Everyone has an opinion about Shakespeare. Either you love his work or you hate it, reading Romeo & Juliet in school may have captured your attention, may have encouraged you to read more and more or maybe, like many young people, it ruined Shakespeare for you forever. Whatever you may feel about the Bard’s work, he has been a profound influence on English language and culture. I happen to be one of the crazy nerds with an enormous love of Shakespeare. My family frequents The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival every summer to get our fix of outdoor theatre and Shakespeare in one go. I loved these nights even as a child when my understanding of Shakespeare’s language was negligible. It is for all of these reasons that I felt the need to go to Stratford-upon-Avon when I returned to England this summer. And my solo trip to the Bard’s hometown was well worth it.
Much of Stratford’s fame comes from being Shakespeare’s hometown and this is remarkably apparent. The town is a strange and wonderful mixture of the sixteenth and the twenty-first centuries. Modern roads run past the house Shakespeare was born in, a modern parking lot abuts the house where his wife, Anne Hathaway, lived before their marriage. Despite this modernity, the houses themselves are extremely well preserved, essentially unchanged with the same stones on the floor of the kitchen, and the same thatch roofs. The Five Shakespeare houses are all managed as part of the Shakespeare Centre and each of them has its own character and history told through exhibits and tours. Mary Arden’s farm is a living history museum and Anne Hathaway’s house has a huge and beautiful garden that I wandered through for hours. These houses are a remarkable journey through time and I loved exploring the places Shakespeare would have known and the history of his life.
Stratford itself is a quite town. The river creates a relaxing atmosphere running right through the main square, past the Royal Shakespeare Company, and around Trinity Church. I spent a lot of my time walking along the river, enjoying nature while also being surrounded by people. The sun shone my entire time in Stratford and I spent as much time outside as I could. Stratford is without doubt a beautiful town, very touristy due of course to Shakespeare, but peaceful in its own way.
One of the main reasons to go to Stratford is to see a Shakespeare play. So, on a Monday night I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company or RSC perform Henry IV: Part II, never have I gotten a better deal. For £5, I got to see an incredible performance from the third row. I do not know the Henry IV plays very well, in fact I had never seen them performed, nor had I read them, I knew them simply by reputation. While I didn’t know much about the play, I absolutely loved it. The acting was incredible, the staging simple and understated but brilliant and completely fitting for the play. The actors were able to use the power of language, both verbal and physical, to bring the play to life. For play enthusiasts, history lovers, or anyone really I highly recommend a trip to Stratford and of course while there you must catch an RSC performance, the best Shakespeare performances in the world.
Three years ago I journeyed to England for the first time. I was a certified anglophile, no doubt about it. I had spent most of high school and college immersing myself in British history, British novels, British music, and British television. I was an obsessive fan of the BBC and Jane Austen, a fanatic of kings, queens, and lineage. Despite this obsession my very first trip to England was during my junior year of college when I moved to the UK for six months to study at Oxford University.
My two terms at Oxford were incredible. I made friends with all the British Freshers, I immersed myself in my studies, reading large historical texts and writing essays. By the second term I could easily finish an entire bottle of wine at Formal Hall, go clubbing into the wee hours of the morning and wake up the next day to complete half-finished essays. It was a lifestyle I cannot even imagine today.
I returned to England this summer for the first time since I left in the spring of 2012. I returned to Oxford and to Regent’s Park, the tiny college of 90 undergrads where I had spent six months three years previously. I returned to see my friends as they completed their time at Oxford, finally finishing their Finals after three years of hard work. It was strange to go back, and yet perfect. It was a bookend, a way to close a chapter that I felt had been left unfinished. I experienced Regent’s summer ball, the Final Fling, and reveled in the English sunshine.
We went punting on the Isis in a lazy exploration of Oxford from the river complete with champagne and snacks. We spent an afternoon at Port Meadow, swimming in the Thames, and drinking beer under the shady umbrella of a large willow tree. We celebrated the end of University, as all my friends finished their Finals. I was able to enjoy an English summer with good weather, sunshine, green fields, and meandering rivers. I spent quality time with the friends I had made three years before and I met new friends.
It was a different Eliza who returned to Oxford this summer. I felt old. Three years before my friends and I had been on equal footing now we were in different stages of life. They were celebrating the end of three years of college, celebrating the beginning of the future, and realizing for the first time the uncertainty and the questions that I have been grappling with for over a year. Our connection was different than before, I didn’t go out as much as I had, and some people I had been very close to, I no longer had any connection with and those who I had been distant with I found myself hanging out with a lot more. Time changes people and distance changes people. Every year we continue to grow, change, and transform. Some people will be with you for the long hall; others are shooting stars, important and life changing for a flash, forever changing who you are but not with you for long.
Regent’s will always have a special place in my heart. The tightknit community I joined three years ago was crazy, wild, loving, and all together awesome. That interconnected group will be friends for a very long time and I count myself very lucky that I got to be a part, however small, of such a special group of people.