Shakespeare was born and died on the 23 April at Stratford-upon-Avon, in the heart of England. Great Britain now has two years to celebrate these anniversaries: 2014 marks the 450th anniversary of his birth in 1564, and the festivities will peak in 2016 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616 at the age of 52. But his characters took over the market town and its half-timbered Tudor style buildings quite some time ago. Statues immortalize Lady Macbeth and Hamlet at the foot of their creator; and after admiring them you can visit Othello’s Brasserie or the Falstaff Cottage.
On the banks of the Avon
Every summer actors play out his stories here on the street corners. But more than four hundred years ago acting troupes were already making stop-offs in this Warwickshire town. They doubtless played a part in fixing the destiny of the glove-maker’s son: you can imagine him in his front seat, wide-eyed and captivated. Now you can follow in the footsteps of renowned pilgrims such as John Keats and Charles Dickens and take a tour around the settings of Shakespeare’s childhood. The spacious house where he was born gives you an idea of the financial success of his father, who was once mayor of the town.
‘Visiting it brings you closer to Shakespeare. It makes you want to go to see his plays!,’ says thirteen-year-old Noé, visiting on a school trip from Forcalquier (in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department).
Although it’s closed to the public, from the outside you can see the school where the future poet became hooked on Latin literature and rhetoric. You can take a walk in the restored garden of New Place, the large house that he bought with the profits of his investments. In 1759 its owner, fed up with the constant procession of admirers knocking on his door, had the original house pulled down. Then you can strike out into the beautiful English countryside dotted with cottages and the farms that belonged to his mother and his wife, Anne Hathaway. Finish up at his tomb in the Holy Trinity Church, on the melancholy banks of the Avon, and imagine Ophelia losing her footing in a willow tree.
It was on these banks that the legendary Royal Shakespeare Company was set up in 1879. Its corridors are now decorated with photographs of its famous actors, including Dame Judi Dench and David Tennant. After the show the actors convene in The Dirty Duck for a pint in the pub’s lively atmosphere.
…On the banks of the Thames
Around 1585 Shakespeare set off alone across Clopton Bridge, which still spans the river, heading for London. He left his wife and their three babies in Stratford. Fifteen years later he was at the peak of his success at the head of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. You can re-experience something of this marvellous time at the Globe Theatre, a magnificent modern reconstruction of the original, opened in 1997 on the banks of the Thames. Close your eyes as a techno version of The Merchant of Venice is played in front of the open-air pit. Or imagine Shakespeare himself on stage in 1600 in the role of Hamlet’s father’s ghost.
You can go to pay your respects at the National Portrait Gallery in front of the Chandos Portrait, painted between 1600 and 1610, before Shakespeare returned to his family in 1615. The picture was the first acquisition of this prestigious museum, created in 1856; along with Shakespeare’s statue, placed in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey in 1740 it makes a fitting tribute to the author and his timeless work.