THE SWAN OF AVON
Travelling by train to Stratford, we had to change at Leamington (pronounced /lemmington/). Unfortunately, our train was two minutes late, while the connecting one left on time, so we saw its tail only. The next train, we learned, was in two hours’ time. We emerged into the charming sleepy town of Leamington, which looked like an illustration to a Jane Austen novel. We asked around, and a friendly family going to church took us to the bus station nearby. A few minutes’ wait, half an hour on the bus, and we were in Stratford. One can feel at once that this is a special place, with the never-ending stream of all kinds of traffic and hordes of visitors everywhere. It is a beautiful, very clean, very well-preserved little town, with its own special atmosphere. There seems to be a general hush, a calmness observed by all and sundry. There are signs at every corner, but one does not need them. A short walk takes one to Henley Street and the Shakespeare House. One has to stop and keep silent for a few minutes. People take pictures outside, and there is always a line waiting to snap a picture with the modest memorial board which simply declares that this is the house where William Shakespeare was born in 1564. One can buy a ticket which is valid for a year and go inside, but it is not allowed to take pictures in the rooms. A short presentation about the house is shown in a darkened little hall; then one can take a careful slow walk around. The rooms as they used to be, the furniture, the stairs, the kitchen, all carefully restored and preserved, for visitors to have an impression of how things were in centuries past. There is a small garden which looks, for all the world, as if it’s never changed since the sixteenth century. One can relax on a bench, and watch some actors perform scenes from the Bard’s plays. There is a souvenir shop, where one can buy the usual mementos of the place, as well as various editions of Shakespeare’s works, plays, sonnets, and poems, or all of them in one large volume. Adjacent to the house is a small cozy café with, inevitably, a statue of the Bard inside. The food is really good. At the end of the street, there is the statue of the Fool, or Jester, a constant character in most Shakespeare’s plays. Various shops, including a bookstore which bears the name of Chaucer, are scattered all over the town. Shakespeare’s name and images are everywhere, including above the bank doors. Walking slowly and following the signs, one can visit his daughter’s house, and then go on to the old church. A small standing sign in front of the church entrance informs visitors that Shakespeare’s grave is inside. Also inside, there is the much-criticized bust of Shakespeare; it is believed that this was made after the order of his widow Anne Hathaway. Her grave, as well as the graves of his daughter and son-in-law, are in the same church. One can see the church registrar carefully preserved under a glass. Its faded page shows the entry in barely readable old script, “William Shakespeare, born April 23, 1564”. Getting out of the church, one finds oneself on the banks of the River Avon, which flows, sparkles and gurgles exactly like it did all those centuries ago.
The train station is practically outside the town, which seems very sensible: one cannot imagine a noisy railway with the train station near those sacred buildings. Naturally I know that to this day, there are ongoing discussions about the authorship of the whole Shakespeare oeuvre. If there was a real person called William Shakespeare, as all the evidence which is found at Stratford, seems to indicate, was he the author of all those amazing plays and sonnets? Could a person who was not a nobleman by birth, and who did not receive a good university education, who did not travel to faraway lands, write so well? I believe the discussions will continue until the end of Time, since there is no way to be absolutely certain. But I also know now what anyone who visited Stratford, who has seen this lovely town, with the beautiful river running through it, will feel. There was one William Shakespeare, whom his younger contemporary Ben Johnson called “the Swan of Avon”, whose “honey” or “mellifluous” tongue was a legend even during his life time. There really was a genius, whose writings became a part of the English language itself, whose name is familiar to people who live all over the planet.
© gretag 2012