Monday, June 11, 2012

A few years ago, an old World War II poster was rediscovered among a pile of dusty, antiquarian books. It read: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. That simple slogan, so quintessentially British, is plastered everywhere now—on T-shirts and coffee mugs, and in endless variations, such as KEEP CALM AND STUDY (in Oxford) and NOW PANIC AND FREAK OUT (back in London).

I thought about that poster this morning as I sat at the train station in Leomington Spa. I was traveling between Oxford and Stratford-Upon-Avon, but I missed my connection in Banbury. A conductor there told me to go on to Leomington, where I learned that my only two options were equally bad—either wait two hours in the cold and pouring rain for a direct train to Stratford, or take a train all the way up to Birmingham and another one back. Instead, I pulled out my iPhone and used the GPS to check my location. Incredibly, I was just 11.6 miles away from my hotel.

What’s the practical answer to keeping calm and carrying on? I took a cab!

So here I am in the city of Shakespeare’s birth, eating a late lunch at Café Rouge, as droplets of rain creep down the red and gold letters painted on the window in front of me—Plats du Jour, Menu Enfant, Prix Fixe, and Vins Fins. I’m enjoying a croque-monsieur, a decidedly French sandwich that reminds me of Paris, but the weather and the steaming pot of tea before me are entirely British, and for the latter, at least, I am grateful.

I’m staying at the Legacy Falcon Hotel on Chapel Street, next to a fine row of 15th century almshouses and a grammar school. It’s a creaky, old building with exposed oak timbers turned black with age. There’s a cozy lounge inside with an open fireplace and a straight-back settee with worn red cushions and soft pillows. It’s the kind of place where Falstaff and a young Prince Hal might stop by for a pint. There is a new building sewn onto the original, however, and my room is situated there, pleasantly large and blessedly modern.

After settling in, I grab my umbrella, walk down Chapel Lane and then bear right along the River Avon, toward Holy Trinity Church, which holds the grave of William Shakespeare. It’s a beautiful place in its own right, with a graceful Gothic spire, but most of the 200,000 tourists that come here every year do so for one reason only, and the church is pragmatic about it. A sign out front confirms that Shakespeare’s grave is inside, and another in the nave gently points “this way.”

Shakespeare is buried beneath a funerary monument mounted to the wall in the church’s chancel. A badly eroded stone slab in the floor below displays his famous epitaph:

GOOD FREND FOR IESUS SAKE FORBEARE,
TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOASED HEARE.
BLESTE BE YE MAN YT SPARES THES STONES,
AND CVRST BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES.

When Washington Irving visited Stratford-Upon-Avon in the early 19th century, he came to Holy Trinity Church and stood where I am standing now. “As I trod the sounding pavement,” he later wrote, “there was something intense and thrilling in the idea that in very truth the remains of Shakespeare were mouldering beneath my feet.” And here they stay, long turned to dust. Because of the threat in his epitaph, Shakepeare’s remains were never reinterred in Westminster Abbey alongside other great English writers and poets.

For some reason, the site reminds me uncomfortably of the time I wrote an essay on Henry IV, Part I in 11th grade English based almost entirely on Cliff Notes, and I hang my head in shame for the “A” that I received, convinced nonetheless that I am not alone in my angst over reading Shakespeare’s verse.

Determined to make amends, I stop by the Royal Shakespeare Company on my way back to the hotel and inquire about tickets for the night’s performances. I have two options. I can see a re-imagined version of Julius Caesar set in contemporary Africa on the main stage, or I can watch an evil-hearted Richard III cry “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” in the smaller Swan Theatre next door.

Years ago in school I had to memorize the famous monologue in which Brutus says: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is often interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar.” I’ve also seen the Temple of Caesar in the Roman Forum in Italy, marking the place where Caesar’s mutilated corpse was cremated. Seeing the murderous act and hearing the speech on stage appeals to me, but admittedly the post-modern setting does not. In the end, the intrigue of the princes in the tower wins out, and I opt for the hunchback.

After a relaxed dinner at Pizza Express, I head back to the Swan and settle into the cheap seats high above the stage, in the second row of the second balcony. For £16 I’m not expecting much, but the view is shockingly good! The theatre is small and intimate, and there is a wooden railing in front of me. I lean forward against it with my elbows and prop by chin in my hands, transfixed by the world that has been conjured before me.

This is not the Shakespeare I struggled to read in my youth. Despite—or perhaps because of—the spartan stage, the minimal props, and the vaguely modern costumes—the text has come alive, and I watch in fascination as Rupert Goold’s Richard spins off kilter into a final, neurotic insanity before meeting his fate on Bosworth Field.

For a night at the theatre, I’ve had a rollicking good time, as playwrights always intended in the Elizabethan era. It was an age when audiences were crammed with boisterous groundlings, willing to throw rotted fruit at plays that met their displeasure. Somewhere along the way, we got it in our heads that Shakespeare was high brow, and that actors needed to recite his lines with a proper and mannered respect.

“What fools these mortals be,” he might say. 

On the short walk back to my hotel in the dark, I can’t quite remember why I ever feared the Bard.

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