Shakespeare's World

Whether during “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or terrible “Tempest,” any visit to his home and theater is “Much Ado About Something”
history, culture
Written By Lesley Conn

Six young men slouch along a low stone wall at a corner pub, the Oddfellows Arms, in the English town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

They chat and drink their pints with the easy confidence of youth in their prime, sure of their place in life and their ability to handle whatever comes their way. In the center of the group, a hulking blond rugby player is still in his jersey. As he murmurs, the men draw near, then erupt in laughter, throwing back their heads, clinking their mugs and sloshing ale.

Only a few blocks south, on weathered doors and plate-glass windows, posted notices announce that police seek information about a crime in the wee hours of night. One man was stabbed and four suspects are sought.

These are only snapshots of village life. Yet in this place, the home of William Shakespeare, such scenes fuel thoughts of the world’s most celebrated playwright. How easy, along these winding streets lined with Tudor cottages, to envision those boisterous lads as entitled noblemen with the future Henry V as their leader. And wouldn’t the fatal showdown conjure Tybalt and Mercutio and feed the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet?

Shakespeare Endures

Four hundred and one years after his death, Shakespeare is more popular than ever. More than 50 percent of the world population studies him in school. No other creative figure from history is studied by any more than 2 percent, according to the British Council, England’s cultural relations and education organization.

As a global brand, Shakespeare is stronger internationally than at home, a 2016 council report found. Its survey of 18,000 respondents in 15 countries shows that Shakespeare is widely known, liked, understood and regarded as relevant.

India, Mexico and Brazil—the three countries that ranked him highest—had up to 89 percent of respondents agree they liked Shakespeare. Nearly as many, up to 83 percent in those countries, say they understood Shakespeare. Britons, alas, only rated the Bard’s likability at 59 percent.

One factor, however, is that when Shakespeare is translated into another language, it’s a more contemporary rendition while in the United Kingdom, it’s often taught in the original 16th century English.

The Wordsmith

Yet even in that dated text, Shakespeare’s love of language, his knack for complex characters, and riveting plots that delve into social issues continue to win fans.

Consider the plight of Hamlet: His father dies, his mother scandalously remarries Hamlet’s uncle and Hamlet is beset by his father’s ghost, who demands to be avenged. That’s only the start of the anguish and betrayals. As the play unfolds, the audience hears quotations, or variations of them, still used today: “Though this be madness, there is method in it,” “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and of course, “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

Just as they did when Shakespeare was alive, fans by the thousands flock to the Globe along the south bank of the River Thames.

Shakespeare undeniably had an ear for a good quote and penned a lively line. The Oxford English Dictionary has credited him with creating 1,500 words and for using 7,500 words or phrases in a new way. More recent analysis has found that many lines once attributed to Shakespeare had prior use—as the major playwright of his day, he just had a broader base from which to share those words. And because he was famous, his plays were carefully preserved, allowing the works to transcend centuries.

Even so, many famous phrases remain credited to him. In his book “The Story of English,” Bernard Levin penned a bit of a poem himself when he listed Shakespeare lines, including “neither here nor there,” “good riddance,” “vanished into thin air,” “green-eyed jealousy,” “tongue-tied,” “the game is up” and “give the devil his due.”

Shakespeare's Loyal Fans

Image By Terry Duthu

Shakespeare was born in this bedroom more than 400 years ago.

Just as they did when Shakespeare was alive, fans by the thousands flock to the Globe along the south bank of the River Thames. The Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford welcome more than 1.5 million visitors a year, according to the British Council.

Though the new Globe is a re-creation, that’s easily forgotten once inside the open-air theater. Plain wooden benches rise three levels, forming nearly a full circle around the stage. In Shakespeare’s time, performances had to stop every 20 minutes so the wicks could be trimmed on the candles. To simulate the sound of thunder backstage crew would toss cannonballs against wooden walls.

The closeness of stage to audience invites interaction. Once, a woman was so overwhelmed during one tragedy, she reached up to hug an actress, a guide tells tourists. Shakespeare and company had to contend with more. Commoners, who often stood nearest to the stage, shouted and laughed along. From their more comfortable roosts, lords could, and often would, call down to correct an actor’s pronunciation.

For Kathrin Kana, an American actress with a degree in theater, a trip to London had to include a visit to the Globe. She has performed in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and played Gertrude, queen of Denmark, in “Hamlet.”

A stage like the Globe’s invites intimacy, Kana says.

“It’s like an organic energy,” she says. “You can feel the audience go with you—to laugh with you or cry with you. It heightens the stakes but you also feed off that energy.”

A Writer's Retreat

Image By John Haynes

Henry V

Though London made Shakespeare rich and famous, Stratford was home, a pastoral retreat where he married, raised a family, invested in land and, at life’s end, was buried at Holy Trinity Church.

Five family homes, all part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, attract more than 820,000 visitors a year—and they have P.T. Barnum to thank. In 1847, the showman wanted to buy Shakespeare’s home and make it part of his touring circus in the United States. That sparked a national campaign to save the house.

Tourists can walk through the garden and house on Henley Street at their leisure, experiencing a comfortable home that was middle-class to upper class by 16th century standards. A stroll west along Church Street takes visitors past the homes of Shakespeare family friends and his grammar school. The green quietness of the town puts visitors in proper tone for Holy Trinity Church, the earliest parts of which date to 1210.

Shakespeare’s grave and monument are at the back of the chancel. His reputation as playwright earned him honor, but his position as one of Stratford’s wealthiest men and a church supporter gained him favor as a gentleman, too.

As most guests do, Ayo Oyebade lingered at the back of the church one afternoon, taking in the stately surroundings and contemplating the man and his legacy. Oyebade, a resident of neighboring Hemel Hempstead, is an accountant turned film producer and actor. He spent his formative years in Lagos, Nigeria, where Shakespeare was introduced at school. Now back in England, a visit to the Bard’s hometown was enticing.

“I’ve always had a fascination with Stratford because of Shakespeare,” he says. “Growing up, I read and memorized a lot of his work.”

Taking one last look around, Oyebade nodded, then said. “It’s good to be in Shakespeare country.”

Shakespeare's Major Works

Image By Manuel Harlan

The Taming of the Shrew

Ongoing reviews of Shakespeare’s works have cast doubt on whether the Bard had co-writers on many of his works. Despite the disputes, he is credited with writing at least 38 plays and more than 150 poems and sonnets in 23 years. These are some of the still-often-performed plays and the year he wrote them:

The Taming of the Shrew 1590

Romeo and Juliet 1595

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1595

The Merchant of Venice 1596

Much Ado About Nothing 1598

Henry V 1598

As You Like It 1599

Hamlet 1600

Othello 1603

All’s Well That Ends Well 1604

Macbeth 1606

The Tempest 1611

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