Hometown marks 400 years since Shakespeare died

James Brooks
Associated Press

Stratford-Upon-Avon, England — “All the world’s a stage,” wrote William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago this week. But he played out much of his life in one small English market town: Stratford-upon-Avon.

A bust of William Shakespeare which sits above the famous British playwright's grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

“It’s the home of one of the greatest writers who’s ever lived, whose works are translated into all the world languages … and it’s therefore a magnet to come to understand a little bit about what made William Shakespeare, what formed him, to find out about the history of his time, and to celebrate his on-going legacy,” said Dr. Paul Edmondson, head of research at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Shakespeare was born here in 1564 in a half-timbered house in Henley Street. The home has been restored to look as it would have when Shakespeare was 10. His father John, who was appointed mayor of the town in 1568, had a glove-making workshop that’s been recreated downstairs, while the room where Shakespeare was believed to have been born is upstairs.

Shakespeare's Birthplace, a restored 16th century home in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, where it's believed William Shakespeare was born in 1564. Today, Shakespeare's restored family home is presented as it would have looked during the 16th century when William was ten.

“Childbirth is always difficult, but even worse 400 years ago and baby Shakespeare was lucky to survive, because there was plague in the town the year he was born and the parish register is rammed full with burials for that year,” said Edmondson.

Some 2 million tourists visit the town annually but it’s not just Shakespeare’s Birthplace that they come to see.

Around 3 miles away in the village of Wilmcote, tourists travel back in time to experience the sights, sounds and smells of a 16th century Tudor farm. It was here that Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, grew up. It’s thought Shakespeare would have spent some of his childhood helping with tasks around the farm. Literary experts believe Wilmcote makes an appearance as “Wincot” in Shakespeare’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew”.

“He was always in some way a country lad at heart. He loved this town, he perhaps hated this town a little bit, obviously forging his career in London with the professional theaters,” said Edmondson.

During the late 1580s and early 1590s, Shakespeare left Stratford to seek fame and fortune in London. In 1597, he gained enough success to purchase a new family home in Stratford-upon-Avon called “New Place,” where he’s believed to have written many of his famous plays.

Two pairs of children's shoes on display inside the "Birth Room" at Shakespeare's Birthplace.

This year is an important one for Stratford-upon-Avon and its 26,000 residents. The town is marking 400 years since Shakespeare’s death on April 23 with new exhibitions, theater performances and a colorful parade through its busy streets.

“The buzz around this has been incredible, even greater than we had for the 450th anniversary of his birth which was literally only two years ago,” said Helen Peters, chief executive of Shakespeare’s England.

Much attention will be focused on Stratford-upon-Avon’s Holy Trinity Church, a parish church on the banks of the River Avon. Church records show he was baptized there on April 26, 1564 and buried there on April 25, 1616, two days after his death.

Rev. Patrick Taylor, the vicar, says visitors initially behold “a beautiful medieval parish church … But once they’ve made their way up here into the chancel, then they can see Shakespeare’s grave on the floor just in front of the high altar, then his bust up on the wall there which put in by his relatives, shortly after his burial.”

William Shakespeare's grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

Above Shakespeare’s grave, a warning is inscribed on his gravestone: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

Shakespeare is buried flanked by his wife, Anne Hathaway, who died in 1623, and Thomas Nash, the first husband of his granddaughter Elizabeth.

“There’s a lot of interest in this place, the final resting place of Shakespeare,” Taylor said. “People seem to have a connection with this playwright who wrote about human emotions and human experiences that people over the world relate to.”

Mark Kimmons, visiting with his family from Anchorage, Alaska, says he grew up being taught Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. “I was thinking that he was famous in his day,” Kimmons said, “but not nearly as famous as he is now, so many years after his death.”