Epiphany at Stratford-upon-Avon

My introduction to William Shakespeare aka The Bard of Avon was unforgettable. The setting: a classroom of boisterous teenagers waiting for a nervous professor to make his first gaffe. The poor man must have been unnerved by the rows of predatory half-smiles and his opening words proved to be a howler that surpassed our most sadistic dreams:

“Killiopatra was bitten by an udder!”

Never mind the thick South Indian accent. Ignore the fact that he meant to say “asp” instead of “adder”. The damage was done. I could never again think of Shakespeare without visions of Medusa-haired teats.

Twenty-something years later, I relive that moment with (I am ashamed to admit) juvenile glee as my wife Lata and I roll into Stratford-upon-Avon. The village where the world’s greatest poet and playwright began and ended his life is bathed in glorious mid-May sunshine.

Stratford-upon-Avon is a beautiful hamlet with a curious mix of modern and medieval buildings lining its straight neat streets. We discover that it was set out on a grid system as a new town in (hold your breath) 1196! For more than 800 years this place has weathered the winds of change, proud and largely unaltered. It is almost as if Stratford-upon-Avon made a conscious decision to remain loyal to the life and times of its favourite son while making few allowances for the demands of progress.

Where else in the world would you find a quote from ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ actually growing on a wall? Living moss on the side wall of a cottage painstakingly cut into letters proudly proclaims:

“There was a star danced

And under that was I born”

A jewellery store called ‘Iago Jewellers’ lies just across the road from a Barclay’s Bank hole-in-the-wall (ATM or cash machine). An Olde Worlde country courtyard called ‘Red Lion Court’ lies cheek by jowl with a ‘McDonald’s Fast Food’ outlet. Indeed, for every concrete and glass edifice one sees, there is a historical black & white building with a carved dragon or mythical beast vying for attention.

For a street-level view of Stratford, the only logical place to begin is Henley Street. We first walk into the Shakespeare Centre and are treated to a video montage of The Bard’s plays which were adapted to film.

Suddenly another dimension of the great playwright’s genius unfolds before our eyes. The most accomplished actors, both men and women stride across the silver screen playing the roles of their lives. Ben Kingsley as Feste in ‘Twelfth Night’. Judi Dench as Cleopatra. Anthony Hopkins as Claudius. Marlon Brando as Caesar. Al Pacino as Shylock. Emma Thompson as Beatrice. Olivier, Gielgud and Orson Welles as any number of characters.

Considering that over 420 film versions have been produced, the collective cast reads like acting who’s who of all time. Sarah Bernhardt, Kenneth Branagh, Vanessa Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft, Mickey Rooney, Alec Baldwin, Denzel Washington, Elizabeth Taylor, Ian McKellen, Jeremy Irons, Kate Winslet…

The question is, “Why do the best and most famous actors of their day vie with each other to play Shakespearean roles?”

Part of the answer lies in the richness of the characters themselves – offering limitless scope for myriad interpretations which every genuine actor feels compelled to explore. However, the clinching argument, I suspect, is that a Shakespearean play is the Iditarod of acting. No matter how famous or accomplished the actor, he or she has to perform or perish. Anything less than the best is mercilessly exposed.

At the end of the video show, we amble across to Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Guides in period costumes usher us through the building where Little William was born in an upper room in 1564. Preserving the original ambience, the floors are uneven, stairs rickety and windowpanes irregular. Even the guest bed, with its lumpy mattress, has the original wooden pegs that served as mattress-stays. In all honesty, it is not difficult to imagine a young Shakespeare running around in his pyjamas!

We then stroll into the garden where the sun-drenched flowers salute the world with an explosion of colour. Unknown actors enact popular scenes from The Bard’s plays with unexpected panache and passion. Judy, who plays Juliet, is so caught up in her role that real tears roll down her cheeks. We are enthralled.

Later we get to talking with Simon who plays the male roles that day and discover that the competition is fierce for even these impromptu performances. In the course of the conversation, we reveal that we are from India. Simon smiles disarmingly and confesses that his daughter is engaged to be married to an Indian. Then, impulsively he drags us to a secluded corner of the garden and shows us the bust of a bearded gentleman.

In utter disbelief we stare at the inscription.

Rabindranath Tagore

1861 – 1941

Poet, Painter, Playwright

Thinker, Teacher

The Voice of India

Tagore’s sonnet to Shakespeare in Bengali and his own translation are inscribed on the sides of the plinth.

“When by the far-away sea your fiery disk

appeared from behind the unseen O Poet, O Sun,

England’s horizon felt you near her breast and

took you to be her own.

She kissed your forehead, caught you in the

arms of her forest branches, hid you behind her

mist-mantle and watched you in the green sward

where fairies love to play among the meadow flowers.

A few early birds sang your hymn of praise

while the rest of the woodland choir were asleep.

Then at the silent beckoning of the Eternal

you rose higher and higher till you reached the

mid-sky, making all quarters of heaven your own.

Therefore at this moment after the end of

centuries, the palm groves by the Indian sea raise

their tremulous branches to the sky murmuring

your praise.”

Tagore, arguably modern India’s greatest writer—a poet, visual artist, playwright, novelist, educator and composer—is revered in his native Bengal and respected throughout the world as a creative genius. Asia’s first Nobel Laureate, he composed both the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. Among his friends and admirers were such names as Yeats, HG Wells, Ezra Pound and Albert Einstein.

The fact that of all the world’s poets, Tagore alone should find a place in Shakespeare’s Birthplace is mind-boggling enough. That such a man should equate his soul-searing voice to a “tremulous murmur” is truly epiphanic.

I have just been given an object lesson in humility. I am numb.

They say when the student is ready, the master will appear. Most professional writers would consider themselves lucky if a master appeared once in their lifetime. That two of them should conspire one afternoon, to teach a struggling lightweight like myself an unforgettable lesson, leaves me in shock.

The rest of the afternoon speeds by in a haze. I reel through the town like a punch-drunk fighter. The gossip’s market, market cross and the whipping post hardly make an impression. Bridge Street, High Street and Chapel Street, beautiful as they are, don’t strike a chord. Judith Shakespeare’s house and Harvard House, once the home of Harvard University’s founder, fail to excite more than a passing glance. Even New Place, the site of the house where Shakespeare died in 1616, doesn’t hold my interest for more than a moment. Finally, my restless feet find what they were searching for—the river.

Avon is an old Celtic word for river, so Stratford-upon-Avon means the road crossing the river. As we sit by the quietly flowing water with just the swans and ducks for company, I am struck by the sheer natural beauty of the scene. This is the place that Shakespeare called home. And this was the nature he loved.

There is ample evidence that he drew inspiration from nature in all her moods. While plot and character are central to his plays, their setting and season, described in loving detail, make them spectacular.

“There is a willow grows, aslant the brook,

That shows his hour leaves in the glassy stream;

There with fantastic garlands did she come,

Of cornflowers, nettles, daises and long-purples,

That liberal shepherd give a grosser name.”

Hamlet, Act.IV, Scene VII


“The ousel-cock, so black of hue

With orange, tawny bill,

The throstle with his his note so true,

The wren with little quill

The finch, the sparrow, and the lark

The plain song cuckoo grey;

Whose note full many a man doth mark

And dares not answer, nay”

Midsummer Night’s Dream Act. III, Scene 1.


“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows:

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine

With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act. II, Scene I.

After all these centuries, the lilt, cadence and vivid imagery remain fresh. As does the scenic beauty of Avon and its environs. For all the changes wrought in the world outside, this place is still virginal. The source of Shakespeare’s inspiration is intact. I cannot help but compare it to another riverside scene halfway across the globe, in Agra, India. The Taj Mahal and the River Yamuna. In one corner of the world, beauty is celebrated by preservation. In another, beauty is desecrated by squalor.

Leaden-footed we walk down the river to Holy Trinity Church, the last earthly resting place of William Shakespeare. A stone slab next to his grave displays his epitaph, or is it a warning from beyond the veil?

“Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare

To digg the dust encloased heare

Bleste be ye man that spares these stones

And curst be he that moves my bones”

It’s almost time to leave. A hot cuppa would go down nicely, we decide. We sink thankfully into comfortable chairs when a rather substantial matron rings a bell vigorously. “Last of the day’s Cornish pasties, one pound each” she advertises.

Some things are just the same, in any part of the world.