Although Stratford-upon-Avon is only an hour’s drive (or a 2-hour train ride) from London, the birthplace of poet and playwright William Shakespeare is worth more than a day trip. The charming river city has embraced its Shakespearean roots and created several interesting experiences to immerse visitors in the Bard’s life and times.
From costumed schoolmasters teaching grammar lessons in the same classroom where the young Will learned to write, to actors performing famous scenes from Shakespeare’s plays in the home where he was born, the world’s most famous writer comes alive in this town.
Here are 10 ways to learn more about Shakespeare, his family, and his work in Stratford-upon-Avon.
1. Take A Walking Tour With A Shakespeare Expert
“All the world’s a stage,” and certainly Stratford-upon-Avon is a stage for those enthusiastic about Shakespeare. Why not tour the charming, compact town with a professional guide registered with the United Kingdom’s Blue Badge Guided Tours? When booking, be sure to request a guide who will perform a soliloquy!
For more entertainment, book with Stratford Town Walk, which offers both private and regularly scheduled public tours. The modest fee includes coupons for generous discounts to enter Shakespeare’s birth home and school and to shop, dine, or drink around town.
Guides from either company will take you by the Bard’s birthplace, grammar school, family homes, and grave and will regale you with anecdotes about the various Shakespeare statues and persistent rumors: Did Shakespeare employ ghostwriters?
Be prepared to be on your feet for a couple of hours. These walking tours are conducted regardless of weather and do not include entry to Shakespeare’s birth home or school, both of which require a separate entrance fee.
If, after dusk, you are still eager to explore, Stratford Town Walk offers an evening ghost tour. Reservations are recommended.
2. Visit The Home Where Shakespeare Was Born
Nearly 300 years after Shakespeare was born in April of 1564, the Bard’s birthplace was nearly dismantled and sent to America to become part of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Instead, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens raised money to keep the home in Stratford, where today you can explore the very rooms where William and his family lived.
John Shakespeare, William’s father, was a successful glovemaker, and his workshop is on the ground floor of the birthplace home. John and his wife, Mary Arden, lived in the home — the largest on Henley Street — for half a century, and it’s where their eight children were born and raised.
The Shakespeare patriarch was a wealthy and influential man who served as alderman and mayor of Stratford. But new research indicates that he was an illegal trader of highly profitable wool — and that may be how Will’s early plays were financed.
3. Sit In The Classroom Where Shakespeare Learned To Write
Young Will attended grammar school at the local Guildhall, where he learned more than how to construct sentences and read Latin and Greek. Visiting troupes of actors often performed at the Guildhall in order to get a license to perform in town. This may have been where the future playwright first became inspired by the stage!
Today, the 600-year-old King Edward VI School is still an active institution, where pupils now learn Mandarin as well as Latin. Visits to Shakespeare’s classroom begin at 11 a.m. on school days, after the current students have left the building, and feature a Tudor grammar lesson from a costumed headmaster.
Might this have been where the seven-year-old future playwright struggled with his foreign language lessons and lamented, “But, for mine own part, it was Greek to me”?
4. Pay Your Respects At Shakespeare’s Grave
The Shakespeares were active in their local parish. Holy Trinity Church — still a working community church — is where baby Will was baptized in April of 1564 and accomplished playwright William was buried in April of 1616. Visiting the church is free, but be sure to check the church’s website so as not to crash a wedding!
In Shakespeare’s day, one had to buy a burial spot inside the church’s prestigious chancel — which the Bard did for a whopping £440. Anticipating that grave robbers might disturb his remains, he penned a curse:
Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
That’s one way to get the last word!
5. Visit Other Shakespeare Family Homes
By 1597, Shakespeare was not only a prominent playwright, but also a wealthy businessman. The new home he bought for his family was the largest in Stratford — and would be the place where he’d die 19 years later. Today, Shakespeare’s New Place is a garden. Items on exhibit include a signet ring that may have been used by the Bard to affix his initials onto warm wax to seal documents.
Around the corner is the home of Susanna, Shakespeare’s daughter, and her physician husband, John Hall. Susanna lived at Hall’s Croft for only three years; after her father died, she moved into his house. Today, visitors can see John’s Jacobean apothecary equipment and partake in informative parlor talks.
A mile and a half outside of town is the charming thatched-roof home where Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, was born and raised. The home’s earliest timber dates to 1463, and the Hathaway family lived in the home continuously until 1911. Here you can see the chair where Will courted his future bride. The house and gardens are accessible by a footpath from Stratford.
Another short excursion from Stratford is the Tudor farm where Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, was raised. Today, Tudors run the farm much as the Arden family would have — cooking, tending crops, and feeding the animals.
6. Take In A Play
“The play’s the thing,” Hamlet famously crowed, and it sure is in Stratford-upon-Avon, where the world-renowned Royal Shakespeare Company has been performing under one name or another since 1879.
These days, the Royal Shakespeare Company is known for its daring use of modern costumes, sets, and technology to infuse new life into Shakespeare’s plays. I still get goosebumps when I remember Marc Antony’s plea over Caesar’s mutilated body in the company’s 2012 production of Julius Caesar, which was set in a modern, unnamed African country and performed by an all-black cast.
You can take in a Royal Shakespeare Company performance at one of three Stratford theaters.
The largest venue is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which was recently remodeled to mimic the courtyard experience from Shakespeare’s time. It features a main thrust stage and seating on three sides. No one is more than 50 feet from the action!
The Swan Theatre shares the same public space as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Yet, with only 426 seats, it offers a more intimate experience.
Rounding out the offerings is The Other Place, which showcases new plays, live music, and spoken word performances.
Or catch free outdoor pop-up performances of sonnets and monologues from various plays.
7. Go Behind The Scenes Of A Shakespeare Play
The Royal Shakespeare Company also offers several behind-the-scenes tours, including peeks behind the stage and into the wardrobe closets. You can even try on some period costumes!
8. Float Down The River Avon
After many false starts and some questionable financing, the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal was completed in 1816, linking Stratford’s Bancroft Basin to Birmingham. While the main product shipped back then was coal, today the Basin is a colorful floating market of boats selling ice cream and other treats.
View the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from the water by taking a canal and river tour, passing through a working canal lock. The running audio commentary alone is worth the trip! But the flocking swans and the pastoral riverbank may have you nuzzling your partner and whispering, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
9. Dive Deeper Into Shakespeare At The Museum Reading Room
The world’s largest Shakespeare museum is on the grounds of the Bard’s birth home on Henley Street. The Reading Room’s collections include a First Folio published in 1623. You can contact the Reading Room before your trip to request to join a special-interest talk curated and delivered by members of the collections team. These presentations sometimes include treasures from the museum’s vault.
To whet your appetite before your visit, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust offers two dozen online exhibits.
10. Tower Over Shakespeare’s Town
The views from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s iconic tower and rooftop terrace restaurant are spectacular. The 118-foot tower was inspired by the water tower of the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which was built in 1879 and burned down in 1926.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre that stands today was completed in 1932 and designed by one of the UK’s first female architects, Elisabeth Scott, who was only 29 years old (then still too young to vote!) when she won an international competition to create the new theater. Scott’s achievement was so historic that her portrait is one of 13 featured on the pages of the UK’s new passports.
After a few days absorbing the Bard, you’ll leave Stratford-upon-Avon murmuring Juliet’s famous farewell: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
For more information about Warwickshire, including explorer passes, visit Shakespeare’s England.