Four centuries on from Shakespeare’s death, his birthplace has a raft of new attractions to take you closer than ever to the world’s greatest playwright
Shakespeare’s legacy is fairly extensive in the pretty market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, as you might imagine. You can visit the bard’s birthplace, wander around the cottage of his wife Anne Hathaway, hear stories about life in Tudor days and watch actors perform live snippets of some of his best-known plays. Many people finish the day with a visit to Shakespeare’s final resting place, the Holy Trinity Church, where he was also baptised, and where his wife and children are buried next to him.
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall will open its doors to the public for the first time, giving visitors the chance to discover how and where the playwright spent his school years and first experienced theatre.
'It’s like the missing chapter in the story of his time in Stratford: his education and his inspiration,' says Shakespeare’s England chief executive, Helen Peters. 'It will offer a glimpse into an element of Shakespeare’s formative years rarely explored by the public, shedding light onto his life as a schoolboy and showing how his time at school, along with the opportunity to see the country’s finest actors performing in the Guildhall, inspired him to become the world’s greatest playwright.'
It’s thought that a young William, aged four or five, may have perched on his father’s knee to watch the Earl of Worcester’s Men perform in 1568 or 1569, whetting the boy’s interest in theatre at an impressionable age, and he would undoubtedly have seen other visiting troupes during his schooldays in the 1570s.
A wander around this beautiful and important building, originally constructed in 1418-20, gives a fascinating insight into a bygone era. Historians have painstakingly uncovered some original wall paintings recently, too.
Work began on the Grade-I listed building in July last year, thanks to a £1.4million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with the focus on vital repairs to the timber structure, upgrades to the interior and the conservation of important historical elements, including a group of rare medieval wall paintings.
The exhibition opened on 23 April, allowing visitors to step into the shoes of young Shakespeare, to sit in the room where he sat in as a pupil, to take part in a live Tudor lesson with a ‘master’, and to see a film showing boys of the school experiencing typical Tudor school lessons. Whether they will be given ‘the birch’ for bad behaviour remains to be seen…
Site of Shakespeare’s home re-imagined
Meanwhile, a major new development to commemorate Shakespeare’s life is due for completion imminently: the ‘reimagining’ of New Place, the site of Shakespeare’s family home for the last 19 years of his life.
The house, bought by Shakespeare for his family in 1597, was unfortunately demolished in 1759 by a disgruntled clergyman, allegedly fed up with the stream of visiting Shakespeare fans. So only one impression of what it may have looked like (a drawing that a visitor made from memory 40 years later) survives. However, a recent archaeological dig on the site uncovered many clues about the grand house where Shakespeare wrote 26 of his plays, and some newly discovered artefacts will be on display in a new exhibition.
Dr Paul Edmondson, head of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, explains how a very rich picture of Shakespeare emerged during the excavations.
'Finding Shakespeare's kitchen proved to be a vital piece of evidence in the understanding of New Place. Once we had uncovered the family's oven, we were able to understand how the rest of the house fitted around it,' he said.
'The discovery of the cooking areas, brew house, pantry and cold-storage pit, combined with the scale of the house, all point to New Place as a working home as well as a house of high social status. At New Place, we can catch glimpses of Shakespeare the playwright and country-town gentleman. His main task was to write, and a house as impressive as New Place would have played an important part in the rhythm of his working life.'
The site, due to open on 1 July, is currently being redeveloped into a beautiful garden with a circular plot in the centre marking the spot where the house would once have stood. Artworks, including a cast bronze Mulberry tree, a globe representing the world as it would have appeared to Shakespeare at that time, and a reproduction (also bronze) of Shakespeare’s original writing desk and chair, will put a strong focus on the area where the bard’s footsteps would once have fallen.
An exhibition in next-door Nash House will help flesh out a picture of Shakespeare the father, husband and businessman, as well as a playwright – and demonstrate his influence as a source of creativity, with specially commissioned artworks and representations of all his works in the gardens.
Stratford has been forging ahead with other Shakespearian projects in preparation for the anniversary, too. The Swan Theatre has been restored, with new foyer areas and a café. A new exhibition in the Swan Wing will reveal some of the secrets and stories from 100 years of theatre, with treasures from the RSC’s archive and museum collection, including rare props, original set designs and exquisite costumes, hands-on and immersive-interactive digital experiences.
In addition, a new theatre tour in The Other Place will take visitors on a journey ‘from page to stage’, from the first day of rehearsals to the first performance, with an opportunity to look inside the RSC’s newly reopened rehearsal space.
This huge industrial building in the heart of Stratford is home to the RSC’s new studio theatre, rehearsal rooms, store of more than 30,000 costumes and café/bar. Walking around one gets a fascinating insight into the ‘process’ of putting on a play, including the many layers of research that go into each production. Here, actors and production staff get to know each other, brainstorm themes and rehearse, before moving to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) or Swan Theatre to perform the finished production.
Top things to see in Stratford-Upon-Avon
RSC productions run throughout the year in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) and Swan Theatre. Current productions include a brand new, critically acclaimed version of
Hamlet, in which newcomer Paapa Essiedu plays Hamlet in an unusually relocated and vital version of the play. (until 13 August 2016)
Experience the missing link – Shakespeare’s schooldays in this brand new exhibition in the restored Guildhall.Open 10am-5pm daily (11am weekdays during school term time as lessons continue to be taught in the Guildhall each morning)
(opening 1 July )
A brand new attraction in the heart of Stratford, on the site of Shakespeare’s family home.
A well-preserved shrine for all Shakespeare fans who can walk through the bedroom where Stratford’s most famous son took his first breath.
RSC’s studio theatre, rehearsal rooms and costume store runs tours daily
Tickets £8.50/ £4.50. 7 days a week.
On a clear day you can see for 20 miles across four counties, 32 metres above street level. After a tower tour, eat in the Rooftop Restaurant for lunch or a drink, or take a tour of the theatre.
The RSC’s major new family-friendly exhibition (opens in October 2016) celebrates the magic of Shakespeare on stage and reveals the secrets and stories from 100 years of theatre-making in Stratford-upon-Avon. The exhibition will be full of treasures from the RSC’s archive and museum collection, including rarely-seen props, exquisite costumes and original set designs.
Tickets (£8.50/ £4.25)
A visual feast of Shakespeare’s most memorable and inspiring lines, selected by famous writers, actors and poets has been transformed into beautiful artworks in a free exhibition in the PACCAR Room in the RST.
Discover where Anne Hathaway grew up, and where Shakespeare courted his future bride. The picturesque family home contains many original items of family furniture including the Hathaway bed. The house is situated amongst stunning grounds and gardens, where visitors can enjoy Anne’s Woodland Walk; a walk which allows visitors to explore the woodland whilst finding various objects that are quoted in Shakespeare’s plays.