Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Shakespeare, between glove scraps and scrapple

On Friday I waited for an hour and a half to vote, shuffling in front of a woman powering through a big fat paperback. When I noticed it was Emma by Jane Austen and took her to be a serious reader, I struck up a conversation that quickly turned to literary pilgrimages. With her in mind, I've been rummaging through my files and photos and posting up some tidbits about my travels in search of the literary dead.


I wonder what Shakespeare had to say on the subject of shopping? He grew up in a market town and worked during his vital years in the commercial center of his nation, but boutique shopping was, as far as I know, undreamt of in his philosophy. The company town that lives on his name (Stratford-upon-Avon) is shot through with it. I know, because I had plenty of time to peek in windows before the Shakespeare Birthplace would let me in, the second they opened.

The house on Henley Street billed as the Shakespeare Birthplace only probably merits that distinction. We know that his father, John Shakespeare, a glover who eventually worked his way up to become Stratford's mayor, was fined for creating a “dung hill” at this address in 1552, and the family is not known to have moved between then and 1564, when William was born.

It’s a shame that dung hill is so much of what we have to go on, but the word didn’t only mean excrement back in the day. Even “excrement” didn’t only mean excrement back in the day; it meant anything that had been excreted, and was used, for instance, to describe hair, which gets excreted from pores in the body. (From "The Comedy of Errors": "Why is Time such a niggard of hair, being, as it is, so plentiful an excrement?")

Some historians, not wanting Shakespeare to have been reared in a shit sty, conjecture that the dung hill was a pile of leather scraps from the old man’s gloving business. That has the benefit of a poetic trait, namely symmetry, given that long after William had left Henley Street for greater things, and then passed into history, this house was used as a butcher shop, and must have accumulated heaps of animal parts. Between glove scraps and scrapple, the greatest poet of our language was born and raised here — probably.

With a trail of ale extending behind me into the night before, I was satisfied to learn that malt for brewing was the biggest crop in the Stratford of Shakespeare’s day. His old man was a certified ale taster in the name of quality control (good work if you can get it), and Shakey himself, in later years, when he had retired to Stratford, participated in a local drinking club that met at the Falcon Inn. A chair that may or may not have been his drinking club chair sits at the birthplace (Shakespeare drank here!), beside a placard describing how there had at one time been a sort of black market in such chairs, a rash of profiteering on everyone’s desire to warm their tush in a piece of furniture that once comforted the bottom of literary greatness.

Hell, I would buy one. As it is, I settled for a Christmas ornament in the Bard’s likeness.

The birthplace has some verifiable goodies. There is a small replica of the Globe Theater in London, the stage for which Shakespeare wrote many of his plays. There is an oil portrait of him, in which he looks sly and a little weasly, not unlike a person capable of accepting payola to let his name be used as the pen name for a nobleman who actually wrote all of those marvelous (but, in Elizabethan times, lowly) plays (though don’t you dare say that in Stratford).

My favorite piece was a weird interactive exhibit, where you push a button beside any of the beneficiaries in Shakespeare’s will, and elsewhere on the board what he bequeathed them lights up. Most famously, of course: select his wife, Anne Hathaway, and “my second best bed” lights up. This guy wrote (or at least let his name be signed to) some terribly deep stuff, but nothing is more unfathomable to me than those four words: “my second best bed”. That doesn't figure. I don't want the greatest poet in my language to have left his wife with nothing except his second best bed. I don't care what historical context you put it in. I don't like it and I don't want it to be true.

You follow in the footsteps of greatness when you visit the house on Henley Street, even if Shakespeare never set foot in it. After Garrick put Stratford on the tourism map, many luminaries came here and visited the ostensible birthplace, including: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (traveling together in 1786; what a party), John Keats (1817), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1855), Mark Twain (1873) and Thomas Hardy (1896).

Charles Dickens visited, too, in 1847, and was pivotal in raising funds to keep the birthplace off the auction block and preserve it as an historic trust. Let’s drink to Mr. Dickens.


The photo of the putative birthplace is my own. If any harried travel editor finds this on a Google image search (been there ...), credit me (Chris King) or my dang blog. Then hire me to travel the world for you (done that ...). And if anyone finds my lost photos of Samuel Beckett's grave, I'm still looking!

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