Review of Shakespeare's Shrine: The Bard's Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon by Julia Thomas University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012
There's a seemingly apocryphal story told about the composer Sir William Walton in his later years. Whilst basking in the sunshine of Ischia, his idyllic bolthole set in the Tyrrhenian Sea, he was once buttonholed by some chirpy young reporter about whether he ever had a yearning to return to Oldham, the town of his birth. After a perfectly timed pause, Walton mordantly replied, 'Have you ever been to Oldham?' Uncomfortable moment. With a similar lack of diplomacy Ringo Starr, on being asked back in 2008 whether he missed anything about Liverpool in its year as Capital of Culture, replied with wrath provoking, deadpan candour "No." As honest as both these replies may be, perhaps what makes them also seem somewhat discourteous is that they fail to observe a basic ground rule of celebrity. The more famous you are and the better-documented your struggle to rise above humble beginnings, the more those same humble beginnings take on a certain misty potency in your legend. That being the case, we seem to delight in any nostalgia displayed by celebrities for their pre-beatific, ragged-arse days, whether that nostalgia be triggered by fond, wry or troubled memories. It is as if it instantly strips away the celebrity packaging and reveals them to be no different to the rest of us. Ah, what it was to be unknown but aspirational in the early days when, as Walton's Edwardian next door neighbours might have put it, 'we didn't have two ha'porth to rub together.' (And while we're at it, come on Ringo, own up--you miss that run-down terrace in the Dingle.)
Someone who did not seem to have had a problem with maintaining an even-tempered attachment to his roots was a seventeenth century Warwickshire landowner and former professional dramatist who, sometime around 1610, moved into a house that he had bought in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. After a highly successful and lucrative career in London, William Shakespeare was winding down. There were still the occasional forays into the capital to attend to various aspects of his theatrical interests, but to all intents and purposes New Place, the substantial property that he had bought for himself and his family back in Stratford, was from then on the place to which his every third thought was directed. That, at least, is one of the conjectured slants which have been put on Shakespeare's life during the early sixteen hundreds. The pleasing circularity of this young tyro starting out from Stratford, whether as a wannabe player, convicted poacher or country school teacher, only to end up back there years later as a well-heeled, wealthy man of the world has endeared itself to countless biographers. After a life that merged metropolitan hustle with illustrious aristocratic patronage it seems that our beloved Bard wanted nothing more, at the end of the day, than to get home to the wife and kids and put his feet up. At least that's how the conclusion of his playwriting career is usually portrayed, at which point, if we believe his harsher critics, Bill was pretty much a spent force anyway with the likes of young John Fletcher having to cajole the jaded genius into giving him a hand with the curious Tudor propaganda pageant that is Henry VIII.
Of course, all this is surmise, as is much else about Shakespeare's life. Take, for instance, the evidence (or lack of it) surrounding his first appearance on this great stage of fools. Not only is there no watertight confirmation that Shakespeare was born and died on St George's Day (despite the lamentations of our more symmetrically-minded patriots), we are not even sure where he was born. As Julia Thomas points out in her book Shakespeare's Shrine, the world-famous house on Stratford's Henley Street which is said to be The Birthplace may, in fact, be no such thing. His father, John, owned several other properties nearby, and it was only a century after Shakespeare died that we find the first reference to the Bard having been born there, courtesy of a passing mention on a local surveyor's map. And lo, out of such insubstantial beginnings a heritage industry was born.
But then, even for those of us who take any interest in such matters, didn't we know that Henley Street's credentials were not exactly nailed down? Hadn't we vaguely heard something to that effect and consigned it to the back of our minds? And anyway, all things considered, does it really matter? Similar questions to these troubled the Victorians, as Thomas makes clear in her painstaking examination of how Shakespeare, as public property and national hero, underwent a nineteenth century makeover to which we still substantially defer. Utilising an intriguing blend of anecdotes, photographic evidence and critical theory, Thomas dissects the somewhat flimsy origins of the Shakespearian nativity scene. As anyone who has delved into the genesis of Stratford as national shrine will appreciate, it pretty much all started with the Jubilee of 1769 where, famously, the celebrated actor David Garrick staged a three-day event dedicated to the memory of the Swan of Avon in which not one of his plays was performed, and which was severely curtailed by the torrential rain that sheeted down throughout the festivities. From that point on Bardolatry took off with a vengeance, at least upon the London stage. However, back in Stratford, it seems that the tourism opportunities thus created had yet to enliven this sleepy Midlands market town. There are charming tales, into the early eighteen hundreds, of self-proclaimed local experts and tenants of the Birthplace prepared (for a suitable remuneration) to show credulous sightseers around Shakespeare's various haunts whilst spouting tall tales about the provenance of assorted relics on show ("To the left is Shakespeare's actual chair, to the right his favourite tankard and over here you'll notice the great man's second best toothbrush"). Something of a step change occurred in 1846 when the property was put up for sale, and suddenly the luminaries of Victorian society realised that, thanks to bids by the likes of P. T . Barnum to buy the place and ship it off to America, they stood to lose an irreplaceable chunk of our national birthright. With typical nineteenth-century gusto a committee was formed, and by 1847 the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust had secured the necessary £3000 to buy the place for the nation - although, to this day, the Trust is in fact an independent charity rather than a government-funded organisation.
It was that same acquisition, Thomas contends, that initiated the whole process of the Victorians 'inventing' the version of Shakespeare which has been passed down to us and, consequently, the birth of the 'Stratford tourist trail.' There is a striking print from 1866 included in Thomas's book in which the Bard is depicted as a soft-focused paterfamilias surrounded by his attentive family whilst regaling them with passages from Hamlet. In all its flawless days-of-yore contentment, which virtually exudes the murmuring intonations of a lute, this is the kind of image that can be found in any number of books from the nineteenth century, all intent on re-affirming Shakespeare as semi-divine main man of English culture. However, as Thomas suggests, the figure depicted in such illustrations is a far cry from the glover's son made good. Instead, here is some dashing Victorian gentleman who has posed himself and his brood in suitable fancy dress. To all intents and purposes this is Prince Albert in doublet and hose as role model for the ideal English patriarch: inspired and incontrovertible, disciplined but devoted. In effect, then, Shakespeare through this kind of cultural ventriloquism became domesticated as a household god whose Bowdlerised ethics, next to the Bible, provided a moral compass for every occasion.
In pursuit of this theme, Taylor manages to pack a substantial amount of academic theorising into her argument, something that the book's jolly cover does not immediately convey. We are exposed to Foucauldian theory, Barthes' post-structuralism and, for good measure, Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. There is nothing wrong with such displays of erudition except that, at first glance, the unsuspecting punter may well expect nothing more than an ebullient ramble through the history of the property, when this is a much more closely-considered piece which reads, at times, more like a PhD thesis than the average Stratford gift shop fodder. Just occasionally, however, Taylor eases off from the 'recommended course reading' feel of some passages with a straightforward anecdote or two. For example, there is the one about the unfortunate tourist who arrived at the Birthplace in 1859 only to find it locked up and deserted. The frustrated sightseer then spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find someone - anyone - to let him in. After trying all the doors and windows several times, our man lost it and started bawling and shouting in the street, at which point the custodian of the day came running with a set of keys. Scarred by this experience, but managing to channel his trauma into verse, the visitor's subsequent ode recounting this outrage begins:
Shade of Avon's Bard, Sweet Will, knot thy noble brow, Because, to gain admission here, I kicked up such a row…
Moving forward a few decades, and with the customer service issues long since addressed, we find Birthplace curatorship now in the dependable hands of the Chataway sisters who, so a local resident of the time remarked, "both lived very literally up to their name. How such fragile looking people could talk so much and have enough breath left for a tour round with the next party of visitors, puzzled me."
Notwithstanding these tales of disgruntled tourists or eccentric local guides, Stratford, as it rose to international prominence, occasionally bit back. Marie Corelli, Stratford resident at the turn of the twentieth century and best-selling contemporary novelist, who used to float down the Avon ferried by her own private Gondolier, ticked off our American friends about certain behavioural lapses.
"Don't expect to buy picture postcards, photographs, or sweeties at Shakespeare's Birthplace. It is a Shrine - not a shop." (Well, perhaps so in 1903, whereas these days the retail space through which you are steered on your way out provides ample opportunity to stock up on Merry Wives of Windsor Wet-Wipes and First Folio Flannels.) Meanwhile, also on the subject of all things sacred, Marie fearlessly announced that:
"The 'American Window' in the Holy Trinity Church, presented by 'American Admirers' of Shakespeare is not yet paid for. One Hundred and Ten Pounds are still owing. American millionaires, buck up!" (Presumably they did so before too long, anxious not to incur Marie's everlasting censure.)
And there was one more thing…
"Don't go into the confectioners' shops, fourteen at a time, and order two glasses of milk and one bun for the whole party, so that those who don't want to pay for a drop of the milk or a crumb of the bun, may ask for a glass of water gratis. This way of serving refreshments to the wealthy American makes Shakespeare's townspeople tired."
Marie, a fascinating character in her own right - once described by Cyril Connolly as resembling a "bulldog in ectoplasm" - was clearly unsettled by Stratford's growing appeal to its transatlantic visitors. Fortunately (or unfortunately), by the time Marie drifted off to meet her maker in 1924 it was a bit too late to stem the tide of international tourism. By then Stratford was already carving out a name for itself as the cultural hotspot that we know today. A major factor in this success story, although one remarkably slow to attract popular approval, was the establishment of a theatre in the very heart of the town. It is perhaps surprising to learn that, as Taylor points out, before the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened in 1879, every other theatre established in Stratford had closed within a matter of years; surprising, and yet perhaps indicative of a particular strain of Shakespearian hero worship which tends to dwell on the creator rather than his creations. Getting to grips with certain aspects of Shakespeare's output can be difficult, especially when it is not being performed. Love's Labour's Lost, for instance, is notorious for its enigmatic in-jokes and obscure Elizabethan references. However, the case for immersing yourself in the Bard's creations needs no special pleading here. It is just that sometimes it's easier to get sidetracked by the 'Shakespeare mysteries' - what happened in the 'lost years,' who was Mr. W.H. etc.- than it is to persevere with the third act of Timon of Athens. That, in turn, could go some way to explaining why it is that the whole Shakespearian authorship question refuses, like a faintly nagging toothache, to go away. Helpfully, Thomas has an interesting take on the whole 'Shakespeare/Fakespeare' debate, positing that around the time when the Birthplace firmly established itself as a place of pilgrimage in the mid-nineteenth century, London's somewhat miffed cognoscenti and cranks alike decided that an upstart crow such as Stratford could not possibly have produced a local boy capable of coming up with such wondrous goods. The real author was (variously) the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, William Stanley, Christopher Marlowe, Good Queen Bess, Jack the Ripper… It was someone else anyway, and definitely not the Henley Street kid. All of this, as others have remarked, seems to reek of the most unmitigated snobbery. Ah yes, runs the counter-argument, but does that make the alternative authorship scenario any less tenable? Well, perhaps it does and perhaps it doesn't. Maybe we should just agree to differ. Alternatively, we could always concentrate on the text itself and leave the author's enigmatic shell to the zealots, iconoclasts and analysts.
Undeniably, though, the Shakespeare personality cult in all its guises has served Stratford well over many years - which a walk down Henley Street on any day of the year will confirm. According to Taylor, those visitors seen milling around the Birthplace today may not realise it, but they are taking part in "a curious collapse of history," by which she means that, despite it being the twenty-first century, there remains an inescapable whiff of Victorian sensibility about the place which still, to some extent, informs the way the average tourist approaches a visit to Stratford. Whilst that theory may be open to question, it does at least provide Thomas with an excuse to leave the Birthplace to one side for a while and devote a chapter to some key activities in which the average Victorian tourist might have indulged whilst visiting the town. These include taking advantage (by the 1850s) of the newly established rail link, obtaining a decent guide book, embarking on a suitably energetic walking tour of Shakespeare country, bursting into tears or kissing the floor as you entered the hallowed Birthplace (custodians were, apparently, used to this and just ignored it), and ensuring that you chipped a bit off the interior as a memento of your pilgrimage on the way out. Try that last one these days, by the way, and the Warwickshire constabulary might well require you to extend your visit in order to help them with their enquiries.