The spotlight shines on Stratford-upon-Avon this weekend, as everyone from Rufus Wainwright to Dame Judi Dench arrives to celebrate Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death. The town and its sights have had a wash and a brush up for the occasion – there couldn’t be a better time to visit.
The playwright was born and raised in the Warwickshire market town, left his wife and children there to find fame and fortune in London and returned to retire – and die soon afterwards. A well-signposted walk around the town takes you from the bedroom where he was born (thought to be 23 April 1564), through his schooling and early married years.
We still know little about the man behind the plays. So the fun of this detective trail is separating fact from myth, and speculating how events in his life (such as the death of his only son, Hamnet, age 11) influenced the plays.
The trail begins at Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was baptised, and buried at 52. Here you’ll find his tomb with the famous curse: “Blessed be the man that spares these stones,/And cursed be he who moves my bones.” But a recent investigation reveals that someone was brave enough to disturb the grave, giving credence to the legend that grave-robbers stole his skull, possibly in the 1700s.
From the church, stroll through the Old Town, a collection of meandering lanes near the Royal Shakespeare Company HQ, until you arrive at Henley Street and the Tudor part-timbered house where Shakespeare was born (upstairs is the nursery with the “truckle” under the bed where the infant William would have slept). You’re following in the footsteps of not only Shakespeare, but visitors such as Charles Dickens, John Keats and Thomas Hardy, many of whom etched their signatures on the window panes.
On Church Street is Will’s Schoolroom and Guildhall. He and his brothers had to leave when their glove-maker father, John, fell into debt. We don’t know how he earned a living as a young man, but at 18, he married Anne Hathaway (she was 26 and pregnant with their daughter Susanna).
Shakespeare birthplace is a restored 16th century half-timbered house situated in Henley Street
For five years the couple lived with his parents at their Henley Street house. Clearly he pined for adventure, and a year after Anne gave birth to twins Hamnet and Judith, Shakespeare left Stratford to live in London. He returned home infrequently but in 1597 he bought a large house, New Place, on Chapel Street. Now only the foundations survive. He is thought to have died here on 23 April 1616 after drinking with writers Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton.
The jewel in the crown of the anniversary celebrations will be the £5 million reopening of New Place in July. You’ll be able to walk in Wiliam’s footsteps on the family estate, where a series of gardens will tell the story of the former house. Next door at Nash’s House (owned by the husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Elizabeth) an exhibition will explore the Bard as businessman, husband and father.
You can also hunt for clues by visiting other houses relating to his life, now owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which offers a pass to all five of the family homes plus Trinity Church for £17 (child) and £26.25 (adult).
For the anniversary, a game of Monopoly based on Shakespeare’s life in Stratford is being created. I’d recommend you go now and play the game for real.
Liz Hoggard stayed at The Church Street Townhouse. Shakespeare Live! From the RSC is on Saturday 23rd April (8.30pm, BBC2). For more information, go to shakespeare.org.uk and shakespeares-england.co.uk
To mark 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, there’s a procession from his birthplace to Holy Trinity Church (23 April) and free family activities around the RSC theatres, acrobatics and fireworks in the evening. Go to: shakespearescelebrations.com.
Or take in The Complete Walk (23—24 April), along the Thames from Westminster to Tower Bridge, where big screens dot the route showing 37 specially made short films featuring stars such as James Norton, Gemma Arterton and Peter Capaldi. Go to: shakespearesglobecom/400
SEE A PLAY
Do it in style with a big RSC production — their African-set Hamlet, with Paapa Essiedu, is a hit at Stratford (until 13 August, go to: rsc.org.uk).
On tour is another RSC production, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with amateurs in every town recruited to play the rude mechanicals alongside the pros (until 16 July) — and look out for BBC1’s The Best Bottoms in the Land, which follows the project.
Learn about Shakespeare’s daughter in The Herbal Bed (touring until 7 May; ett.org.uk). Or visit the restored Elizabethen Rose Playhouse on London’s Bankside for a 1940s-style Much Ado About Nothing. To 29 April; rosetheatre.org.uk
TAKE IN A TALK
Celebrating Shakespeare at the National Theatre, London, offers talks by seasoned Shakespeareans including Simon Russell Beale and Lenny Henry. Go to: nationaltheatre.org.uk/ whats-on/platforms
GO TO THE GALLERY
Shakespeare in Art: Tempests, Tyrants and Tragedy is at Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire until 19 June. Go to: comptonverney.org.uk
Radio Times box office
Star-crossed lovers and serious star power… enjoy Shakespeare in London with these offers
ROMEO AND JULIET
The Garrick Theatre, London: tickets from £40.50 incl booking fee. Performances running May—August 2016
Richard Madden, Lily James, Derek Jacobi and Meera Syal star in Shakespeare’s heartbreaking tale of forbidden love, as part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season at the Garrick Theatre.
The Globe Theatre, London: tickets from £64.90 incl booking fee. Performances running June—October 2016
Shakespeare’s most unsettling engagement with the supernatural and the nature of evil. Enter the unique intensity of the Globe as this cycle of wondrous horrors captures our imagination once again…
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
The Globe Theatre, London: tickets from £65 incl booking fee. Performances running April—September 2016
Emma Rice’s first production as artistic director fuses music, dance and some serious comedy into the Globe’s magical setting. Naughty, tender, transgressive and surprising, it promises to be a festival of theatre.
For information and our full calendar of Shakespeare plays, call 0800 096 5878 or visit radiotimes.com/boxoffice