Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon
University of Pennsylvania Press
218 pages £23
On his recent trip to Britain last year Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s first stop was a pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he stayed for over an hour longer than planned, enjoying the beautiful gardens, listening to scenes from Hamlet, and writing a two-page poetical inscription in the visitor’s book. Wen Jiabao is only one of almost a million visitors to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust properties every year, from over 130 countries.
Most of these visitors would be surprised at the premise of Julia Thomas’ book: how can Stratford-upon-Avon be ‘invented’? And hasn’t Shakespeare’s Warwickshire birthplace always been Shakespeare’s birthplace? Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon tells the fascinating story of how Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street evolved to its present form and how its development, especially in the 19th century, contributed to inventing Stratford-upon-Avon as a tourist town and a mecca for those from all around the world seeking inspiration through the birthplace of its most famous citizen.
With over 20 illustrations, Thomas lays out the long history of the house on Henley Street in Stratford, which every pilgrim to the town now visits as a matter of course, but which would not have been the star attraction in town before the later 19th century. Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, long held that distinction, at least until the 1847 auction of Shakespeare’s birthplace took Victorian England by storm, spurning numerous pleas for its importance and significance and resulting in the purchase of the house by what eventually became the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Thomas argues that between 1847 and the early 20th century, Shakespeare’s birthplace was ‘actively created’, with both physical and ideological components. Thomas contends that the process that went into creating Shakespeare’s birthplace had ramifications both for what became the Shakespeare industry and for how other writers’ houses were perceived.
Just as Shakespeare’s birthplace contributed to a particular conception of Shakespeare as a real man, who was born and grew up in the timber-framed house, this residence also helped shape the development of the Stratford tourist trail, which now consists of the five Birthplace Trust properties that serve as physical markers of Shakespeare’s biography: New Place (his retirement home); Hall’s Croft (the home of his daughter Susanna and her husband Dr John Hall); Nash’s House (the home of Susanna’s daughter Elizabeth); Mary Arden’s Farm (his mother’s house); and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. The symbiotic relationship between Stratford and Shakespeare mutually contributes to the construction of each; attaching Shakespeare’s name to the building on Henley Street immediately endows it with global appeal and the town’s location in the heart of England helps secure Shakespeare’s status as National Poet and solidifies his major and enduring contribution to England’s national identity.
Thomas expertly takes readers through the stages in how the birthplace ‘came to organise the experience of Stratford’ and how it has shaped the various, often contested, meanings of ‘Shakespeare’. Since this process has its origins in Victorian England, this is as much a book about Victorian cultural production as it is about Shakespeare and Stratford. Thomas divides her study into five chapters, covering the contributions of the birthplace to the evolution of Shakespeare’s biography; the auction and purchase of the birthplace in 1847; the subsequent Victorian restoration of the birthplace in the 1850s and 1860s; the accoutrements added to the physical structure (such as relics, furniture, and pictures), which helped authenticate the restored house; the establishment of the tourist experience in Stratford; and the continuing influence of the birthplace on ideas about Shakespeare and the content and performance of his plays.
Given the curious history of Shakespeare’s birthplace that Thomas charts so expertly, one wonders how the recent excavations of Shakespeare’s retirement home, New Place, will reshape the tourist landscape of Stratford-upon-Avon. If New Place is eventually reconstructed, what needs will it fill for 21st-century visitors? How will it be shaped to suit the desires of our generation and what will future scholars say about the 21st-century desire to restore Shakespeare’s retirement home to its former shape?
Katherine Scheil is the author of She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America (Cornell, 2012).