Stratford upon Avon is a must visit for people who adore, love and respect William Shakespeare.
About three and a half months ago, I visited my most favourite place in England, Stratford upon Avon( most people, at least in India, think Stratford upon Avon and Stratford on Avon are one and the same. They are quite different.
Stratford on Avon is the name of a district of Warwickshire County. On the other hand, Stratford upon Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare is a market town, and civil parish which is the largest and most populous town in the non- metropolitan district Stratford-on-Avon.
Stratford upon Avon intentionally uses the word” upon” instead of” on” to prevent people ( many of whom consider themselves educated!) from confusing one with the other).
Of course, I have been to Stratford upon Avon, many times before, but every visit has been for a brief period of just six or seven hours except once in the Christmas of 1963, when I stayed there for a day( it had been a fruitful visit because then I had been lucky to see a Play of Shakespeare, being performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is quite simply the greatest theater in the entire world.
Sir Lawrence Olivier had been acting in” The Recruiting Officer”, a play written by the Irish Playwright, George Farquhar, at the Old Vic, in London, another of the four most famous theaters in the world( the other two being the Globe in London and the Swan in Stratford upon Avon) when he was invited to play the role of Antony in an unscheduled performance of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” with the beauteous Vivien Leigh. They had just been divorced but the sexual chemistry between them was still very much there- as indeed the their roles as a” mutual pair” demanded!.
Watching Olivier at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford upon Avon is unquestionably the ultimate experience in the theatrical canon in the entire world- an experience one cannot have at any other theater on earth. To use the Cricket idiom it is like watching Don Bradman score 309 not out in a day at Headingley, Leeds, or 270 runs at Lord’s, even while suffering from influenza to guide his team to victory against England, an innings rated as the best Test innings of all time by the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack in 2001.
Olivier uttering the powerful lines
“Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do’ t, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless.”,
with the right diction and eloquence, is the pinnacle of theatrical achievement, beyond which human acting talent cannot go!
There are indeed hundreds of plays being performed in theaters in many cities, all over the world. They are all no doubt very entertaining and interesting, but, when you refer to Shakespeare, there are only the above four names that count, for excellence of a different order of magnitude, which no other theater in any other city, even New York or Paris, can match.
The visit to Shakespeare’s house, proved eventful.The exhileration I felt when I stood near Shakespeare’s cradle in his house in Henley street cannot be expressed in words. Just the realization that in that very room, the man who in genius excelled the human race, had drawn his first breath, was too powerful an emotion for a devotee like me to remain unmoved.
In Shakespeare’s house there are three” professional” actors who request tourists to choose their favorite passage from any of his plays, for them to recite. I requested for” To be or not to be” from Hamlet” The quality of mercy is not strained” from” The Merchant of Venice” and” It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul” from Othello. I also got into the mood, and joined them, as they recited the lines.They were so immensely pleased, that they asked me to recite my most favorite passage. I recited “Dear nature hear, dear Goddess hear” from King Lear. They could not conceal their appreciation and joy–apparently this was the first time that a tourist had joined them in their performance. To me personally the thrill of reciting Shakespeare’s greatest passage in the garden of his own house, was the greatest experience in my entire life.
It is practically impossible to comprehend that more than three centuries ago, the most intellectual of the human race was born, in this remote country town. There was nothing supernatural about his birth. There were no celestial fireworks or other unusual happenings. His father and mother who were common English folk, humble in origin. Neither of them was educated.The cradle in which Shakespeare was rocked as an infant in their humble abode( which I incidentally happened to see!), was surrounded by neither myth nor fable. There was not a drop of royal blood In his veins- nothing to indicate that someday he would write Saint Crispen day’s speech in Henry V, the speech of John of Gaunt in Richard II and Cardinal Wolsey’s speech in Henry VIII!
He also grew up in only in this small and simple village on the banks of the
Avon, in the midst of the ordinary people, about whom one would say
“Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept their noiseless tenor of their way”
There was nothing in the peaceful, unimpressive landscape upon which he must have gazed, nothing in the small hills, the fields, the whispering streams, or the little river Avon, to inspire the most powerful rhyme, that would outlive the Greek marbles and the sublimest music of Beethoven and Bach.
Science will never be able to explain the birth of the the greatest genius ever born in this obscure village. The laws of heredity and all the theories in respect of the role of eduction, in nurturing human genius, fail miserably in explaining the miracle of Shakespeare.
Swans have been gliding on the River Avon for ages.Till the early 70s, the river had a large population of swans.Then, just as in other rivers in rest of England, the numbers declined for some inexplicable reason. However, thanks to the efforts of an organization called the Swan Management Committee a swan reserve was opened in 1981. By the mid 1980s swans were again breeding. The committee, uses the funds it raises, by grants and donations to take meet the expenditure that has to be incurred for keeping track of the movements of the birds, organizing a feeding programme, carrying out rescue operations when needed, and medical treatment .Mainly because of such efforts, there are now around 60 adult swans to be seen on the river every day; on an average three or four pairs breed every year.
Poets have conventionally used swans to symbolise beauty, strength and fidelity. There are myths associated with them, such as for example swans though mute, sing only once and that too before they die– the proverbial swan song. Though this does not have a scientific basis, poets with poetic licence have made use of this charming myth. Even Shakespeare himself for example, makes Emilia say in Othello “I will play the swan,/ and die in music”. As Swans are associated with beauty, Shakespeare makes Benvolio to persuade Romeo to forget Rosaline, by volunteering to find him another girl more beautiful. He says “I will make thee think thy swan a crow”. Of course Romeo does find his Swan(Juliet) albeit without Benvollio’s help! Similarly in Merchant of Venice, he makes Portia refer to a” swanlike end, fading in music”. However it is significant that Shakespeare has not used the expression” swan song” anywhere.
Ben Jonson’s famous eulogy to Shakespeare published seven years after his death contains the four famous and oft quoted lines which link Shakespeare to the River Avon and to the beautiful swans that skim on it.
“Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James!”
The Sweet Swan of Avon is Shakespeare,
” Soul of the age!
The applause ! delight ! the wonder of”
the world’s stage!
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