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Getting in touch with the Bard

by Ben

semi-overcast 14 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage

Anne Hathaway's Cottage

When you are in the Cotswolds it is only a matter of time before you hear the Bard's siren call. Statford-Upon-Avon is the most touristed town in the region, so it was with some trepidation that we ventured into the highly commercialized hometown of William Shakespeare.

We chose to visit Anne Hathaway's Cottage so we could get a feel for Shakespeare's era. The home's connection with playwright himself is quite limited. It was the childhood home of his wife and the Hathaway family for 13 generations. In the early 1900s, the family sold it to be turned into the museum it is today. The cottage and its furnishing have changed significantly over the centuries so there is little in it that dates directly back to Shakespeare's life and times. It does contain a chair that is called William's courting chair, upon which Shakespeare would have sat on his visits to the cottage as young man wooing Anne. What the cottage lacks in artifacts and direct connection to the playwright, it makes up for in the insights it gives on the origin of the language of the Bard and what has given rise to many idioms we use today.

A thatch roof, such as found on the Hathaway cottage, is a magnet for rodents, bats and birds. It was common practice to have dogs and cats live in the attic space just under the roof and allow them direct access to the rooftop itself in order to limit infestations of vermin. Thatch gets quite slippery when it rains, so it was not uncommon for cats and dogs to slip off the roof during a downpour; thus giving rise to phrase, "it's raining cats and dogs."

The table in the principal living area of a Shakespearean era cottage is constructed of a few large boards. Hence, it is called a board table. The head of the house was the only person who had an actual chair to sit in, the rest of the family sat at benches along the side of the table and the chair was at the head. The origins of the terms, chairman of the board, boardroom, and room and board are thought to originate from this household piece of furniture.

The Hathaway house was a rich one, in that it had its own brick oven. It would have attracted women from miles around to come and bake bread. With all the different parties baking bread at the same time, each woman would put a mark on their loaf to note ownership. The ditty, Patty Cake, Patty Cake, is a direct reference to this practice. The opening to the oven is called "the gap" and it was closed with very thick board called a "stop gap" that was glued in place with bread dough until the baking time had elapsed. Our modern use of the term stop gap measure comes from this device and the practice of sealing the oven to keep in the heat.

Trinity Church Beside the River Avon

Trinity Church Beside the River Avon

The loaves of bread produced by such an oven were usually singed on the bottom. This undesirable lower crust was given to the youngest children of the household. The slice above would go to the older children and the slice above that to whomever in the house ranked the next highest, thus, giving birth to the idiom, a cut above. The very top of the loaf was considered the best piece; this upper crust was given to the highest ranking person in the household. Hence you get the origins of the phrase, "the upper crust of society."

Besides this cottage being good for a linguistic education, the surrounding grounds were a feast for the eyes having just come into full bloom. This riot of colour immediately surrounding the cottage would not have been present during William and Anne's times, but similar displays of colour would have been found in the surrounding countryside and been the inspiration for the flower imagery that permeates some of Shakespeare's plays.
After visiting the cottage, we went to Holy Trinity Church on the banks of the River Avon. This is the edifice in which Shakespeare was baptised, worshipped and was buried. We know he worshipped here because those who did not attend church were levied a hefty fine and his baptism and death are recorded in the church register. In addition, his grave and that of his wife and a few other family members are located right in front of the church altar and a large bust of William is mounted on the wall off to the side. The statue of Shakespeare holds a real quill pen which is replaced each year on the anniversary of his birth. The honour of replacing the quill is given to the headboy of the nearby school each year.
After paying homage at Shakespeare's final resting place and walking along the Avon River, we felt ready for the final part of our day. We bought tickets to a production of "As You Like It" put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Although none of Shakespeare's plays were ever performed in Stratford-Upon-Avon during the playwright's lifetime, the tradition of performing his works in this town goes back an impressive 250 years.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Besides taking in some history by exploring Statford-Upon_Avon, we prepared for today's performance by watching Kenneth Branaugh's film version of the play during the two nights prior (as well as reading a synopsis of the play online). This film version is part of a long tradition of adapting Shakespeare's plays to different eras and settings. The Branaugh version has the play set in 19th century Japan, with the characters being mostly British expats with a few Japanese characters mixed in. It is a bit of an odd production. Nevertheless, it was a perfect segue into the even more quirky adaptation we saw tonight. The setting as evidenced by the costumes was more present day. The offbeat nature of the production comes in the scenes set in the forest which is a kind of like folk musicians meeting crossed with a Woodstock festival where everyone speaks in Shakespearean prose. There is a part in the middle of the play when the fool, Touchstone, breaks out of character and starts chatting with the audience and then seamlessly goes back into character. It was this quirkiness and the addition of some hilarious songs that really caught everyone's appreciation in the second half of the play. You know the production must have done something right when you have a 14 year leaving the play saying she really liked it. It proves that Shakespeare can be for all times and ages, especially if you add an accordion, a pot smoking priest, beer and a dance number at the end with people dressed like the Village People.

The variety of experiences we are having on this trip continues to astound me. I realize that is too easy to sell teenagers short on what they will appreciate or enjoy. We had a little help for this experience as the girls tickets to the play were a gift from the girl's Auntie Helen (big thank you).
As I wind up this post, I want to share again how much this blog has come to mean to me and I believe to Muriel and the kids. The ability to reflect each day on what we have seen and done, and record my impressions has not only helped me solidify the memories but has given me the additional pleasure of being able to share it with people I value. I am grateful to everyone back home for taking time to read our ramblings and to share your thoughts; either by commenting directly or sending an email. The four of us miss family, friends, school mates and work colleagues. I know I have not had a lot of direct contact with people back home while travelling, this does not mean I don't think of all of you often. A half a year away does a lot to increase one's appreciation for relationships. I hope this blog in some small way can be seen as hand extended in friendship to you as your participation in it has been to me.

Posted by KZFamily 08:43 Archived in England Tagged england shakespeare cotswolds statford-upon-avon

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Comments

Thanks Ben for your english lesson in idioms. When I was in High school in the Netherlands we had to learn a lot about idioms in the Dutch language. And now you gave me a lesson in english idioms. Language is such a beautiful gift. Opa.

by G Koning

Peter here. We are truly living vicariously through your blog, so please do keep up the good work. It is a symbiotic relationship. We are regularly thinking of you guys, too - much because of the blog, but also in other day to day events. We taught Celio Settlers of Catan the other night, so couldn't help making the Koning/Zemliak connection.

by adrost

Even though we don't comment often, we really enjoy reading your blog posts and like Peter, can live vicariously through them! I love that you all take turns writing so we can hear all of your voices. Keep up the great work! We miss you all here too!

by sheilat

Ditto to previous entries...You and your family have taken us along on a truly meaningful journey, making lifetime memories, to which you have allowed us to share in practically real time. I am not sure how I will replace what has become my weekly ritual of weekend reading of your blog, once you have returned...(though you all do lead interesting lives here in Canada, maybe you'll keep it up upon your return?)

by Gordon

Glad you enjoyed the Bard. You'll have to try Bard on the Beach in Vancouver some year.

by Jane1

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