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History comes to strife in Stratford-upon-Avon

Patrick McCabe |  28 November 2016


Too often, travellers to England are prejudiced against a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, the storied town of William Shakespeare's birth, by its ill-gotten reputation as a tourist trap for Americans with more dollars than literary appreciation.

Stratford-upon-AvonThey sniffily assume the town is overrun with that undesirable class of people who think that The Taming of the Shrew was a clever re-imagining of the classic high-school romantic comedy Ten Things I Hate About You in an English medieval milieu, and consider Romeo + Juliet proof of Baz Luhrmann's scriptwriting prowess.

But these snobs are missing out on a unique experience — the opportunity to step back in time and slip on Shakespeare's shoes for a day by walking through the town's delightful, practically untouched streets.

Someone I read in high school, so probably Shakespeare, once said 'The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.' Well, whoever that was clearly hadn't been to Stratford-upon-Avon (so on second thoughts maybe it wasn't Shakespeare).

Because in this beautiful town, you can visit the past without a visa or a passport or a phrasebook. All you need is some walking shoes, and an (extremely) open mind. As one peruses the quaint shops and houses and supermarkets and ATMs of Stratford-upon-Avon, one cannot help but speculate as to the links between Shakespeare's works and what must have been the commonplaces of his everyday life.

It's easy to imagine, for instance, the Bard striding down the Harry-Potter-themed Magic Alley, just off the town's main road. I caught myself imagining him working up a first draft of the 'Double, double, toil and trouble' scene from Macbeth as he sipped one of the Butterbeer® beverages sold at the Leaky Cauldron with a friend.

A pleasant few minutes' walk from Magic Alley, the curious Shakespeare enthusiast will come across the cavernous Poundland superstore, which occupies a prime corner lot right across the road from Shakespeare's house (a very faithful reconstruction, apparently).

A short perusal of that store's wares, where, incredibly, everything costs exactly one pound, will make it clear to all but the densest reader of The Merchant of Venice that Shylock's famed request for a pound of flesh was inspired by the usurious demands for a pound of cash in exchange for items of worthless plastic junk that the proprietors of Poundland make on a daily basis.


"As you lustfully eye off those vendors' fabulously-priced hot dogs, you will suddenly understand how Shakespeare was able to make Julius Caesar speak of the 'lean, hungry look' of men with such insight and clarity."


And surely the poet honed his feted witty wordplay while browsing Stratford-upon-Avon's many, many fascinating souvenir shops, where the main stock is always, for some reason, not anything remotely related to Shakespeare, but rather T-shirts and aprons emblazoned with puns such as 'I don't skinny-dip, I chunky-dunk'. After you've seen a few more T-shirt slogan witticisms of this ilk, you'll probably gain a new sympathy for Hamlet's eagerness to make his 'quietus with a bare bodkin'.

Moreover, it only takes a quick glance at the price list of the main street's food stalls to realise that Shakespeare lifted the Prince of Denmark's immortal statement of moral relativism — 'Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so' — straight from the guiding philosophy of Stratford-upon-Avon's rapacious food vendors. And as you lustfully eye off those vendors' fabulously-priced hot dogs, you will understand how Shakespeare was able to make Julius Caesar speak of the 'lean, hungry look' of men with such insight and clarity.

Of course, some might dismiss such musings and point out that Shakespeare actually spent very little of his writing life in Stratford-upon-Avon. But these are the same kind of people who would say that Magic Alley has been cynically erected to cater to ignorant tourists who have somehow managed to conflate Harry Potter and the works of Shakespeare. They are the same kind of people who would be bold enough to suggest that hotdogs are not traditional Stratfordian fare. And they are exactly the kind of people who would question why a T-shirt with a slogan about overweight people swimming in the nude would serve as a good memento of a visit to the birthplace and burial site of the English language's greatest playwright.

In other words, such people are people yet to know the wonders of Stratford-upon-Avon.


Patrick McCabe headshotPatrick McCabe is an Adelaide lawyer and writer.



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Submitted comments

Recently, I, along with a close relative, saw a performance of "Kiss Me, Kate". Surely, The Bard would be proud of Cole Porter. Our local theatre company performed admirably, and my favourite song was, of course, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare". So, a little taste of Stratford-upon-Avon meets small town New South Wales. And no jet lag involved!

Pam 29 November 2016

The most impressive thing I saw in Shakespeare's house was the medieval 'Child Minder'. I suppose it would be against the law to install or use it these days.

Robert Liddy 30 November 2016

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." is the opening sentence of The Go-Between, by L P Hartley, published in 1953 - a bit after Shakespeare! Don't forget the chance to take in a production at the RSC either. We saw a wonderful production of Henry V there last year.

James 03 December 2016

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