Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Visiting Stratford Upon Avon: A man, A language and an Age

Bernard Shaw in emphasizing the glory of the English language in "Pygmalion" writes, "English, the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible". Shaw, not very religious, included the Bible to underscore the soaring beauty of language in the King James version (Try reading God's secrataries by Adam Nichols). Shakespeare, more than Milton, has come to symbolise a language and an era. The Elizebethan age could very well have been called the Shakespearean age. There was Marlowe, Ben Johnson and others but nobody is today remembered by anyone who claims familiarity with the English alphabet as Shakespeare does. Most literate people have heard or read a play of Shakespeare in some form or other. Even the illiterate villager in Tamil Nadu has had a glimpse thanks to Sivaji's imitation of Laurence Olivier in portraying Hamlet.

When I stopped by London in 2006 I very strongly desired to see Stratford Upon Avon, Shakespeare's birth place. Stratford is a quaint little town. We passed by Cotswold, idyllic English countryside to reach Stratford. All tourist buses were stopped couple of blocks away from the home. It was thrilling to see hundreds coming to pay homage to a 15th century playwright. His wedding record and other records are available yet speculating the true authorship of his plays is a thriving industry. Francis Bacon is often cited as the most likely real author (Will Durant in his 'Story of Philosophy' summarily dismisses it saying is Bacon is too scholarly to make the historical inaccuracies in the plays nor is he so vulgar like the Bard). Shakespeare in his day was jeered as knowing "little Latin and less Greek".

The cottage itself is unremarkable except for the history. Tour guides make themselves worthwhile by explaining the Kitchen on 1500's, the stopper in the furnace, the diet, the utensils etc. The garden has a bust of Shakespeare.

A short walk from his home is Anne Hathaway's home. Anne was 6 years elder to Shakespeare. I remember my English professor saying, his tongue firmly in the cheek, "Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, 6 years his senior, 7 months later she gave birth to a 10 month old child".

A shop outside Shakespeare's home caught my eye. It was a Jewellery shop named "Iago". I wondered why of all characters did the owner choose "Iago".

Then we went to a nearby park where there were minstrel kind of players performing scenes from Shakespeare's play. The entire city depends on the tourists who flock to see a playwright who wrote 35 plays almost 500 years ago. The crowd is drawn by the magnetism of not just the language but a playwright who has suffused into many civilizations crossing the boundaries of language and time. Anybody who utters "you too Brutus" without even having read Julius Caesar is still tapping into Shakespeare. A cliche like "Roadside Romeos" used in Tamil Nadu owes it to Shakespeare. More Tamilians probably know of Romeo's love than they do of Ambikapathi.

What is to be noted is that no government has erected monuments wasting taxpayer money, no fantastic eye popping vulgar statues. But then we are talking of Shakespeare not of any ordinary mortal who needs jingoistic governments to erect statues amidst an ocean to draw gawking crowds.

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