Thursday, July 15, 2010


Aah… you’re still here! I know, the serene Avon holds you, shimmering silver and gold in the evening sun, like a river of molten mercury flowing past the graves and gardens at Trinity Chapel and the quaint little town of Stratford. You wonder how things might’ve been, 400 years ago, when the town’s favourite son, William Shakespeare was still a boy. He must’ve skipped along cobbled streets and grassy trails, swung along branches that reach across the river, chased sheep that dot the pastures, and then tired and weary, he must’ve sat by the river, dipped his feet in the Avon’s cool waters, looked up at the darkening sky and heard a nightingale pour her heart into the coming night. And that place and time steeped in magic and romance, you would imagine, must’ve stirred in the little poet’s warm beating heart the first lines of a sonnet…

Hardly, I’d say, for Stratford-upon-Avon in the time of Shakespeare was nothing like this sweet little town that it has grown up to be.

In fact Shakespeare lived in a time of a great deep and enduring stench! Streets were overflowing with garbage. Dead animals flung outside the immediate town precincts, would putrefy and melt, gory bit by gory bit, keeping the town gates protected, as much by moats and walls as it was by the encircling and overwhelming odour emanating from the cadavers. However, chances are, the people of Stratford-upon-Avon, including old Will, might scarcely have noticed that “the air smelt funny”. Nor would you if you endured a bath, not once a day or month but only about once a year… if you happened to be squeaky-clean sorts that is, and ended up dipping more than just the customary ankles and hands in the annual-bath tub.

During the reign of the Terrible Tudors (late 1400s till the early 1600s), England had developed a curious apathy for water. While in Canterbury, I’d heard of Thomas Becket, considered a saint not only for embracing death for the church but by some quirk of English logic, deemed saintly also because his unwashed clothes, which at the time of his death, were found to be teeming with lice.

Guides in Stratford tell you that most families ‘bathed’ once a year – a hurried dip in a tub, first by the master of the house, then the wife and children. Finally the servants, who were more likely to emerge dirtier than when they’d entered the by now thick reeking sludge, after wallowing in a year’s grit, grime, pus and fleas. Indeed, Henry VIII was known to have married more oft en than washed.

Imagine having to talk, kiss and make love to someone caked in a layer of dirt, sweat and squashed bugs… oh and did I happen to mention the usual score of sores and boils per head? Well it couldn’t have been too bad, since you or I wouldn’t have been any different in those times either. Who knows, maybe they even had a nice ‘morning-after’ ritual of scraping a dead dried bug off one’s back and placing it lovingly in the other’s hand… ‘a little something to remember me by… darling!’

Anyway, the real star of those times, it turns out, wasn’t Old Will but the plague. The plague nearly claimed young William and many times later in his life, the plague would swoop down like a giant black bird of death, leaving behind all who came under its shadow, dying or dead. The theatres would be closed on such occasions, perhaps giving William time to think, reflect and stoke his creative fires.

So it wasn’t romance and beauty but disease and squalor that dominated the world of the man Paul Johnson calls ‘the most creative man’ in the history of the world. So what inspired such greatness in him? Was it a spark of love then, as John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love would suggest, that set the bard’s creative embers afire? Well, whatever little we know of Shakespeare would suggest not, for his marriage to Anne Hathaway, (yes, it’s nearly the same name, but had the one of yore been anything like the one from our times, shouldn’t she have inspired Will to twin sonnets just as easily as she inspired him to twin children?) is strangely devoid of any record of passion or strife. The only words of love and devotion that Shakespeare’s known to have dedicated to a real person were addressed not to a lady of delicate charms but to a young lad, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. Whether William dedicated his soft and beautiful words and erotic poems to the Earl because he sought his patronage or more is open to conjecture, but what was it if not love that made him great?

It wasn’t his education surely, for besides spending time in grammar school, Will had precious little by way of formal education, especially compared to rivals like Christopher Marlowe who’d been to university. What then spurred his quill to such glory?

Shakespeare experts say that muse and magic aside, Will can still rise above his life and times and touch us even today with his words – words that no one knew or spoke before he did – because of his faith in that torrent of emotions and words that raged inside him, like a pair of amorous serpents, bound and meshed in love, and the freedom with which he set them free, without fear of censure or ridicule, coupled with his ability to reach out to the common folk, making them feel and see what he saw and felt. So there you have it – a life etched into the heart of time, and of generations, burnt in with unbridled passion, tempered with an empathetic word…

To be or not to be the genius he was born to be was never the question for Will,

And yet I surrender my gift s to needs, ‘tis I, weak of will….