“The plays the thing.” Well, and the history too, and so much more!
Some years ago I had the privilege of visiting the city of Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon, which is now the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. (https://www.rsc.org.uk/about-us/history) This year I have the privilege of going to Ashland, Oregon which is the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It also just happens to be 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. So, for fans and those simply a little curious I thought I’d share some highlights from my day in Stratford, discuss some fun facts and do a little pre-trip cyber exploration of Ashland.
During our visit to Stratford, my traveling companion and I managed to explore the most popular sites. We visited his mother’s childhood home – Mary Arden’s farm, Shakespeare’s family home & gardens, his grammar school and later his wife’s home – Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. In the evening we took in, what is for many, his most famous play.
Located in the heart of England, in Warwickshire, northeast of London and not far from Oxford, Birmingham and Coventry, Stratford is a smallish city of about 27,000 people.
“Stratford upon Avon was founded by the Saxons when they invaded what is now Warwickshire in the 7th century AD. The name Stratford is made up of Celtic and Saxon words. It was the ‘straet’ ford that is the ford by the Roman road. Avon is a Celtic word meaning river or water.” http://www.localhistories.org/stratford.html
As with all of my favorite cities I found myself entranced and transported back in time. Unlike any of the other cities, however, it was not just the amazement of seeing ancient places-these ancient houses where someone so very famous lived. It was the discovery of the birthplace of so much of the English language. As is well known, Shakespeare coined hundreds of words. But in this place I also discovered the source of some common phrases we often use without question which were already in use before ‘the Bard’ was born.
Mary Arden’s Farm House and a few Idioms
This farm and farmhouse are well worth a visit. Walking on the 500 year old, tilted, wooden flooring of Mary Arden’s Farmhouse we encountered a few of these fun phrases. We were guided by diverting docents that day. One explained, while we were observing the large trestle dinner table, that we get the term boardroom from this – a room with the big board in it – of course! But also that people would sleep up on that board after the meal had been cleared away – to be up off the drafty floor and away from any rats. From this we have the phrase-bed and board. She went on to tell us about the way they ate their soup or stew in those days, which was to use a loaf of bread for a bowl, and when the top crust of the loaf was cut off it would be given to the head of the house, the ‘upper crust’.
In a bedroom we were shown that there were ropes at the end of the beds that would be tightened at night, to give the straw, wool or moss filled mattresses more firmness, as the ropes tended to stretch. From this came the common phrase, ‘sleep tight’. And of course bed bugs must have been common. (You know – Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!)
We were also shown a carved armoire with one woman’s profile facing another. The woman on the right had her hair up and wore a dress with a high collar and the one on the left had her hair down with a dress revealing a fair amount of cleavage. We were told that the on the left was a ‘loose, single woman’ and the other was married. It was suggested that for a woman to get her man it was expected for her to ‘let her hair down’- and dress to please.
Book Recommendation One more word about words (and idioms) in English is my book recommendation for anyone interested in etymology. An easy and entertaining read about the development of English is Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue.
According to Bryson, Shakespeare invented about 1,700 words. http://images.pcmac.org/SiSFiles/Schools/GA/BenHillCounty/FitzgeraldHigh/Uploads/DocumentsCategories/Documents/Bill%20Bryson.Ch.5WhereWordsComeFrom.Excerpts.pdf (It makes me wonder if the actors reading them even then had a clue what many of these words meant!)
Shakespeare’s Home, School and Wife’s Home
It was a great pleasure to explore Shakespeare’s birthplace including the garden. It was amazing to be where that great playwright grew up and lived for the first 5 years of his married life. One of the things that struck me was hearing from a docent that tourists began flocking to visit his birthplace shortly after his death! Tourism is not such a new phenomenon.
Shakespeare’s Grammar School must have had a significant influence on his love and innovation of English. There is not a lot of information available on his experience it seems evident that he had a rich and successful education. As a teacher I was delighted to see the building and to learn a little about schooling in that time.
There is so much to take in at Stratford there that it is difficult see it all in one day! We managed to go by Anne Hathaway’s cottage, but not to go in. I’d like to return someday. Here is a short and informative video if you’d like to know a little more about Shakespeare’s wife and his marriage as well as to see something of the cottage.
At The Swan
In the evening we visited the famous, (new) Swan theater where we were treated to Romeo and Juliet. The original Swan was in London. https://www.playshakespeare.com/study/elizabethan-theatres/2191-the-swan-theatre
I was thrilled with the theater and the opportunity to see my first real Shakespearean play.
When it began I loved the simplified set and the movement of the actors, but I was dismayed that I could hardly understand what they were saying! I had not read the play in high school as many have done. As a child I had only seen the famous movie directed by Franco Zeffirelli. That made quite an impression on me at a very impressionable age.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FHpmn-KYec It was a good thing that I had learned the well known plot because the language of Shakespeare is quite challenging.
As with all of my favorite cities, I would be delighted to return again and to see it with fresh and wiser eyes. The Swan has also been thoroughly updated (https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-plays-the-thing) and the other famous sites are now more interactive than ever. I think a week just might begin to do Stratford justice.
This weekend I have the delightful prospect of traveling north to Ashland, my first time there, with a group from the Journey Center. http://www.journeycenter.org (I’ve been sponsored by a friend because of a ‘fun-draiser’ for the same.) We plan to see two Shakespeare plays along with so much more that is to be explored there. I will make a further edition about this trip along with my reviews of Hamlet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQ5378kHWgg) and Twelfth Night (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiBnIHcz03c) after returning. https://www.osfashland.org/experience-osf/current-season.aspx
Until soon then, fare thee well!