Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.
Shakespeare: Hamlet, III, 2, 602
Surely the best places to reflect upon the universal truths that lie behind Shakespeare’s words above, are the many historical sites to be found in his county.
Hidden in the heart of rural Warwickshire is a Saxon sanctuary.
It’s in St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen, which lies to the north west of Stratford-upon-Avon, on the way to Henley-in-Arden. In the Lady Chapel, an exhibition tells the story of Wagen’s woodland village in the Forest of Arden.
Wagen was a Saxon lord who owned the land (the manor) of Wootton before 1066, probably holding court in the estate farmstead and hall of Wudu Tun which sat securely within ancient moated banks. He is known to have been a companion of Early Leofric, who founded a monastery at Coventry in 1043. But at the time of his lordship at Wudu Tun near the river Alne, the minster church had been here since the early 700s. I wondered about Lord Wagen as I looked through the exhibition. When William the Conqueror took over, this woodland village in the forest of Arden was one of the many land holdings that came to his attention. He confiscated the land from Wagen and gave it to one of his own pals (as was the way of many English monarchs). In this case the lucky recipient was Robert of Tosny, Earl of Stafford. History doesn’t record what happened to Wagen.
The Dynasty of the Staffords, lasted through to 1521 when the last one was executed by Henry VIII. Thus centuries of royal favour and privilege came to an end for that particular family.
It is thought there may be a Shakespeare connection with the church at Wootton Wawen: a Victorian author claimed in 1890 that Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway in their courting days used to visit their friend, John Mascall, the Vicar of Wootton, just as Mascall was beginning his 60 year stint as pastor of the parish. The same Victorian author also speculates that John Mascall may have been the officiant at Will and Anne’s marriage in the private chapel of Shottery Manor, owned by the same family who at that time held the manor of Wootton. (And who knows, perhaps John inspired Will for the character of Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet!)
Along with this exhibition in the Saxon Sanctuary, three other streams of thought played into my musings: a TV documentary I had seen about the fifty greatest treasures found by members of the public; a BBC drama production of Shakespeare’s Henry V; and our visit to Bosworth to see the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, was killed.
Here are a few historical snippets that sprang into my mind.
A Viking with bad attitude buried his plunder meaning to come back later and collect it – but he never did. It lay in the earth until it was found by chance 1300 years later.
Henry V triumphed at Agincourt then married Catherine daughter of the French king. Henry died when their son was 9 months old. When he grew up, that son, Henry VI, later revered as a saint, shrank from the role of king whereas his father had been famed for his valour. Meanwhile Catherine had gone off and married Owen Tudor and thus started the Tudor dynasty.
Mary I believed she’d restored Catholicism to England. She meant to secure a Catholic future. But her pregnancy turned out to be a phantom one, her Catholic husband deserted her, she died, and the throne passed into the hands of her protestant half-sister.
So I meditated on the fickle changes of fortune and how they interface with our lives.
English history is full of “what-ifs.” Many potentially great or significant people have been swallowed up by fate and removed from the arena of history and thus prevented from affecting the destiny of the human race. Shakespeare was well aware of that.
In the face of these truths it seems that success or failure are not determined by hard work and striving. Perhaps we have to live with a healthy awareness that they may in a moment be swept away and rendered irrelevant by a quirky twist of fate.
Thus we may find ourselves pondering, as we wander around such a place as the Saxon sanctuary in Wootton Wawen.
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A thousand times the worse, to want thy light.
Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.
Romeo and Juliet
Whether or not this is a true reflection of how Shakespeare felt about his own schooldays, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of awe upon entering the fifteenth century schoolroom where Shakespeare would have studied from 1571 to 1578, between the ages of seven and fourteen.
Even more impressive is the opportunity to experience a costumed actor playing the part of a schoolmaster of Shakespeare’s time, teaching as young William would have been taught; the recital of Latin vocabulary and declensions, drummed into the boys’ heads through wearisome repetition. Perhaps, even, this discipline, tedious as it may have been, prepared and fitted the young boy for the acting profession, since learning lines by heart is part of an actor’s skills.
Within the schoolroom Shakespeare would have also watched visiting troupes of actors perform plays. Also he would probably have acted in school plays himself. To be in the place where he may have conceived his first love for poetry, drama, and the acting world, is indeed moving. Quite apart from the mellow historical beauty of the sixteenth century interiors, I cannot but feel this is a special experience to come here. Pupils do sometimes use these classrooms today in King Edward VI School, and Shakespeare’s Schoolrooms and Guildhall have only been open to visitors for a relatively short time (two years at the time of my visit) to further illuminate the life of Shakespeare.
The meeting chamber of the Guild is a gracious and imposing room. In this particular chamber, Shakespeare’s father John would have presided over meetings of the Guild in 1568, when he served as Bailiff (equivalent to Lord Mayor); and he would also have participated as a member of the jury in court hearings here. It is amusing to think how in his younger days he had fallen foul of the local authorities for being one of those responsible for creating a muckheap in the streets. But since then he had clearly regained a good reputation.
Nevertheless we may also wonder at the fact that 14 year old William had to leave school because his father could no longer afford it and was now in debt. What had happened in the intervening years since his high office for the local authority, and his ignominious removal of William from school?
We may find it very tempting to speculate. Quite often we have insufficient biographical detail about Shakespeare’s life. Was William cross? Or was he relieved at his new-found freedom? The fact that he left school at 14 and didn’t go to university is used as one of the possible pieces of evidence for the theory that the man known as William Shakespeare could not possibly have written those plays and poems attributed to him. How could he? the skeptics enquire. He never went to university.
And yet… is it possible that William was a child prodigy? That he found all that learning by rote very boring? (Though in fact it was to serve him extremely well in the acting profession). Was it possible that William was like certain child prodigies in contemporary times who attain a double first university degree by 15? Was he the type who is perfectly capable of taking his A levels without doing the two year course?
Another aspect to consider is that Shakespeare may have absorbed what he learned at school to a much greater depth and intensity than his contemporaries. It is certain he studied the stories of Ovid and other Roman writers, for these stories appear in his plays. Perhaps William made up for his interrupted schooling by voracious reading. What was he doing between the age of 14 and 18, at which age we know he married Ann Hathaway?
These and many other questions spring into the mind of the visitor at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, a rich new addition to the Shakespeare properties on offer to visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon.
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King Edward VI School
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It’s said that an image is much more powerful than words; which is rather a shame for authors who write books that don’t have any pictures! And so an author’s alternative is to paint a picture with words. Because, as author Isamu Noguchi says, We are a landscape of all we have seen.
In my new non-fiction book Spirit of Warwickshire I have chosen several places in Shakespeare’s county which I believe have spiritual presence; and each chapter is accompanied by a full colour photo of the highest quality, showing some of the spirit of each place. Many of the places are associated with Shakespeare, and each chapter is headed with a quote from the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, which I feel corresponds either in spirit or in specifics to what I feel about the place I describe.
And what a fascinating exercise it is to search for and find a Shakespeare quote to correspond with a piece you have written, inspired by your own independent thoughts and feelings:
Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.
And so might I meditate on the meaning of that at my first sight of the Burton Dasset beacon, which appears on the hill as you drive along the B4100 from Warwick to Banbury.
A new visitor driving towards the Burton Dasset Hills Country Park from either Warwick or Banbury might have little idea of the view which will greet them from around the next bend in the road. Without warning, an extensive radiant visa rises into view, seen beyond the green hills of this former quarry, now a place which many sheep call home and to which a large number of visitors are attracted each year wiith their dogs and families, to walk, to picnic, and to admire the views from the highest point, crowned by a beacon.
Just such a beacon appeared to William Shakespeare as he wondered how he would encapsulate a beacon to the wise.
My proposed new non-fiction book, Spirit of Warwickshire, is currently in the early stages of its journey into the world.
Richly illustated with full colour photos by photographer Abigail Robinson, the book contains twenty short pieces about places in Warwickshire that I love, visit often, and believe to have spiritual presence.
I define a place of spiritual presence in these terms: “it affords us an opportunity to reflect upon the lives of those long dead, the interweaving of fate and destiny, and explore dynamic equivalents within our own lives.” As this suggests, many of the places I describe have strong historical character.
Because I love Shakespeare, and Warwickshire is Shakespeare’s county, I have headed each chapter with an appropriate quotation from the Bard that I feel corresponds either in spirit or in specifics to what I have independently written about each place.
Here’s a taste of what you may find in the book, visually: a sneak peek at some of the beautiful and high quality illustrations to be included.
O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.
So wrote William Shakespeare in the Prologue to Henry V – and a few days ago we were in the garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of Shakespeare’s former family home – infusing marbles with the power of that same muse.
In case you’re thinking that sounds eccentric and zany, you’re right – and through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found both inspiration and ideas that have changed the world. Below is an approximation of what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No house currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens is where we embarked on a “Muse Catching” journey with the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (otherwise possibly understood as a group of artists / creators / thinkers / acrobats / inventors / actors whose goal is to awake the imagination, fill the mind and heart with fresh possibilities, and raise up the muse for members of the public who choose to visit).
Our purpose: to each take a marble and catch in it some of that muse Shakespeare wrote about, through the four elements of earth, fire, water and air.
The journey itself is full of fun, wonder, laughter inspiration and delight – and at the bottom of this wonderful, quirky, fanciful Art Happening, is a profound question and a fascinating subject for research: is there a correlation between place, time and lightbulb moments?
Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished by a character Shakespeare himself might have created. This “Art Happening” as I like to describe it, was based upon the idea that “the muse” is somehow present in the location where Shakespeare lived and wrote. Many of us are familiar with the idea of certain places having a high level of inspiration. Often it seems to be present in the air, or lie hidden in the fabric of a special building, or within a natural phenomenon or feature of the landscape. But does it perhaps emanate from the ground? This is the idea played with and embodied by the UNBOSI at New Place this Christmas. In the roundel at New Place, several information boards explored this, noting that many world-renowned geniuses had their lightbulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.
So let us be inspired by the fanciful, creative, quirky and even silly… for along that path may lie greatness.
What did Shakespeare believe? He lived and created his work during a period of religious turmoil; and scholars are left to guess at his true spiritual worldview, despite his association with Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the fact that he was baptized and buried there.
And so it was appropriate that Holy Trinity Church, the location of Shakespeare’s grave, should be the venue for the first performance in England of the play Shakeshafte by Rowan Williams which I went to see a few days ago. During the course of the play, a teenage Shakespeare debates with the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, and I found this portrayal by the Trinity Players thought-provoking, poignant and inspiring.
The only reason why we think Shakeshafte may be our William Shakespeare is because a young man of that name is referred to as an in-house entertainer in the will of Alexander Hoghton of Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, in 1581. And it is known that Shakespeare’s schoolmaster, John Cottam, an ardent Catholic, recommended his pupil Will Shakeshafte and another boy, Fulk Gillom, to Alexander, for employment as tutors in his house and to provide entertainment. Alexander and his family were strong Catholics in Lancashire, a county renowned for being faithful to the “old religion” in a dangerous time of persecution against Catholics (and a county which was to see the infamous Pendle Witch trials in 1612, just 4 years before Shakespeare’s death).
So former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams works with the theory that this young Shakeshafte was indeed our William Shakespeare, during what scholars call one of the two “lost periods” of Shakespeare’s life. And that he met, talked and maybe even argued with Edmund Campion, the Jesuit priest who returned to England in 1580, spent time undercover at Hoghton Hall, was eventually betrayed, tried, and hanged, drawn and quartered in December 1581.
Scholars cannot tell what Shakespeare truly believed. Some think he was a closet Catholic and others that he was an atheist. The latter can cite quotes like:
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven.
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
So in this play, the young poet – who is portrayed by actor Louis Osborne as wild, passionate and unruly – and the devout priest, played by Tim Raistrick, come face to face, and swap their views of life. And the poet’s view of life is clearly one that Rowan Williams shares, despite having been Archbishop of Canterbury: he as a poet wants to experience life in all its richness and diversity. He ‘holds a mirror up to nature’, listening to a variety of voices in his head and heart, unable to reduce them all to just one interpretation of the truth. And the play asks the question: Should we understand the truth as one grand central narrative to be imposed on life, or something that emerges in the dialogue between tradition and experience?(programme note by Anthony Woollard).
I think that Rowan Williams himself holds that view of life in tension with ‘the grand narrative’ of evangelical Christian belief. And this to me is a beautiful expression of what Shakespeare himself would have believed; a world view with which I too can empathise. And Shakespeare the poet would have held this view in amongst the dangerous religious turmoil of Elizabethan England, and it would be one that could only be hinted at in his poetry and plays, but never explicitly stated.
Which is probably the reason for the veiled remark to Horatio:
There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
This weekend I joined a cast in a drama – at St Mark’s Church in Leamington Spa – which I think Shakespeare would have loved. Why? because we were rather like the little band of local workmen in that Athenian wood in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But we were not playing “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Instead, without rehearsal, and with hastily gathered together props, we were ambitiously – and creatively – portraying the entire story of Joseph, (but not with Lloyd Webber music and lyrics).
I must admit I’d been wondering how I’d pan out as the Butler/Servant, with my son Jamie as the older Joseph. I was a little concerned beforehand about the large number of props, and the extent to which I’d need to rely on several other actors simultaneously doing the right thing – not to mention a question about whether there was going to be any kind of stage management i.e. people in charge of making sure microphones and props were in the right hands at the right times.
And it was more fun and more memorable than a slick performance by professionals would have been.
For anything that could possibly go wrong in such a set-up, did.
The two narrators doubled up as stage manager and director.
Some of the performers behaved as if they’d only been cast that morning and had never seen the script before.
I was convinced others were working to different scripts than the one I had, and I wondered whether it had been revised since I was given my copy.
The narrators forgot some of their lines thus depriving actors of cues they’d been relying on.
The one hand-held mic was being passed frantically from actor to actor.
A prop (whistle) was given to me as the Servant/Butler, which I was to blow every time Joseph gave the instruction for someone to be arrested or released from jail, to alert the jailer. But then the director whipped it away unexpectedly from me and gave it to Potiphar – who didn’t even know he had to use it and spoke his lines without using it. The director intervened and grabbed the whistle and gave it to him. Having used it, Potiphar then put it down somewhere where I, the Servant, couldn’t see it. So in the end I was unable to use it. And since my whistle had disappeared, Joseph’s brother Simeon was never let out of jail.
The actor who played the aforesaid jailer wore shorts and a helmet which was too small for him and he looked like an English policeman on holiday in Egypt.
The whole drama was like a test case for what happens when a troop of unrehearsed amateur actors get together – exactly as Shakespeare envisaged it with his Rude Mechanicals, with Wall and Moonshine and the chink and Bottom deciding he was going to get up after his character had died and tell the audience it was all right, he was alive really.
And all this fired up my imagination as I thought how it was going to feed into my new novel – my follow-up to A Passionate Spirit – which features a cast of actors filming A Midsummer Night’s Dream in some south east London woods….
Today I found myself in the driver’s seat once more (6 weeks after my hip operation) and joining the queue of cars heading into Stratford-upon-Avon.
The long traffic queues were because Stratford was hosting its annual Motor Festival today. So this gave Abigail plenty of opportunity to take photos of the lovely fields of rapeseed flowers on either side of us.
I cannot think of golden fields, sunshine and Shakespeare without being reminded that the short-lived nature of English sunshine, and the passing of time, are some of Shakespeare’s most beloved themes, constantly recurring in the Sonnets.
As I gazed at the fields I was reminded of the words Full many a glorious morning have I seen/flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye/kissing with golden face the meadows green/gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy; and could imagine that Shakespeare felt just as I did, viewing the glorious landscape around Stratford-upon-Avon.
Once in Stratford, we enjoyed the atmosphere of the motor festival.
All the way down Bridge Street and Henley Street and in front of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Shakespeare Centre and the Shakespeare Birthplace were the kind of cars that I only know about because Jeremy, James and Richard have at one time or another taken them round the Top Gear track.
Gleaming paintwork, exquisite design and immaculate engines were on display, and the owners of these wonderful machines sat beside them at picnic tables, drinking red wine, and keeping a close eye on their showpiece.
I always love visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, for many reasons, and feel so lucky to live nearby.