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This blessed plot: exploring Shakespeare’s England

“He was not of an age, but for all time!” The eulogy for William Shakespeare by his fellow playwright Ben Jonson rings as true today as it did four centuries ago. Worldwide enthusiasm for the writer known simply as ‘The Bard’ is at an all-time peak. Each year, Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown in the English midlands, sees nearly five million visitors, all hoping to learn more about the elusive man behind the famous plays.

Celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year have left a permanent legacy in the opening of two newly restored historic properties. Together, “Shakespeare’s Schoolroom” and “New Place” represent the greatest development in the Stratford-upon-Avon visitor experience since the opening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1932. The town has been revitalized as a destination for literary travellers, with the new heritage sites providing a more direct and authentic connection with Shakespeare’s life than has ever been available before.

My guide to Shakespeare’s Schoolroom, a large half-timbered room on the upper level of Stratford’s 15th-century Guildhall, is its project director, Lincoln Clarke.

“This is Stratford’s great untold story,” he enthuses. “No place would have influenced Shakespeare more than this building. It’s very exciting to be able to share it with the public for the first time.” He explains the layout and furnishing of the room, the rhythm of the Elizabethan school day and the kinds of learning that took place there. I’m thrilled to imagine how the young Will Shakespeare learned the basics of his trade here, as a wordsmith and storyteller.

 

 Portrait of Shakespeare

 

Professor Sir Jonathan Bate of Oxford University, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare and his writings, is in no doubt about the importance of the Schoolroom for dispelling myths about the authorship of the plays. “Shakespeare was not a unique genius who came from nowhere,” he tells me. “He was the product of a specific system of Tudor grammar school education,” a system that produced many “high achievers” in literature and government.

Against those who continue to argue that Shakespeare was a country bumpkin who could not have written his own plays, Professor Bate points out that “the grammar school curriculum maps quite precisely onto the workings of his imagination.” In particular, Shakespeare’s schooling would have emphasised the process of expanding and embellishing stories from myth and history, which was exactly his method of composition. The schoolboys also put on plays, giving the young Shakespeare his first exposure to dramatic performance.

And there’s more. At Shakespeare’s Schoolroom, you can also see the space where troupes of travelling players would perform when they came to Stratford. They needed daylight to stage their plays, so performances took place during the school day. While the schoolboys recited their Latin texts on one side of a partition, the actors declaimed their lines on the other. This building is, in more ways than one, the place where Shakespeare gained the knowledge and inspiration to become the world’s greatest playwright.

As a heritage attraction, the Schoolroom is all about authenticity. The Guildhall, in which it is housed, is the only building in Stratford that Shakespeare would actually recognise if he came back today. Restoration has been carried out with meticulous standards of historical accuracy, using local craftsmen wherever possible.

A different approach has been taken at New Place, the second new Shakespeare site to open in Stratford this year. Part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust portfolio of historic properties in Stratford-upon-Avon, New Place was the house Shakespeare bought with his earnings from the London theatre. He retired there a wealthy man, making it his home for about six years before his death aged 52. Unfortunately, the owner of the house in the 1750s became so irritated by the number of tourists coming to look at Shakespeare’s last home that he had it demolished! Today’s custodians of the site thus face a unique heritage challenge – how to preserve, honour or commemorate what is no longer there.

The Trust’s solution has been to commission a “re-imagination” of the site, using the recreated 17th-century garden as the setting for a combination of archaeological finds and modern art installations. With an emphasis on “retelling rather than rebuilding”, historians and designers have aimed to engage visitors with a previously neglected part of Shakespeare’s story, his mature years as a successful writer and eminent Stratford citizen. By juxtaposing quotations from the plays and poems with objects relating to the author’s life, they’ve also created a space for reflection on the achievements of this local boy turned all-time literary megastar.

When I asked Professor Bate about the significance of New Place for understanding who Shakespeare really was, he straightaway identified it as part of a story of upward mobility also told by Stratford’s other Shakespeare heritage attractions. Much grander than the house in which Shakespeare grew up, New Place is clear evidence of the playwright’s economic success. In fact, the property’s location within Stratford, on the way from Shakespeare’s Birthplace to his Schoolroom, suggests a schoolboy’s dream of using his education to climb the social ladder. The young boy would have passed this, the second-finest house in Stratford, every day as he walked to school. Perhaps the idea of one day owning it helped spur him to his extraordinary achievements?

With the opening of these historic sites in 2016, the visitor journey at Stratford now offers a complete cradle-to-grave Shakespeare experience. You can begin your day at the Birthplace, move on to the Schoolroom, explore New Place, then see the writer’s grave at Holy Trinity Church. Top off your visit with an afternoon or evening performance at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where The Bard’s theatrical legacy is continuously reinterpreted for today’s audiences. After all, “the play’s the thing”, as Hamlet said. Yes it is, but with the new heritage properties at Stratford we can also understand better than ever before the man who made these masterpieces.

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