On Monday evening, 16 March 2020 I was consulting with colleagues in the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon about whether, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, we should cancel our upcoming events, when notifications popped up on my computer informing me firstly that the Royal Shakespeare Theatres were closing down, and then that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust properties were closing down, both with immediate effect. Our decision was made for us.
On Tuesday the Birthday Celebrations at the end of April were cancelled and since then the town’s tourist attractions have followed suit. Stratford Town Walks are suspended, and as from Thursday 19 March Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall is closed. The Guild Chapel remains open for quiet contemplation but all services are cancelled. Holy Trinity Church is holding services but is closed to tourists. Checking the website this morning Tudor World, an independent museum in Sheep Street, appears to be still open. Henley Street, newly-repaved, is almost eerily quiet.
Non Shakespeare-related events are also being cancelled including the Shakespeare Marathon, the Arts Festival, the Spring Literary Festival and the River Festival.
Charity shops are closing. Stratford is a haven for retired people: cultural offers are normally everywhere and the town is a lovely place for friends and relatives to visit. Many tourist sites, including RSC, SBT, the churches and Schoolroom, rely on volunteers, many of whom are in the at risk group. And the volunteers themselves enjoy the social stimulation of volunteering.
We don’t know yet if total lockdown will be enforced in the UK. But for now, if you’re not in self-isolation, and in Stratford, there are still things you can do. Town centre businesses are open and hanging baskets, troughs and flower beds are in bloom making it a pleasure to walk round while the “Cradle to Grave” pavement plaques will guide you around the historic streets and buildings. It’s easier than usual to visualise the town as it was before the age of the car. Shakespeare monuments like the Town Hall statue and the Gower Memorial are outdoors and the Riverside walks are as popular as ever.
This is of course a time to follow official advice and by the time this blog is read it may already be out of date. Safety has to be our priority, like Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona we need “to walk alone, like one that had the pestilence”. If we are lucky, the worst we will have to put up with is boredom, and I’m going to be publishing some ideas for staving this off in a day or two. For now I’d like to share one offering with you. A few years ago Jonathan Bate, in collaboration with SBT, created an online course Shakespeare and his world, connecting objects in the SBT’s collections with Shakespeare. The course is not currently available, but Professor Bate has generously made available the excellent short videos which he made for it. Do check them out: hopefully it won’t be too long before we can enjoy the real things again.