An unorthodox post for today, but whatever. You all follow me anyway, and I want to tell a story.
Today is, at the very least, the day William Shakespeare died. Historians don’t know exactly what day he was born, but they do know he was baptized on April 26, 1564. Back in the 16th century, babies were generally baptized three days after birth, so they like to say Shakespeare was born on April 23 as well. A fit of cosmic tidiness. (Of course, this is to say nothing of the troublesome switch from Julian to Gregorian calendars. That messed all sorts of dates up.)
In 2010, I studied abroad at the University of Cambridge through their fantastic international scholars program. The lovely people at Cambridge were kind enough to set up day trips throughout the month we stayed there, and one of the last trips they organized was a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, to seeAs You Like It. I signed up for that right away, mostly for the chance to see Shakespeare’s grave and hometown.
It’s kind of a tourist trap, if the British Isles have those. I’ve been to American tourist traps far and wide, and I was a little stunned to see how kitschy everything was. For nominal fees you could visit cottages where people with only vague connections to Shakespeare were born — everyone tried to eke out a living from him. But one of the most startling things about Stratford-upon-Avon was how conscious they were of Shakespeare; he waseverywhere, from a bust on the bank to the statues in the park to the names of ice cream sold at the stores. He’s the patron saint of Stratford-upon-Avon, and he didn’t even have to go to the trouble of canonization.
He’s buried at the Holy Trinity Church, an ancient and crumbling Anglican church nestled away from the touristy parts of the city. When you reach the church you’re greeted first by its cemetery, a crumbling, moss-infested affair. My hometown was founded in the 1850s, centuries after the first person was laid to rest at the Holy Trinity Church. It exudes an oldness that the New World just can’t compare to.
Inside, the church looks not unlike the Catholic one I grew up attending. There are great stained glass windows and stone floors and walls that leave everything feeling chilled, even in the middle of July. The Shakespeare clan isn’t interred in the main chamber, they’re all in a little chapel off to the side.
Standing above the grave of Shakespeare is a bust — one of the very few portrayals of Shakespeare done by someone who actually knew what he looked like, and one approved of by the family. Unfortunately, in between Shakespeare’s death and today, someone thought it would be a better idea to whitewash it, and then it was painted over by someone who probably never saw an Englishman in his life. So that’s a bit of a… bust. (GET IT?)
But the grave itself is still there. In the centuries since Shakespeare died, the inscription on the flagstone has faded, but the helpful people at Holy Trinity Church keep a likeness of the inscription propped up against the grave. In the curious writing of 17th century English, it reads:
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forebear
To dig the dust enclosed here
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones
Always someone with a flair for words, that Bill.
When I saw the grave, I took a moment to thank him. My two greatest artistic passions in this world, writing and acting, converge neatly with Shakespeare’s canon. I’m most proud of the two Shakespearean productions I was a part of; one of my novels is, at least in part, inspired byThe Tempest. I am a different person for Shakespeare, and I wanted to let him, or at least the dust that had been his bones, know that.
So happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare.