we were later to experience the medieval magic of Warwick Castle, an 11th-century fortress associated with Richard III and doubtlessly known to the Warwickshire man Shakespeare.
Our tour culminated in London, where Shakespeare’s theatrical career blossomed. While Warwickshire nurtured Shakespeare’s leisurely life, London was where he worked and established himself. Quitting Stratford in 1587 to join the Queen’s players, Shakespeare arrived in the capital city at a time when the theater world was flourishing, and exuberant actors toured the country performing everything from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great to Baldwin’s Mirror for Magistrates. Once considered a profession for cutthroats, the actor was now afforded the chance to transcend rank and tradition and rub elbows with everyone from prince to ploughman.
Though now a crowded collection of urban buildings pushed to the brink of the Thames, Elizabethan Southwark was a small borough outside of London perimeters, used primarily as a playground for people wanting to escape Puritanical city laws. Hopping into a ferry and traversing the considerably wider and wilder 16th century Thames, partygoers would alight at Bankside and head for the brothels (known as “stewhouses”), taverns, bear-baiting arenas or playhouses situated there. The better-known of these theaters were The Rose, built by Philip Henslowe in 1587, and The Globe, built in 1599 by eight leading players in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of whom was William Shakespeare.
Of Royals and Reeky Ratsbanes
Attending a performance of The Tempest at the newly constructed Globe, we found 16th-century Southwark brought to life. As playgoers milled around the “pit” once frequented by prostitutes, drunken merry-makers and working-class Londoners paying a reduced rate, it was easy to imagine just how “live” the experience of acting in such a playhouse really was. Under Elizabethan theater etiquette, it would not be improbable that some obstreperous groundling might hurl a rotten cabbage at the head of a Hamlet deep in the throes of soliloquy.
From our seats in the upper galleries we also sensed that 16th century playgoing was as much a social event as it was a chance for enlightenment. The circular design of the theatre makes it possible to see practically everyone from the upper seats, while views of the stage are sometimes marred by posts. Boxes behind the actual stage looked out above the players at the audience and were reserved for nobles. Apparently, it was the crowd, and not the play, that was the thing for the privileged.
Gazing down at the intricately designed stage, imagining the generations whose dreams have soared through Shakespeare’s magic, the words of Prospero, whom many feel to represent an aging Shakespeare, seemed even more poignant:
Spirits, which by mine art
I have from their confines call’d to enact
My present fancies.
Spoken by a magician resigned to give up his art and a world where love and honor take precedence above all, the lines possibly allude to the playwright’s “retirement” to Stratford the following year. Now an aged 47, Shakespeare must have known his career was winding to a close. The weaver of dreams was to die six years later in Stratford.
For the Shakespeare enthusiast touring the poet’s beloved patch of England, it is easy to adopt the fervent tone he often took when reflecting on his homeland. Exploring the formidable stone castles, contemplative wooded lanes and cozy cottages associated with Shakespeare’s youth, it is no wonder that “this realm, this England” was to inspire and nurture a dramatic genius whose rough magic has transcended time and trend.
The Shakespeare Tour features dinners and discussions with renowned academicians and actors involved in the Shakespeare genre. For more information, contact:
Oxford Shakespeare Tours Ltd., Tel/Fax: 011-44-1865-310814; E-mail: Thebard@btinternet. com.
The British Connection, Inc.; Tel: 800-420-2569; Fax: 404-378-5265; E-mail: Britcon777@aol.com
For additional tour operators and programs, go to the Activity Index under “England — Literary Tours.”