Venice. I was waiting for a traghetto gondola to ferry me across the Grand Canal when I spied a building plaque indicating that the palazzo in front of me was the home of Desdemona, the tragic heroine of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” I didn’t have time to check it out on that trip, but it fired my imagination and I did some research. Desdemona’s home is traditionally set at Palazzo Contarini Fasan, a private home, but now I must go back to see what I can of this home with the plaque. I’ve already been to the Doge’s Palace on Saint Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge and the Jewish Ghetto to breathe in the scenes of “The Merchant of Venice.”
I bonded with William Shakespeare at a young age. I got to play Katherine, or Kate, in our high school production of “The Taming of the Shrew” - a fun and boisterous role - and later played Miranda in a university production of “The Tempest.” Through my exposure to his dramas, I learned to love the language of the Bard.
These early impressions follow me on my travels and when I have a chance to explore sites or works related to Shakespeare, I jump. I’ve been to the Old Globe Theater in San Diego’s Balboa Park to see “Macbeth” (a fine production, but it was my birthday and by the end of the show, there were bodies and prop heads on stakes all over the stage – a bit heavy for a celebration) and to many plays at the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Elizabethan stage in Ashland.
On one trip to Europe, I made a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon and saw Anne Hathaway’s cottage and Shakespeare’s house, but missed out on seeing a play in Shakespeare’s home town as the productions were all sold out. I made do with a performance of Tom Stoppard’s “Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” at the Old Vic Theatre in London where I saw the minor characters from “Hamlet” star in their parallel side story. In Denmark, I stopped by Elsinore Castle to see where the Danish royal family used to live and imagined Hamlet pacing the ramparts, deciding whether to be or not to be. My strongest memory is of a torture device in the dungeon and I could see how easy it would be to be melancholy there.
Verona gives travelers a chance to see the purported house of Juliet, balcony included. Who knows if she ever existed or where her home really was, but it’s fun to visualize her love scene with Romeo in the garden below. A nearby statue of Juliet gets rubbed for good luck so often that one breast is quite shiny. Romeo’s “house” is now a restaurant. I also thought of the friends in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and fantasized about meeting them on the street as I explored their town. With an opera season staged in the Roman arena, a fine archaeology museum and a Roman theater and bridges, Verona is lovely with or without Shakespeare, but the literary connections add spice.
Somehow, I had it in my head that Hamlet went to university in Heidelberg, so, of course, I wanted to go there and drink beer in the student pubs. On the way, I stayed at Hirschhorn Castle overlooking the Neckar River, and toured local medieval churches. In Heidelberg, I checked out the castle ruins on the hilltop, lucked into a St. Martin’s day parade on the Old Town pedestrian mall with children carrying lit paper lanterns and singing songs, and stayed in a hotel right in front of the iconic Old Bridge and its tower. Yes, I also drank beer. But, it turns out I had my “bergs” mixed up - Shakespeare wrote that Hamlet went to school in Wittenberg.
Was I disappointed? Yes, but Heidelberg was charming and now I have a reason to go to Wittenberg. I’ll learn about Hamlet’s university, of course, and I’ll also get to check out the church where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door and started the Protestant Reformation
I love tracking Shakespeare and his characters, as being on location breathes life into the plays. It’s easy to imagine myself in the roles, speaking the timeless words. And who can resist searching for a student pub where Hamlet himself could have imbibed?
- Jean Kepler Ross is an award winning freelance writer/photographer based in Santa Fe, NM. She was editor of GuestLife New Mexico for four years and her work has appeared in New Mexico Magazine, Glamour, Home & Away, Los Angeles Times, Santa Fe Visitors Guide, San Francisco Examiner, ASU Travel Guide, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.
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