Wherefore Art Thou, Bard? Stratford.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage, in England's Shakespeare Country.
Anne Hathaway's Cottage, in England's Shakespeare Country. (Www.britainonview.com)
By William Triplett
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 18, 2005

All the world may not be a literal stage, but all of Stratford upon Avon soon will be.

Despite years of visiting London to see plays -- particularly Shakespeare's -- I'd never been to Stratford, birthplace of the Bard, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and heart of Shakespeare Country. Then I learned of the RSC's recently announced plans to mount the entire Shakespeare canon -- 37 plays, plus all the sonnets and long poems -- starting next spring.

Indeed, among the troupes invited to participate in the festival will be D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company, with a summertime production of "Love's Labor's Lost," directed by Michael Kahn. It seemed as if it were finally time to drop in on the only city in the world that could make an international industry out of a playwright.

Stratford lies amid the rolling greenery of South Warwickshire, a bastion of the British Midlands -- like the American Midwest, considered prime breeding ground of good, honest stock. Patriarch John Shakespeare was an exemplar, a glove maker in a time when gloves were fashionable and highly prized, mostly because Queen Elizabeth loved wearing them.

The prosperous Shakespeare owned a large house -- a half-timbered, two-storied Tudor he bought in the 1550s. Even by today's standards, it qualifies as a small mansion. The third of eight children, William was born there in 1564. Shakespeare's Birthplace, as it's known, still stands in its original spot near the middle of town, now flanked by a visitors information center and surrounded by contemporary shops and restaurants.

The charming coexistence of centuries XVI and XXI is also reflected inside the birthplace, where you find in the parlor -- the first room you enter -- a worn stone floor and hearth, as well as a closed-circuit television (for security). Throughout the house, the level of detailed re-creation and preservation is remarkable, from painted wall-cloths with flower motifs to replicas of a cradle and washtub to tools and toys of that era.

Four-poster beds of the period, as I see and learn, were heavily canopied and draped to protect occupants from rats that would jump from the ceiling during the night. (Suddenly the grim imagination behind "Titus Andronicus" starts to make sense.) No less eye-catching are the mattresses, which look trussed. That's because they are, the tour guide says. Elizabethans routinely strung mattresses with rope around the sides to keep them from sagging. If you've ever wondered where the phrase "Good night, sleep tight" came from, well, look no further.

According to the information center, about 500,000 tourists come here every year -- including, recently, former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, who some think might've been a frustrated Lady Macbeth. But the house in which the English language's greatest playwright was born and bred has long been a magnet, perhaps not surprisingly, for literary types, American and British. Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thomas Hardy, John Keats and Charles Dickens, among many others, have made the pilgrimage.

Downtown Stratford has its ample share of cheesemongers, jewelers, antiques dealers and hip boutiques. But numerous half-timbered, multi-storied Tudor structures rise amid modern urban buildings, reminding you that the Shakespearean-Elizabethan theme of the city is as much a part of the present as the past. My favorite amalgam of the two periods is a three-story Tudor, the ground floor of which is a Pizza Hut.

With the city center spanning a little more than a thousand yards at its widest point, everything is eminently walkable. A particularly enjoyable stretch sits along the Avon's lush banks, where, on the south end of town, you'll find the Holy Trinity Church. Mere steps in front of the altar, where our hero was baptized, lies his grave, a simple affair that seems anticlimactic for a spirit that left such a large footprint in Western civilization. Then again, even in his most elegantly soaring passages, Shakespeare always reminds you of what it is to be simply -- maybe even fatally -- human.

You can rent a rowboat near Holy Trinity and paddle north, back toward town, sharing space on the water with ducks and swans or, as I did, just stroll up the riverbank past gardens and trees until you come to the houses in which Shakespeare still lives -- the Royal Shakespeare Company's three theaters, all overlooking the Avon.

The main stage is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Built in 1932, it's as much a monument to art deco architecture as to its namesake. The RST is home to what is reputedly the world's largest classical theater company, and even if you're not up for, say, a full evening of "Troilus and Cressida" or "King Lear," a backstage tour -- all of 45 minutes -- is fascinating. Count on a visit to various shops, like costuming and scenery; a view from the wings; and a chance to see up close the set and props of whichever production is playing. If you're lucky, guides sometimes let you walk onstage.

The RST will be the epicenter of the Complete Works festival, which kicks off next April. The nearby Swan Theatre also will be in use, as will the expanded Other Place Theatre, a short walk west of the Swan. Plans call for turning the Other Place from a 150-seat house into an auditorium for 1,000 theatergoers. All told, 2,800 seats will be available any given day of the festival. Work begins later this year.

Besides Kahn and the Shakespeare Theatre Company, invited directors and companies from around the globe will share work with the RSC, sometimes mounting site-specific productions, such as "Henry VIII" in, appropriately enough, the Holy Trinity Church. Actors who have already committed to the festival include Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and F. Murray Abraham. As one veteran British critic recently wrote, the year-long festival will offer "a unique opportunity to see Shakespeare steadily, and to see him whole." Stratford itself, with the Birthplace as well as the childhood home of his wife, Anne Hathaway, and the houses of his two married daughters, offers an opportunity to put anything by Shakespeare -- poem or play, performed or just read -- in a context you won't find anywhere else.

And the context, thankfully, isn't always literary or even remotely scholarly. The Falstaffs Experience is a museum in downtown Stratford that has nothing to do with the fabulous and much-beloved character Shakespeare created. It features the Haunted Chamber, according to a brochure, where souls of pilgrims murdered during the Reformation "still inhabit these walls and are often seen by visitors." Another section is called the Plague Cottage, and yet another is -- personal favorite here -- the Witches Glade. Here I learn the story of another late resident, Matthew Hopkins, who occupied the office of Witchfinder General. "We hope you convince him of your innocence, as the Ducking Stool stands ready for your ultimate trial," I am warned before going in.

Stratford, like the work of its most famous son, has something for everyone.

William Triplett, Washington correspondent for Variety, is a frequent contributor to Travel.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company