By Wiliam J. Furney
It’s Christmas every day in Stratford-upon-Avon. At least in the centre of the olde-world English town dotted with arresting Tudor-style buildings and famous for the most famous writer ever.
And it was fitting, because I had arrived from an overnight stay at a country club just outside Derby, in more northerly England, where I attended a raucous (shot-bottles in crackers), covid-delayed Christmas party, in mid-May, hours earlier, having briefly slept at a hotel in Manchester after a late-night flight from Gran Canaria.
“It’s been there as long as I have,” Neil, a young and eager guide at an ancient building across the pedestrianised street, told me of the Christmas shop, on a drizzly mid-afternoon Monday. It was the birthplace of the father of words, a man born in 1564 and who lived for just 52 years — such was the extent of longevity then — but who in just several decades managed to transform the English language and bequeath his beauty of prose to a world that, centuries later, is still lapping it up and can’t quite get enough.
We are, at once, mesmerised by Shakespeare’s mastery of language and, at the same time, puzzled by his mystique — a larger-than-life character who stands far above all those he created and who continues to dominate the world of stage and film.
Shakespearean Echoes Through Time
I wandered the rooms of the house where Shakespeare was born and lived, and heard a fellow visitor, an Englishwoman, describe the sparse, stone-floor dwelling with rudimentary furniture as “shabby chic”. And I supposed that if this house were on the market in London, or even here, that’s exactly how it would be marketed, and would almost certainly make a packet.
You could almost hear the lives and words reverberate through time, walking around the parlour, dining area, bedrooms and open-hearth kitchen, in what has been restored and is the focal point for the town’s tourism: Shakespeare’s Birthplace. In the kitchen, alone, I closed my eyes and wondered about all that had gone on here, many hundreds of years ago. What was conversed? Were there many arguments? What were their problems and troubles? Did Shakespeare think about the future of the world and how it would become? Could he have, ever, foreseen how indelible his influence would be?
Immortal Shakespeare’s omnipotent aura hangs over Stratford-upon-Avon with such heavy presence you might wonder if you’d grow weary of it, should you live here. I stayed at the Shakespeare Hotel (part of the French Mercure chain); shop and product names referencing the Bard line the streets; and taxis and rowboats in the pretty River Avon are named after Shakeapeare’s characters. You are invited to get merry on “Shakesbeer”.
“It’s good for the town’s economy,” said Neil, who declined to give his surname. “I suppose some local residents might be tired of it, but I think most are happy” to live with the pervasive Shakespeare theme, he said.
What surprises visitors to Shakespeare’s Birthplace the most? I asked Julia Howells, a press officer with a trust that manages the building.
“[W]e regularly hear comments about the size/scale/decoration of the property when compared to other domestic settings of the time, also that the building includes Shakespeare’s father’s business, a glover’s workshop,” she said.
“Visitors also enjoy the gardens, which are presented in their mid-19th century layout, featuring many plants mentioned in the plays.”
Much (Woke) Ado About Nothing
So what is the enduring appeal of Shakespeare, the ongoing fascination with the globally celebrated playwright from long-distance history? How are his works — Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet among them — relevant in today’s hyperconnected, online world where attention spans are now likened to that of a goldfish?
Possibly the best person to ask, I thought, was Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford University and author of This Is Shakespeare: How to Read the World’s Greatest Playwright.
How does Shakespeare remain relevant in today’s society and why are people still enthralled by a writer who died over 400 years ago? I asked. The professor, from Leeds in northern England, said they seemed like “two enormous questions” and that she “might be more able to answer something specific”.
But in the meantime, Professor Smith had been trawling my Twitter and found a misandric Guardian article I had shared and was seemingly offended — by me (who hadn’t written the article, about “the end of men”). Because when I followed up, twice, for comment, she told me to “stop hassling!”, that she didn’t know me, “or what kind of article you want to write” (I had informed her) and that “I see you using the hashtag misandry on Twitter, which, to be honest, is a bit of a red flag”.
Shakespeare would, surely, not be amused.
Professor Smith says in a piece about her tome, however, that her “argument is that Shakespeare’s works hold our attention because they are fundamentally incomplete and unstable: they need us, in all our idiosyncratic diversity and with the perspective of our post-Shakespearean world, to make sense.” And that “I want us to explore instead the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays are spacious texts to think with — about agency, friendship, sex, politics, suffering, laughter and about art itself.”
I’ll give the last words to the Bard of Avon himself, everlasting lines that resonate throughout the ages:
As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII [All the world's a stage] Jaques to Duke Senior All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms. Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slippered pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side; His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
- Title image is a portrait painting of William Shakespeare, by William J. Furney (acrylic on canvas).