THEY have the makings of a good soap opera – a lecherous two-timing toff’s attempts to seduce two married women and the guy who pursues one woman only to turn his attention to another.
It seems nothing changes in the sometimes callous and often hilarious game of love. William Shakespeare wrote these tales more than four centuries ago and they are as relevant today as they were then.
So in this, the 400th anniversary year of his death, I’m on the trail of England’s great bard (and some other greats from the arts) but not in the most likely location.
It’s not Stratford-upon-Avon for me but Windsor and the 15-mile or so stretch of (trek-able) Thames pathway from the Royal Berkshire castle town to picturesque Marlow and Cookham.
Shakespeare had strong links with Windsor Castle’s royal court and wrote the comedy The Merry Wives Of Windsor while staying in the town. The play – featuring would-be two-timer Sir John Falstaff and the wives he plans to dupe is believed to have been commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I for a celebration at the castle towards the end of the 16th Century.
Throughout 2016 its Royal Library is marking the anniversary with a special display of the royal family’s centuries’ long love affair with Shakespeare. It brings together for the first time books, maps and prints acquired by monarchs, along with works of art by members of the royals inspired by Shakespeare.
And what an exhibition it is. On display for the first time is Shakespeare’s First Folio acquired by George IV when Prince of Wales. And I’m in awe at a copy of his Second Folio which bears notes by both Charles I and George III. I learn that Charles probably read the Folio (published 1632) while imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle before his execution 17 years later. The King wrote the words ‘Dum Spiro Spero’ (‘While I breathe, I hope’) on its flyleaf and, like a true fan, made a note of some names of the characters from his comedies.
A drawing of Romeo and Juliet by Princess Victoria aged about 15, before she became Queen, is also on display as well as journal entries made by her many years later.
Describing her experience of a performance of Hamlet at the castle the Queen wrote that it was the “most interesting, thrilling and heartrending play”.
But if you’re not into the Bard, there’s plenty more to do in Windsor. You can tour the castle and St George’s Chapel, have an evening at the Royal Windsor Race Course, or, if you have the kids in tow, have a day or two at the nearby Legoland resort just a short bus or taxi ride away.
I’m here solo and relaxed at Marlow’s luxury Macdonald hotel The Compleat Angler – built a few decades after the English Bard’s death and named after the Izzak Walton book published around the same time.
I could choose to have a drink in the hotel’s 400-year-old oak panelled cocktail bar but decide to sit oustide and watch pleasure craft ply their way along a sun speckled river.
Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary lived in the area between 1817 and 1818 and she is said to have completed Frankenstein here.
In the adjacent parish of Cookham, home to one of England’s oldest coaching inns, the Bel & Dragon (1417), the arts also flourish.
Cookham is said to be the inspiration for Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 book Wind In the Willows and was the home of one of Britain’s greatest 20th century painters, Sir Stanley Spencer. It still boasts a gallery of his work.
Each July the parish is the location for the fascinating and colourful Royal Swan Upping – or mute swan census – which would have been well known to Shakespeare.
But it’s Cookham’s celebration of the bard that interests me. Cue its wonderfully talented Cantorum Choir and the June 25th concert If Musicke Be The Food Of Love. The songsters’ reference to the capricious Orsino’s opening speech in Twelfth Night makes me smile.
And I chuckle as I read the poster that hauls my beloved Bard smack bang into the 21st Century: “Shakespeare songs including divers sweete aires by Masters Whitacre, Tavener, Rutter, Shearing and Vaughan Williams and younge Mr Bernstein, his West Side Story.”
That’s a date then!
Heathrow is 12 miles from Windsor, 15 from Marlow.
Rates for the Macdonald Compleat Angler start at £108. Call 0808 145 3715 or visit macdonaldhotels.co.uk
Rooms at Bel And The Dragon start at £115.
Call 01628 521263 belandthedragon-cookham.co.uk
For Windsor Castle annual passes, day tickets and info visit royalcollection.org.uk/visit/windsorcastle
For tickets for If Musicke Be The Food Of Love call 01628 525 371 or visit cantorumchoir.org.uk
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