You’ve read the play, seen the live performance and watched the screen version. Now tread the boards for yourself – on the biggest Shakespearean stage of them all – Great Britain! This guide coincides with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2006- 7 season in which, with the aid of theatrical troupes from abroad, Shakespeare’s Complete Works – all of the plays from the First Folio as well as his sonnets – are to be performed in his home town, Stratford-upon-Avon. Thanks to the works of its most famous son, Stratford has long been one of Europe’s biggest destinations for overseas visitors. However, as this special publication demonstrates, there is far more to Shakespeare than simply a splendid market town on the banks of the Warwickshire Avon.
Shakespeare wrote about real people in real places,
from all walks of life - and the setting for so many of his
plays was his homeland.
With the aid of a decent road atlas, this special
publication will enable you to enjoy a voyage of
discovery through England, Scotland and Wales,
visiting the locations that Shakespeare wrote about, the
settings for some of his most famous scenes, and seeing
places that, even though four centuries have passed
since his day, he would certainly recognise.
We begin not in Stratford, but in my home town of
Solihull, where it is likely that some of Shakespeare's
ancestors lived in a hamlet clearing of the great Forest
of Arden, and which was to provide both the
inspiration and setting for two of his greatest plays, A
Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It.
Stratford apart, south Warwickshire is in effect a giant Shakespeare theme park, with its multitude of half-timbered villages, with many houses built from the oaks of Arden, and historic country pubs, which the playwright almost certainly visited.
This is notwithstanding the houses associated with Shakespeare – his wife Anne Hathaway’s cottage at Shottery, his mother Mary Arden’s home at Wilmcote and the house where the playwright himself is held to have been born, in Henley Street, Stratford. While redevelopment upon redevelopment has taken place in London and its Bankside since Shakespeare’s day, there is still much to be found that is associated with his life there, not least of all the magnificent recreation of his Globe Theatre, which allows plays to be staged, during the summer months, in the open-air setting for which they were written. However, it is the rich tableau of the British landscape and its history that provides the settings for the pageantry which makes up much of Shakespeare’s CompleteWorks. The main body of Shakespeare’s history plays cover the period from Edward III (it is now accepted by many that he wrote that play, which was not included in the First Folio of 1623) through the usurpation of Richard II’s throne by Henry Bolingbroke and his errant son’s landmark victory at Agincourt to the end of the Plantagenet reign on the battlefield at Bosworth Field. In between we have the Wars of the Roses, with sites both famous and obscure to explore.
Then there is the Scottish king Macbeth, who Shakespeare chose with dramatic licence to give a bad press. You can visit the fairytale castles owned by the Thanes of Glamis and Cawdor, or view the last oak remaining at Birnam Wood after it was cut down to provide camouflage for the army that marched to victory at Dunsinane Hill, itself an excellent hill walk where the ruins of a fort can still be seen. In real life, Macbeth was regarded by his people as a good king, but the same cannot be said for King John, who Shakespeare has dying by poison in an abbey in deepest Lincolnshire days after he lost his treasure in the bleak swamps bordering The Wash. Despots did not end there, for centuries later we, and Shakespeare, had Henry VIII, and while many of his palaces and fine houses have disappeared, as we will see, there are many which have survived and can be inspected today. King Lear may have ruled Britain from his seat at Leicester, but one of the best-known scenes from the great tragedy is set at Shakespeare’s Cliff near Dover.
While you are in Kent, pop into the Sir John Falstaff pub at Gadshill, where the lovable rogue staged his highway robbery – for a pint if not a few cups of sack! On the far side of the country lies Pembrokeshire, where Henry VII landed a fortnight before the Middle Ages were brought to a close at Bosworth, and where King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen may have found refuge in a limestone cavern near Tenby. With this aid of this guide, all of these places can be brought to life, and you can walk once more in the footsteps of both Shakespeare and his immortal characters. Having first been turned on to Shakespeare by my lecturers at what is now the University of Central England three decades ago, compiling this special publication was akin to a personal voyage of rediscovery, meeting up again with old friends and reliving the Bard’s works anew, but on the ground and not in the pages of a textbook. While world attention is rightly focused on Stratford for the Complete Works season, the Royal Shakespeare Company and its supporting acts will by no means have a monopoly on the playwright during this time.
The woodland setting at Tolethorpe Hall in Lincolnshire is the magnificently atmospheric home to the all-amateur and widely acclaimed Stamford Shakespeare Company, which has chosen A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Coriolanus for its 2006 season. Meanwhile, the not-for-profit British Shakespeare Company, which specialises in touring open-air productions, has embarked on its most ambitious and exciting season to date.
Its plays for the 2006 season, also AMidsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, will be performed in London from 8-17 June, then for five nights in Norway, before being staged at the first Edinburgh Shakespeare Festival at Princes Street Gardens from 27 June until 12 July. The 12th Leeds Shakespeare Festival at Kirkstall Abbey running from 25 July to 20 August will be followed by London’s Holland Park Festival in Kensington which will run from 22 August to 3 September. The company’s artistic director Robert JWilliamson has also launched a campaign for 23 April, the playwright’s birthday, and also by tradition the day he died, to be officially recognised as National Shakespeare Day. The move deserves support, for clearly it is an honour that is now long overdue. ●
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