I have been teaching literature and writing to high school and university students for seven years. Each year, I spend one or two months on the work of William Shakespeare. I am sure there are at least a few of you who, after reading that past sentence, unconsciously cringed over a past memory; one of your own teachers inflicting upon you what one of my students once called “an inhumane torture.” Yet, I believe and I want my students to believe that William Shakespeare and his work are among the few precious gifts we can receive in our lifetime.
But, wait. This is a travel blog. What’s any of that got to do with travel? The answer is . . . a lot. I use what I call Shakespeare tourism as a foundational method to reach my students. For most students, the stories in books are dead. They have a difficult time appreciating them. They need to experience them. Going, seeing, touching, smelling, tasting the places connected to Shakespeare are the catalyst of a deeper appreciation for the great bard.
One of the places I take my students to is Shakespeare’s birthplace, Statford-upon-Avon, England. The small, market town, located about one hundred miles from London, celebrates all things Shakespeare. In fact, almost five million people travel to the town each year to visit the sites associated with him.
My favorite place in Stratford is Holy Trinity Church—the site of Shakespeare’s grave. When I first tell students that we will be visiting a church, almost every time I am met with a collective groan. Even when I tell them that the church contains the tomb of Shakespeare, it’s easy to see that their interest has not been kindled. Yet, that never deters me. I will drag them kicking and screaming if that’s what it takes. But, that’s not what it takes. All it takes is a simple mystery to get their attention. The mystery of Shakespeare’s grave is just the thing.
Once inside Holy Trinity Church, I guide the students to the front altar. There they can stand a few feet from Shakespeare’s final resting place. Above the small tomb, lies one of the most interesting grave markers in the world. The small stone reads:
GOOD FRIEND FOR JESUS SAKE FOREBEAR,
TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOSED HERE.
BLESTE BE YE MAN YT SPARES THESE STONES,
AND CURSED BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES.
Many people believe Shakespeare himself penned these lines. Regardless of whether he wrote them are not, it’s almost universally agreed that Shakespeare chose them to mark his tomb. After watching the students read the strange inscription, I ask, “What in the world do you think the epitaph means?” Some students will quickly say it means not to dig me up. But, why, I ask them.
The truth is no one knows. Some people claim that it was written by Shakespeare to prevent his interment at Westminister Abbey—the site of so many graves of famous English men and women. Others claim that it was meant to dissuade anyone from placing his wife, with whom he had an interesting and unclear relationship, in the tomb with him. Still others say that something of great value is hidden in the tomb—such as a final collection of unpublished plays. In the end, no one is sure. This mystery challenges students to explore the answers for themselves. In their exploration many come away with a deeper knowledge of and interest in William Shakespeare. This interest is due to a strange little stone, in a small church, in a rural town in England. Travel has the ability to change us. Perhaps a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon will change your cringes into excitement the next time you hear the name William Shakespeare.