At home with the Shakespeares

942481_10151491102348167_1511710988_nI paid a family visit recently to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of Shakespeare, and took the kids to see the house where he was born, to a couple of other historic houses in the town associated with him and finally to his grave and memorial in the parish church.

Though Stratford’s only an hour or so from where I live I’ve not been for a while, and not done the tourist trip to Shakespeare sites for many years – so I was curious to see whether visiting these places would give me any feeling of connection to the great man or insight into what made him tick.

420104_10151491102573167_1825272178_nThe first thing it did for me was connect me with the very different times he lived in. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” as LP Hartley wrote in the Go Between. The Shakespeares certainly weren’t working class – his dad was a reasonably wealthy merchant and the town mayor. But in those days of course even the middle-class lived a life which would seem alien to us. Rising and going to bed with the sun, going to the loo in a bucket which then had to be taken to the town spoil heap, earth floors in the house, except in the best parlour. And in that parlour the main piece of furniture, taking pride of place, was a bed – basically to prove they could afford a bed in days when most people slept on piles of straw.

What struck me was the contrast between this basic lifestyle and the beautiful poetry which issued from his pen. The poetry seems more remarkable still in this context – and perhaps it was an escape, perhaps an attempt to scramble free of the dirty, bloody, gritty reality of 16th century life. They were living in the gutter in those days, but Shakespeare showed them how to look at the stars.

S968862_10151491102428167_326866955_necondly it gave me a glimpse into the way time obscures detail about people – even people as well-known as Shakespeare. He was a writer heralded in his own time, wealthy and successful – though maybe not so highly regarded as his contemporary Ben Johnson (and how many of us go to the theatre to see Johnson’s plays now?) So how is it so little of Shakespeare remains? There are precious few written records of him, precious few pictures we can say for sure were accurate.

I think the answer lies in the fact that respect for the past, for holding onto tradition and history, is something we honour more now than they did then.

Take what happened to Shakespeare’s final home, also in Stratford. This was not the respectable, but far from palatial, home he grew up in – it was the house he bought when he was a rich and famous man. A testament to his huge success. So where is it?

575718_10151491102498167_797546161_nThe answer is it has gone completely – disappeared into legend. How can this have happened? Well, after Shakespeare’s death it passed from owner to owner until it fell into the hands of a fabulously wealthy protestant preacher. He didn’t much care for Shakespeare, or frivolous theatre generally. He was angered by tourists who came to gawp at the house. They took cuttings from a mulberry tree planted in the grounds by Shakespeare, so he chopped it down.

Still they would come – to rubber-neck at his home. He had an argument with the council over taxes and, in a fit of pique, had the house utterly destroyed – and went to live in one of his many other houses up and down the country.

So this historically important building, this vital direct link to Shakespeare, was gone. Are we surprised we can’t find more scraps of paper with his name on them. More paintings of his face? We have the plays, they are what matter in the end. Song of the Sea God visual

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

15 thoughts on “At home with the Shakespeares”

  1. Phew! What a blog morning this has been! First I read Carol Hedges’ very moving post about war poetry and now I read this fascinating insight into Shakespeares history, or should I say, Lack of it. This is so interesting Chris! I have never been to Stratford at all – I left England before I had the chance, but now I’d really like to go. I think you are right about the place the past holds in our lives. It is much more important to us than it was to past generations. Thank you for these insights!

    1. Thanks Val – it’s one of those places, more or less on the doorstep, which you overlook because, you know, life gets in the way. I’m glad I did make the effort to go though because it gives you a very physical sense of the world he inhabited. I think the lack of records regarding him, and linking him to his work, is one reason why the peculiar rumours sprang up claiming he didn’t write his plays and that other people, usually noblemen, were the real authors.

      1. Yes, I’ve heard these rumours too, but since there doesn’t seem to have been any doubt in the previous centuries that Shakespeare was the author, I simply found the allegations interesting but not really sufficiently justified. As you have pointed out, he was well known at the time. By the way, I notice it here too in the Netherlands. Important buildings have been destroyed in the past simply because they were old, crumbling or inconvenient. It is only these days when we have active historical societies and listed building registers that historical sites have a real chance of being preserved. Before, it was probably mostly just luck that they survived!

  2. Interesting how the past, when the present, isn’t considered important. I guess there were many pwoplw who just regarded Shakespeare as a purveyor of interesting and entertaining plays. Makes you wonder, in the 24th century, who they will remember and revere.

    1. Yes – interesting to wonder. I’m not sure that any of the current crop of fiction writers has the heft to be remembered that far down the line, but who knows?

  3. How rude of the preacher to destroy Shakespeare’s house! This was an insightful post with great images. While reading, I felt like I was there too.

  4. Most of Gloucester’s history was bulldozed in the 1960s. Was William Shakespeare a real person or was that a nom de plume? Who knows? But the plays are real enough, whoever wrote them and many of the quotes are still relevant today.

    1. Nice to see you here Martin! Yes, sad what happened to Gloucester. Personally I’m very much a believer that Shakespeare was exactly as he seemed and that he wrote his plays, there’s certainly a minor industry in Shakespeare conspiracy theories but I don’t buy them myself.

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