April 23, 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakesdspeare’s death. Today, to honor the most famous and celebrated playwright in the English-speaking world, I’m sharing stories of destinations and activities associated with him, drawing on both my personal experiences and contributions from other travel writers/bloggers.
If you enjoy this post, please leave a comment, share, and subscribe! Thank you for visiting! Kudos to Ruth Kozak, Chris & Rick Millikan, Julie Cao, and Carolyn Pullman for their contributions.
1. Vancouver: Watching Plays at the Bard on the Beach Festival
On a hot July morning about three years ago, I went to see Hamlet, one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, at Bard on the Beach in Vanier Park, Vancouver. It was my second time attending Bard, having gone several years ago with my English class. And it was a few months before I was leaving Canada to study literature as an exchange student in the United Kingdom, Shakespeare’s home country.
The play I saw was an adaptation of Hamlet, set in the modern times with television screens, cell phones, and hip music. Although it depicted the same original story, the setting made it seem all the closer to real-life.
Perhaps it’s this universal adaptability that makes Shakespeare still relevant today: the story of Hamlet’s flaws and tragedy continue to permeate contemporary culture by influencing books, film, and especially theatre performances and retellings.
Website: Bard on the Beach
Tips for visiting:
- It’s important to book tickets as early as possible, since some shows are already selling out and the best seats get picked quickly.
- Discounted previews and youth prices (age 9-22) are available
- On the day of your show, arrive early and enjoy a stroll around Vanier Park.
London: The City Where Shakespeare Lived and Worked
2. The Globe Theatre Tour & Exhibit
One of my top things-to-do for my London visit was to “watch a play at the Globe Theatre”. But after I got to the UK, I learned that the plays were only running during warmer seasons, since the Globe was an open-air theatre like its original counterpart and thus affected by the weather.
So instead of watching a play, I joined a guided behind-the-scenes tour of the Globe and saw first-hand the layout that I had learned about in English classes. I walked among the different seats, and heard about ways plays used to be performed–by male actors only, with actual canon fire for effect, candles for light, and even real dead bodies for any deaths in plays. I also visited an exhibit showing the theatre’s history, traditional costumes, and props.
We have come a long way since the old days of watching Shakespeare: plays have been reenacted on stages across the world, adapted for the digital screen, and even transformed into manga. I hope to go back to visit the Globe again one day, to watch a play performed in the traditional space.
Website: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
Tips for visiting:
- Check early in advance to see where shows are happening and reserve seats.
- According to a friend who did watch a play there, you can sometimes buy second-hand tickets from people leaving the theatre during a play (visitors come to watch plays briefly and not necessarily stay for the whole show).
- She also recommended buying standing-room tickets (the ones for “groundlings”), which are closest to the stage.
3. Finding Shakespeare in London
A walk along the Thames River can shed light on Shakespeare’s life and the history of London’s theatre scene, since the south bank of the river was where theatres, gambling, and other forms of “illicit entertainment” thrived, just beyond the city’s edge.
Any fan of his work can visit the British Library rare books exhibit to see preserved manuscripts of his work, including Shakespeare’s First Folio. The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, the only painting considered by experts to accurately represent him, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery. There’s also a statue dedicated to him in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Tips for visiting:
- London is a giant metropolis and difficult to navigate, so it’s extremely important to have a detailed map, ideally showing landmarks and bus/train lines.
- Always be prepared for the travel time to take longer than expected.
- If you’re lost and short on time, call a London cab, since the drivers have thorough knowledge of London landmarks.
London Literary Landmarks: check out my blog post for advice on locating the main literary spots and Harry Potter film locations in London.
Stratford-upon-Avon: Where Shakespeare Lived and Died
4. Visiting Shakespeare’s Birthplace
The first place I headed for in Stratford-upon-Avon was the historic home where Shakespeare was born and grew up. He continued living here for a few years after marrying Anne Hathaway.
The house showed old furniture, clothes, household items, and even children’s cradles from Shakespeare’s time period. There were also actors in costumes demonstrating leather work, since Shakespeare’s father John Shakespeare was a glover and leather tanner.
I was surprised to find a giant poster of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in the top floor of the house; it turned out that he had visited Britain in 2011, and started his trip in the UK with a visit to Shakespeare’s home. The house also entertained visits by literary figures like Charles Dickens, John Keats, and Walter Scott.
Website: Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust
Tips for visiting:
- If you dislike crowds, try to avoid visiting the town during peak hours and holidays, since it’s such a popular attraction.
- There are options to visit Shakespeare’s family homes in and near Stratford-upon-Avon, associated with his mother (Mary Arden’s Farm), wife (Anne Hathaway’s cottage), and daughter and granddaughter (Hall’s Croft).
- Special visitor’s passes are available if you plan to visit multiple places.
5. Explore Stratford-upon-Avon
Many musicians and performers busked on the streets, including a very pale actor who was standing in as Shakespeare’s Ghost. I wondered how Shakespeare would feel about all the people coming to visit him, his town, and even pretending to be him (haha).
To escape the crowds, I headed down to the River Avon for a stroll. Many visitors and families walked there too, but the river water and surrounding greenery were calming and slowed down everyone’s pace.
Tips for visiting:
- Stratford-upon-Avon is a small town and very easy to navigate, especially once you locate the main landmarks.
- The Shakespeare’s Birthplace passes have a very simple map, but you can find a more detailed one on brochures around tourist sites or the visitor’s centre.
Day Trip from Oxford: Stratford-upon-Avon can be explored in reasonable depth within a day. I visited Stratford-upon-Avon via bus on a day trip from the nearby city of Oxford, which is a must-visit for travelers to the UK.
6. Shakespeare’s Grave at Holy Trinity Church
Lit by the golden late afternoon sunlight, the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was baptised and buried, had a graceful solemnity. I couldn’t help but recall the scene of Hamlet visiting a graveyard and finding out from gravediggers that Ophelia had died. Looking at the skulls of the dead, he came to realize that everyone would eventually die and turn to dust.
Walking in the graveyard and up to Shakespeare’s grave, I too was forced to confront the brevity of life and my own mortality. Death felt as close as the gravestones nearby, especially since I was still in shock about my grandma’s sudden passing (she had just passed away while I was staying in a hostel in Oxford).
To this day, I still get shivers whenever I see my photo of Shakespeare’s grave. He left a great legacy on the world through his plays, inspiring audiences with his words and imagination, and showing that language and literature truly have the power to travel across boundaries of place and time.
Website: Holy Trinity Church
- As a working church, the building is open to visitors on most days, but may have sudden schedule changes or closures for special celebrations, funerals, or other services.
- Entry to the church is free but a donation (£3 for general visitors, £2 for seniors/students) is requested for visiting Shakespeare’s grave.
7. Anne Hathaway’s Cottage: Childhood Home of Shakespeare’s Wife
From Ruth Kozak (Ruth Kozak):
“Visiting Anne Hathaway’s house was something I had always wanted to do. I have had a love for Shakespeare’s plays since I was 14 yrs old, seen many of his plays, and grew up in Stratford, Ontario.
The childhood home of Anne Hathaway was built in early 1460’s. The ‘cottage’ is actually a spacious twelve-room Elizabethan farmhouse surrounded by a typical English country garden. In Shakespeare’s day, it was known as Newlands, a thriving farm (36 hectares). It’s thatch-roofed and built with timber framing, traditional Tudor style architecture.
In the spacious drawing room of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is a big carved wooden chair. It’s known as the ‘courting chair’ because it is said this is where the young William Shakespeare sat while visiting and courting his future bride, Anne.
Anne was pregnant at the time of their marriage and reputedly, Shakespeare was involved and had promised to marry another woman. So rumours persisted that he was forced by the Hathaway family to marry Anne. Some historians insist that because of this, Shakespeare loathed his wife and his unhappy marriage spurred his decision to leave Stratford and pursue a career in the theatre.”
Website: Anne Hathaway’s Cottage & Gardens
Tips for visiting:
- The house is situated one mile (1.5 km) west of Stratford-upon-Avon, so it can be easily combined with the visit to the town.
- Some Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust visitor passes cover a visit to the house.
8. Shakespeare’s Way: Journey Between Stratford-upon-Avon to London
From Chris & Rick Millikan (Chris and Rick Millikan):
“How about celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a walking holiday along the route he took between Stratford upon Avon and London? After visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, travel deeper into Shakespeare country by walking along Shakespeare’s Way back to London.
Shakespeare’s commutes began about 1585. Visualize him traveling alone, or with strolling players to entertain at Court. Today, way-markers along public pathways and bridle paths guide walkers of all ages along Shakespeare’s Way. Tramp through pastoral English countryside, as Shakespeare would have. Visit villages and hamlets along the way.
We followed the Bard from his hometown to Oxford. Here he often stopped with friends before continuing another 150 kilometers to London’s Globe Theatre, where he spent his most productive years.”
Website: Shakespeare’s Way
Tips for visiting
- The long-distance walk spans over 146 miles, and can be taken in separate parts. Be prepared for all weather conditions and dress appropriately.
- It links different travel destinations like Stratford-upon-Avon, Oxford, Blenheim Palace, the Cotswolds, and London, offering a different way to explore England.
- While there are waymarkers showing the path, be prepared with a good map, such as this one.
9. Stratford, Ontario: Stratford on the Other Side of the World
“I have lived in Stratford for a year for my employment since last May. Since Stratford shares the name of Shakespeare’s hometown in England, Stratford-native journalist Tom Patterson founded the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1952 and dedicated it to the works of William Shakespeare.
The festival runs from April to October annually and takes place in the Avon Theater, the Festival Theatre, the Studio Theater, and the Tom Patterson Theatre. The festival also features Greek tragedy, contemporary plays, dramas, and musicals.
Last year, I had the opportunity to watch The Sound of Music, Carousel, and The Diary of Anne Frank. But my favorite play is Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which made me realize Shakespeare is a master of characters development. He has the ability to write about the social issues (like gender role) in a witty way.”
Website: Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Tips for visiting:
- Book the festival tickets at least a week in advance.
- If you’re staying for dinner after the show, make sure to reserve the seats at the restaurant.
10. Shakespeare Ghost Town, USA: Shakespeare Off-the-Beaten-Path
“Before last year, the name Shakespeare made me think of actors on stages, high school English homework, and thatched cottages in England. Then, when I was having lunch in Lordsburg, New Mexico, I saw a pamphlet advertising the Shakespeare Ghost Town.
I had never been to a ghost town in the Wild West before. Named in 1879, the town of Shakespeare had miners bringing their finds to assayers, and mining companies storing explosives in town. A spring provided water and a stage coach came through regularly. The blacksmith shop made wagon wheels and tools.
The town was close to Tombstone, and various outlaws, including Billy the Kid, passed through town. At the Stratford Inn on Avon Avenue, there was a gun fight over the last egg. This was followed by a hanging in the dining hall. When a railway was built three miles away, creating Lordsburg, Shakespeare became a ghost town.”
Website: Shakespeare Ghost Town
Tips for visiting:
- Shakespeare Ghost Town is only open for guided tours one weekend per month. Make sure to do your research and schedule accordingly if you want to visit.