Paul Talbot knows a lot about pee. In fact there happens to be a lot to know about the subject.
For the past three years, Talbot has played the role of William Shakespeare’s father in the house where Shakespeare was born and raised in the English village of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Nearly half a million people visit the house known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace every year to learn about the life of one of the world’s greatest poets and playwrights, because to understand Shakespeare one must understand the place and time in which he lived.
It’s not surprising to learn that life was vastly different in the 1500s from our modern day, but few visitors are prepared for Talbot’s revelations on the useful nature of urine.
John Shakespeare was a glove maker and urine was used in the tanning process of hides to make them soft and supple. It was also used to cleanse and disinfect wounds, in lanoline production, and as one of the components in fabric dye.
Each family in the village would have collected their daily urine output and set it out on the step every morning for pick up. According to Talbot, they would have been paid a small sum for this valuable resource.
Visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace opens a window into another time and provides some insights into the great man’s life. Although Shakespeare is renowned as one of the world’s great influences, very little is actually known about him.
Historians have been able to piece together some information from registrar records, court records, wills, marriage certificates and even his tombstone. They have also learned about him from visiting his hometown and studying the era in which he lived.
A visit to Stratford-upon-Avon is a must for anyone who loves Shakespeare and wants to have some insight into what inspired him to become the great man he was.
In the town, you can visit the place where he was born and his final resting place, as well as several other properties linked to his family. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust organization, which owns and operates the home known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace, has the societal goal of “leading the world’s enjoyment and understanding of Shakespeare’s work, life and times,” making the house the ideal place to start an exploration and study of William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace is a half-timbered building located on Henley Street. It was purchased by John Shakespeare in 1556 and is the place where William Shakespeare and his brothers and sisters were born and raised. John and his wife Mary lost two children before William was born in the spring of 1564. After his birth, they had five more children, including another child who died young.
John worked as a glove maker and was a very prominent citizen in Stratford, serving as a town councillor for many years and as mayor in 1568, when William was four years old. He also traded in wool and was involved in money lending.
His moderate financial status allowed William to receive a good education — graduating from his studies at the ripe old age of 14.
Inside the home, costumed interpreters recreate life in the 1500s when Shakespeare was growing up. After entering a parlour with a huge stone fireplace, you pass into a small unheated chamber that likely served as John Shakespeare’s workshop. In this part of the house, Paul Talbot teaches visitors about glove making in the 14th century.
Tradition has it that the chamber over the parlour served as the main family bedroom and the birthing room. As you walk through the furnished bedroom, it is hard to imagine how so many people might have slept in such a small space.
In an upstairs space, you learn more about Shakespeare’s life in a small museum.
Perhaps the best part of this part of the tour is the costumed actors who act out a small scene from a classic Shakespearean play. On the day we visited, they were performing a scene from Hamlet.
After a tour of the house and the period gardens outside of it, you are left with no doubt that the Stratford where Shakespeare grew up was vastly different from the modern town.
In size, atmosphere, lifestyle and even smell (thanks to the urine), this town has changed dramatically. But even though Shakespeare spent a good portion of his working life in London, something always drew him back to the heart of England.
At the end of his prolific career, the Bard went back to Stratford — to live out his days near the River Avon. More than four centuries later, his spirit still seems to be present.
If you go:
• In 1847, Shakespeare’s Birthplace was purchased by a body of trustees and is now managed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Charles Dickens and other famous people of influence helped to raise funds to establish a permanent curator for the house and ensure it remained opened for the public to enjoy.
• Shakespeare’s birthplace is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission will cost £12.50 for adults, £8 for children, and £33.50 for families. For more information on Shakespeare’s Birthplace or the other museums and properties operated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust organization, visit www.shakespeare.org.uk
• A new attraction at operated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is called Digging for Shakespeare. Archaeological experts are carrying out excavations at the site of Shakespeare’s final home. They will be digging in three locations and guests can join them in uncovering the past and talking to the experts.
• While in Stratford-upon-Avon, be sure to visit the Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptized and buried. His wife, Ann Hathaway, daughter Susanna and son-in-law Dr. John Hall and Thomas Nash (first husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth) are buried in the chancel alongside him. The church is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from 12.30 p.m. onwards on Sundays. A £3 donation is recommended.
• Taking in a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company is another highlight of any visit to Stratford. For information or tickets, visit www.rsc.org.uk or call 44 (0) 1789-403444. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is undergoing a multimillion-pound renovation (reopening late 2010), but the show goes on inside a temporary playhouse.
• To get to Stratford, fly to London or Birmingham, England, and take a train to Stratford. For details on BritRail passes, contact 1-866-BRITRAIL, www.britrail.com. For train schedules, visit www.nationalrail.co.uk
• For more information, go to VisitBritain at www.visitbritain.ca; Visit England at +44 (0)20 8846 9000, www.visitengland.com; or Shakespeare Country, at +44-(0)8701-607930, www.shakespeare-country.co.uk
Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations
Shakespeare was baptized on April 25, so historians surmise that he was born on April 23, 1564. In honour of its most famous son, the town of Stratford holds an annual birthday celebration on the weekend that is on or after April 23.
This celebration has been taking place for more than two centuries and features a myriad of entertainment including street theatre, the Shakespeare Morris Men, Children’s Country Dancing, the Band of the Corps of Royal Engineers and the Coventry Corps of Drums.
The highlight of the weekend is undoubtedly the Procession and the unfurling of the flags and laying of floral tributes at Holy Trinity Church — where the Bard is buried. The festival will be held on April 22 to 25 this year.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.