Everyone wants a piece of the Shakespeare tourism pie, and it's easy to get a slice with so many uncertainties about his life. Andrea started a running joke about the yellow journalism style of tourism at these sites. Her skepticism grew from a documentary where the camera zoomed in on a corner, and the narrator said "It was here, that Shakespeare wrote sonnet 114." It sounds ridiculous, but people buy it--literally. Our fears were confirmed at Anne Hathaway's Cottage. Our enthusiastic tour guide--I think the woman is a retried or failed actress--admitted that when the family was struggling financially, they re-branded the cottage "Anne Hathaway's Cottage" and charged a fee to see the home that Shakespeare's wife grew up in. They claimed that "It was on this courting bench that young Will Shakespeare wooed middle-aged Anne." The tour guide let us in on a secret: the courting bench was made a century after Shakespeare. So we became tour guides by creating vignettes about the bards life: "It was here that..."
Confession: The tour guide told us the floor in the kitchen was the original 15th century floor, so it was possible Shakespeare stood on it. So what did I do? I took my foot out of my shoe, slyly, and let my skin touch the stone...just in case. I would sooner contract foot fungi than particles of Shakespeare's dead skill cells, but there is something powerful about the gesture.
My favorite Shakespeare sites are Anne Hathaway's Cottage--despite the bench lie--and Mary Arden's farm. Both of these sites have gorgeous gardens and beautiful 16th century displays. After we toured Anne Hathaway's garden, I sat down in tall grass and listened to sonnet recordings from a nearby willow cabin. Yeah, I'm not going to be able to write a sentence like that again. Mary Arden's farm really has little to do with Shakespeare, but you learn a lot about the period. For example, all the beds during this time period are short because they believed that death could come get you if you were flat on your back. Most people slept inclined. Here I was thinking everyone was just hobbit sized in the 16th century--silly me. And you get to see people dressed up in funny costumes and farm animals; you never get over the excitement of a petting zoo. They even have a falconer. Apparently certain birds were reserved for different classes in the 16th century. It makes you realize just how important class distinction is over here.
So why do we come to Stratford-upon-Avon? It's an adorable town, and it holds a lot of meaning for Shakespeare lovers. For me, the biggest draw is the Royal Shakespeare Company. Mausoleums and places where Shakespeare pens his famous sonnets are fantastic, but it's the RSC that makes me giddy. I will talk about these RSC productions in another post...sigh...oh Richard III!