A visit to Shakespeare's England

Pa. renaissance festival re-creates look, language and characters of England in 1600

Pa. renaissance festival re-creates look, language and characters of England in 1600

September 26, 2005|By FEDORA COPLEY


When first we walked through the gate and into the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, it was like stepping back 400 years into a busy Elizabethan English street.

Vendors and shops stretched down both sides. Lords, ladies, pirates, peasants and entertainers wandered the streets, speaking in William Shakespeare's English. Two musicians performed on a small stage. The mood was light and enthusiastic.

The Renaissance fair is laid out like a village (called Mount Hope Shire) with shopping streets, restaurants, a forge, a chapel, a jousting field, a pirate ship and several large stages. One hundred costumed actors playing historical characters wander among fairgoers, many of whom also are dressed in period attire.


Since it was mid-day, our first thought was of food. There were many dining options, from "steak on a stake" to sweet and savory crepes. We chose a portobello mushroom sandwich with peppers and onions, a shepherd's pie - mashed potatoes and meat in a small pie tin - and two cold birch beers.

With food in hand, we started exploring. Shops sold all kinds of things from the late Renaissance era - lotions, herbs, jewelry, velvet hats, swords, children's toys, leather vests and much more. Stages across the Shire featured entertainment all day.

At the Globe Theater, we saw a condensed version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." The acting was good and realistic, and some of the male parts were played by females, giving the production a nontraditional feeling. A pub was just up the road from the playhouse, where my mom bought an Irish ale from two amusing bartenders.

My dad and I visited the Dungeon Museum, which presents instruments of torture, a sobering but educational experience. It showed many different methods for inflicting pain in the Renaissance; all made me cringe.

Most of the vendors sold English- or European-themed items and toys. But one vendor specialized in Japanese culture - vintage kimonos, ornate sake sets, colorful chopsticks and decorated sticks for a girl's hair. It was fun to see a drastically different style of garb.

In another corner of the Shire, my dad and I walked by a leather clothing shop. Leather skirts and shirts hung from the ceiling. A man appeared at my side, offering his arm, and led me into the store. These leather goods were, um, more grown-up than my usual get-up. The proprietor got down a blue leather outfit from the ceiling. Very professionally, he wrapped the skirt around my waist over my pants and instructed me to put the skimpy shirt on in the dressing room.

When I came out in the body-hugging outfit, I was having fun. As the man said, it got me out of my shell. After showing off the new me for my parents (who were slightly shocked to see their daughter in a sexy, Renaissance-style outfit) I changed back into my normal clothes and thanked the man for a fun time.

Across from the leather clothing shop was an arena for fighting. People could dress in heavy, black leather and fight duels or melees. Duelists wore balloons on head and shoulders. Whoever's balloons were popped first lost. The fights were fun to watch.

The human chess match was a lively drama more than a quiet game of chess. A large crowd gathered. Queen Elizabeth and her entourage sat in her pavilion. The referee at the start briefed the audience about the two sides - the English and the pirates. The pirate crew had taken a chest of silver from the English navy, and English had arrested the pirate captain's granddaughter.

The chess match was to determine if the girl would hang or if she would be released to her mother, who directed the pirate's team on the chess board. Sir Francis Drake led the Queen's team of chess players. Grace O'Malley, the pirate queen of Ireland, led the pirates' side. Queen Elizabeth sat above the large board in her pavilion, observing quietly.

Boos and cheers from the audience livened things up. Each time a piece from one side was sent to capture a piece from the other side, the two pieces would duel. Although choreographed, the fighting was entertaining and realistic. After dueling victories by both sides, Drake fought Grace O'Malley in a winner-take-all duel. Drake won, but a melee ensued, and Queen Elizabeth agreed to let the fate of the pirate girl be decided in a jousting tournament later that day. Alas, we couldn't stay for it.

I had the privilege of talking to Queen Elizabeth herself, followed by a trail of attendants. She told me about her Natal Day (birthday, in modern English) which was Sept. 7, but which was being celebrated all weekend. She wore a fabulous, decorated gown and spoke with a dignified air but very kindly.

It was late afternoon when we headed back to the gate. We bumped into Owen O'Malley, the pirate captain, who bore with him a skull and bones flag. He spoke animatedly about his granddaughter and promised us he would fight to free her from the English.

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